When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.
In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”
Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)
The rise of the Marquee Brothers is, as best I can determine, unprecedented in American journalism. Journalism has traditionally been a portable art: A reporter can move his boxes to a new publication and file that day. Star columnists—Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson in ancient times—regularly migrated to new papers or syndicates, or established broadcasting beachheads, as Walter Winchell famously did. Other syndicated columnists, such as Pearson and Jack Anderson (“Washington Merry-Go-Round“) and Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, hired staffs and pursued their own editorial muses. Likewise, columnists and politicians have long been recruited to host cable news talk shows. But the semi-independent scribe working directly inside a news operation with a staff and brand of his own, and substantial autonomy from the remainder of the organization, appears to be a new thing.
“The Nate Silver analogue of the 1800s would have just started his own paper, because it was so cheap to start one,” said Jonathan Ladd, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters.