Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

By Jack Shafer
July 22, 2013

The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silver from the status peaks of the New York Times for the flatlands of ESPN and ABC News puts a dent in the newspaper’s self-esteem and the orthodox view that for journalists, a Times position equals career success.

Instead of second-guessing Silver’s decision to leave the Valhalla of journalism, media writers are playing his move as a blow to the paper. Like LeBron James bolting Cleveland for Miami, writes Marc Tracy of the New Republic. “It’s a huge loss for the New York Times,” assesses USA Today’s Rem Rieder. ESPN and ABC “stole” Silver, as Politico‘s Mike Allen puts it, and in his new perch he’ll be allowed to expand beyond his FiveThirtyEight political stats-and-predictions blog to explore whole new realms of data journalism, including sports, education, economics, weather and Oscars predictions. “No way to sugarcoat this one: It’s a huge blow for the Times,” offers Forbes‘s Jeff Bercovici. “He’s outgrown the New York Times,” states Business Insider’s Walter Hickey.

Adding blood and broken bones to the psychic wounding others inflicted upon the Times was Adweek‘s headline, “Nate Silver Dumps New York Times for ESPN.”

From the outside, Silver’s departure looks a breakup between a nerd and a beauty.

“I want to date other sections,” you can hear an almost weepy Silver telling the newspaper as the end arrived.

“Sports won’t make you happy! Weather won’t make you happy!” the paper must have retorted as it tore the dust-jacket off of his best-selling book, The Signal and the Noise, and crumbled it into a ball. “You’ll come back to us on your knees, but by then we’ll have three 538s! We’ll have a Sunday Styles 538, you ungrateful bastard!”

The stature the Times position lent Silver must have pleased him, not to mention the stature the paper extracted from his work. But Silver wasn’t a normal Times scribe struggling up the journalistic ladder, jumping from newspaper to wire service to newspaper, moving from town to town, and then finally grabbing the brass ring. Better than two years before he unpacked his FiveThirtyEight bags at the Times in mid-2010, he’d already established his prognostication cred in the worlds of sports and political journalism. He’d signed a two-book deal with Penguin for about $700,000. In 2009 he contributed a column to Esquire, wrote for other outlets, including the New Republic and the Times, and gave a TED talk.

To switch relationship metaphors, the pairing of Silver and the Times was less a romantic arrangement than a diplomatic alliance. Silver had created a journalistic nation-state of his own (Silverstan?) and oozed more hot copy than he knew what to do with. The Times had the distribution and standing of a superpower and needed what he had for the 2012 presidential election. But, as in romance, somebody has to be on top in a diplomatic alliance. As Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes today, Silver’s “probability-based” methods annoyed other political writers at the paper. At a place like the Times, where the newspaper is supposed to be the superstar, Silver’s eminence had to have grated managers and colleagues.

According to the Politico account of Silver’s departure, the paper was prepared to give him what he wanted — a staff of bloggers to conquer new worlds of data journalism. But the organization you work for is always at a disadvantage in retaining an employee when 1) renegotiations come around and 2) somebody else wants desperately to hire him. The employee already knows with great certainty what kind of bosses his current bosses will be in the future, no matter what they pledge. The prospective bosses can say, “We’ll treat you 10 times better!” The employee already knows how pliant the current bureaucracy he resides in can be. His prospective bosses can promise, “We’ll stretch like Plastic Man to deliver happiness!” This seems to have applied in the Silver case: According to Politico, the territorial Times sports section made him feel unwelcome, which may have advanced his departure.

Working from the other direction, current bosses know the current employee’s weaknesses too intimately to idealize his value. Whether it makes sense or not, current bosses tend to put ceilings on their bids. But prospective bosses operate with no such limits on their bids. They almost always want the recruit more than his current employer does. They tend to overrate and overpay for staff, and once negotiations begin, they refuse to lose if they have the money, and ESPN does.

No matter what deal the Times offered Silver, it couldn’t clear a path to greater success and ego fulfillment than the one he trod during the 2012 election. An ambitious young man, his idea of future success isn’t 2012 with frosting on top, which ESPN appears to understand. As Business Insider indicates, the ESPN and ABC News audience dwarfs whatever the Times can ever hope to attract. Here, kid, we’re not going to give you frosting — we’re giving you the frosting factory. The ESPN press release announcing Silver’s hiring swoons so loudly it makes it sound as though ESPN will be working for Silver, not the other way around. I’ll bet ESPN sealed the deal by giving him a custom keyboard with a whole row of “Assignment Decline” buttons on the top.

