Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus
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.
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PHOTO: People walk past The New York Times head office in New York, February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri