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July 24, 2013

Filed under: journalism»new_media

The Narrative

I had planned on writing a post about Nate Silver's departure from the New York Times this week, but Lance pretty much beat me to it:

Silver is now legendary for being a numbers guy. But there aren't going to be any useful numbers for analyzing the next Presidential election until the middle of 2015 at the earliest. The circumstances under which the election will take place---the state of the economy, whether we're at war or peace, the President's popularity and if and how that will transfer to the Democratic nominee, what issues are galvanizing which voters, etc.---won't make themselves known and so won't show up as numbers in polls at least until then. And until then, everything said about the election is idle speculation, and we know how Silver feels about idly speculating.

But we also know that the most incorrigible idle speculators believe idle speculation is the point.

It's well worth the time to read the whole thing.

I've seen some people assert, in light of this departure, that lots of people could do what Silver did for the Times: his models weren't that complicated, after all, and how hard can it be to write about them? I think this dramatically underestimates the uniqueness of FiveThirtyEight and, to some extent, signifies how threatening it really was to political pundits.

There are, no doubt, a few journalists who could put together Nate Silver's models, and then write about them with clarity. I don't think anyone doubted that evidence-driven political reporting was possible. What he did was show that it could be successful, and that it could draw eyeballs. I think it was John Rogers who said that the best thing about blogging was not the enabling effect for amateurs, but for experts. Suddenly people with actual skills--economists, historians, political scientists, statisticians--could have the kind of audience that op-ed pages commanded.

This should not have been a surprise for newspapers, except that the industry has spent years convincing itself that investigative teams and deep expertise in a beat aren't worth funding. To be fair, the New York Times has put money behind a lot of data journalism in the past few years. If they can't keep the attention of someone like Silver, who can? I guess we're going to find out.

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