Because the New York Times stands at the pinnacle of American journalism, there has to be some satisfaction in telling it goodbye. Culturally, it’s like rejecting a scholarship to Harvard. But I don’t sense that’s Silver’s motivation. Reporters and editors leave the Times without receiving a nudge or being paid a buyout now and again, but for most the paper remains their career high point. The Times is bigger than any of its reporters and editors, and even its owners, the unspoken catechism reads. But Silver’s success at the Times, unlike the successes of the Timesmen and Timeswomen who eventually exited for other media jobs or book projects, had little to do with the paper’s journalistic primacy. To call him a portable “brand” that can thrive in any media environment is to reduce him to a box of soap flakes. He may be the only Times employee who gave the paper more than the paper ever gave to him.

******

I reject the box of soap flakes some joker just sent to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Clean up your act by soaking in my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: People walk past The New York Times head office in New York, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

10 comments

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Just as a personal anecdote … after the decline in NYT economics reporting over the past decade, the only time since the NYT set up their paywall that I had to resort to additional devices to read all the stories I wanted to read was reading 538 in the final few months of the 2012 election.

Posted by BruceMcF | Report as abusive

The descriptions of the poisoned attitude against Silver at NYT sound incredibly childish and unprofessionals; like the editors have lost control. It is hard to forget pathetic pap peddler David Brooks’ whinging that Silver’s math could not possibly predict the winner of 2012. He was overtly and loudly wrong, but never apologized to Silver. NYT needs a timely and accurate barometer of their paying readers’ value for each of their opinion writers; if that happened, a lot of their so-called moderate opinion writers would be gone because they peddle nothing but meh vanilla pablum, without sources or supporting facts. Today’s information workers rely on data, and Nate delivered the goods for asking the right questions, most importantly; then crunching the numbers to yield the probabilities. He will be even more sorely missed when we see David Brooks and Frank Bruni still have columns.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

Seconding sylvan here.

“As Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes today, Silver’s “probability-based” methods annoyed other political writers at the paper. At a place like the Times, where the newspaper is supposed to be the superstar, Silver’s eminence had to have grated managers and colleagues.”

If you read her column, you’ll note certain words which are absent: truth, accuracy, reality, ‘getting it right’. She made it rather clear to those willing to see that the NYT doesn’t give a rat’s @ss about accuracy when covering elections.

Posted by Barry_D | Report as abusive

Generally, people are not being fired don’t leave jobs where they are happy to stay. But it is only rarely that the true reason for a voluntary departure is money. Usually, it’s about respect in one form or another. The degree to which a volunarily departing employee is happy to leave varies from situation to situation, and we the voyeurs of the general public do not have much visibility into the situation in this case.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

A great author used to say that great test of one’s spirit was to read the tag ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ and check if it still was nauseating every day. NYT is not some holy grail; it’s really not even that great. Unfortunately it’s probably the best of the American dailies. The same author used to say that ‘the only reason to read the NYT was to know what everyone else thought they knew’. Exactly!

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Sounds to me like folks still believe the hype of the New York Times. Note to readers–the National Enquirer has always been more popular than NYTimes with Americans.

Actual facts about _popularity_ always irritate elitist “thinkers.”

Read Silver’s book, the signal and the noise. He only started paying attention to politics in 2006 because Congress started to outlaw online gambling which was his major source of income at the time.

He made the 538 site to make fun of political wonks, not because he is one.

Here’s a simple question. How many people will watch Nate Silver on ABC/ESPN vs how many currently read him on the NY Times firewalled site?

Posted by Banj0man | Report as abusive

While I largely agree with the thoughts above, I also think the tone of the discussion is much more indicative of the insularity and arrogance of much of the mainstream media, especially those focused on politics. NYT, WSJ and many other daily reporters frequently so ensconced in the circles they cover. New ideas, and more importantly, new methods of understanding information are frequently dismissed because they don’t rely on personal relationships that have historically driven reporting. And although the sports world is filled with prognosticators, the metric of success – did you pick the winner? – is transparent to all. Political writers, and dailies like the NYT and WSJ have never embraced that transparency.

Posted by skeptical-cynic | Report as abusive

Stats nerds exist everywhere. The Times had one who would fit his answers into their preconceptions. Most won’t do that however. If the Times wasn’t worried about advertisers, or their owners opinion, they could find nearly an infinite number of other stats people to give them this same analysis. This guy was not a special individual, he was like most people associated with the press these days, he was compliant with the companies desire for money. Truth could happen, but only first after checking whether it would hurt the bottom line.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

brotherkenny4, I think you meant to say “the Times had one who’s answers fit into their preconceptions.” I don’t think anyone believes Silver skewed his projections to enhance the NYT bottom line. It is what it is; that perhaps you didn’t like what he projected, and that it was accurate, was neither Silver’s nor the Times’ fault.

Posted by PCScipio | Report as abusive

CJR just called this post a ‘must-read’. Congrats!
http://www.cjr.org/the_kicker/must-reads _of_the_week_26.php

Posted by DRN0001 | Report as abusive