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Nate Silver and a general theory of media exodus

July 23, 2013

 The defection of statistics-wrangler Nate Silverfrom 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, writesMarc 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 wasAdweek‘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. Read the rest at Reuters.

Related Links:

Why Nate Silver Matters

Nate Silver Went Against the Grain For Some at the Times

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From → Analysis, Commentary

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