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Media & Marketing

Why Nate Silver Spurned the Times: Numbers Win

Silver at South by Southwest, 2009

Silver at South by Southwest, 2009

Old-school journalism lost another battle with the numbers-driven ethos of the digital age last week. Statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver’s leap from The New York Times to ESPN puts in stark relief the disadvantage blue chip Fourth Estate institutions have competing against an entertainment ethos in the digital age. A David Carr or Andrew Ross Sorkin may be big names, have blog fiefdoms and Twitter followers in the hundreds of thousands, but the mentality of the Times is that the only real star is the Grey Lady itself and that the organization is what keeps those journos in boldface.

ESPN/ABC and parent Disney represent a radically different ecosystem. It’s all about star power, baby, and when a Nate Silver is available there are no second thoughts about pushing what is essentially a blank check across the table to grab a one-of-a-kind. This is Hollywood calling, not the Grey Lady.

Silver’s new pact has to be of concern to the brass not just at the Times, but at other news organizations who need to keep franchise stars from bolting. You can be sure Karen Swisher and Walt Mossberg, the duo behind the Wall Street Journal-owned AllThingsD tech site that has an extremely lucrative summit business, are emboldened by Silver’s deal. I’ve heard chatter from inside the WSJ that the AllThingsD crew has had its fair share of clashes with Journal editorial management, reminiscent of the culture clash Silver experienced at the Times. It makes you wonder what other franchises within establishment franchises might look elsewhere, too, such as as Washington Post star political columnist Ezra Klein’s “WonkBlog.” Might The New York Times’s media duo of David Carr and Brian Stelter (who gained early notoriety during his college years with his TVNewser blog) be contemplating a bidding war for their services? Already Stelter is getting a tryout as host on Time Warner-owned CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on August 11.

When it came time to renew its three-year deal with the blog Silver founded, FiveThirtyEight, which predicted election results with uncanny accuracy, the Times was willing to give Silver his own team of reporters and considerably more cash. According to Mike Allen’s piece in Politico, the Times power trio of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, CEO Mark Thompson, and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. worked overtime to keep Silver in the fold, for reason’s Allen writes were “both financial and psychic.” Silver drove an enormous amount of traffic during the elections, which means money. On the pyschic side, the Times brass all believed—and rightly so—that the concept of brand within brand like Silver’s, or Sorkin’s Dealbook, was essential to future growth.

Good in theory, yes, but hard to put into practice in the day-to-day running of a hidebound organization such as the Times. Making a show horse like Silver welcome in all the departments from politics to sports to entertainment, where he presumably wanted to show off his number-crunching expertise, is another thing altogether. The Times is an “editor’s newspaper,” where stars are indulged but meanwhile resented by others in the editorial bureaucracy. As the Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted, there were plenty in the the newspaper’s permanent government who felt threatened and had contempt for Silver’s numbers-driven analysis, especially those covering politics.

Silver’s new home is more suited to the digital news/information/entertainment economy. ESPN and ABC News, as well as Disney, are designed to acquire, breed, and cater to a cadre of superstars. Household-name talent is at the heart of the business model for all those entities. Silver will most likely be welcome wherever he shows up in the Disney family, whether it’s chatting with Diane Sawyer on “World News Tonight,” chatting with another recently hired star, Keith Olbermann on ESPN, or driving up traffic to ABC.com during Hollywood’s award season and Nielsen ratings for broadcast with his predictions on Oscar night.

You can follow J. Max Robins on Twitter @jmaxrobins.

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