The Old Media Knives In Nate’s Back

The Signal & The Noise - 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival

I’m not sure the role of public editor at the NYT includes the gossipy reporting of staff envy, resentment and resistance to the emergence of an Internet star in their midst. But Margaret Sullivan sure delivered – and she, at least by her account, was a defender of the 538 blog on the NYT site.

Still, if you wondered how the old-guard of journalism really regards the upstarts of the web, it’s a revealing piece:

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” …

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility…

The Times tried very hard to give him a lot of editorial help and a great platform. It bent over backward to do so, and this, too, disturbed some staff members. It was about to devote a significant number of staff positions to beefing up his presence into its own mini-department.

I’m thrilled Nate got his new gig at ESPN. But it isn’t good news for journalism that the NYT could not really digest his work. In the first place, Nate (who’s become a friend since the Dish first featured his work in the 2008 campaign) is about as real, sweet and modest as anyone can be without turning into mush. His ego is as well concealed as mine sometimes swivels like a Drudge police siren. So personality clashes were almost certainly not an issue – or not Nate-generated.

But fear was: fear that his analysis could render moot some of the horse-race journalism that the NYT still does and does well. It’s a misplaced fear. Campaigns are narratives driven by human beings – no statistical analysis could begin to describe them adequately. There’s no reason the two approaches cannot work together and inform each other. But the pretensions and defensiveness of the old media guard seem to have made that a tough compromise to settle on – to the detriment of NYT readers. And when the top brass actually started spending resources on the upstart, then jealousy took over. What usually happens, ahem, is that the lone blogger attached to a media company gets brought in for traffic, buzz, innovation, etc. and is then promptly ignored, or taken for granted, while the old guard tolerates him or her, and all the actual resources and investment go to the established institutional structure. Institutions tend not to like individuals who can dominate attention in a way others do not. It weakens their sense of control – something that remains in their minds even as it has largely evaporated from the media world.

Jill Abramson rightly, in my view, took a different tack, trying to build 538 into something bigger and worth investing in. But the knives in Nate’s back were too plentiful to remove – and ESPN clearly outbid them and had no bitter dead-enders carping about the newbie. Besides, ESPN had already proven its willingness to invest in one key blogger/writer, Bill Simmons, and create a whole site within a site around him. Marc Tracy listened to an ESPN conference call on the news and talked to Silver directly about the Simmons model:

The calls were most useful for drawing out the shape and ambitions of Silver’s future site, whose model, as he and Skipper said many times, is Bill Simmons’ Grantland. “That Grantland precedent was as close as anything in media,” Silver said. It, too, will be editorially independent, and it will be similarly staffed, at least once FiveThirtyEight is fully staffed up post-relaunch ([ESPN president President John] Skipper pegged Grantland’s staff in “the low dozens”). It was clearly very important to Silver that he did not have to guess whether ESPN could build a Grantland-like site around him—that, instead, ESPN (and ESPN acting under the influence of Skipper) is what built Grantland.

Travis Waldron also considers the Grantland model:

Grantland is an important aspect to the story, since it provides the model for the new FiveThirtyEight. The site has been an unabashed success in the two years since it launched, so it’s no surprise ESPN wanted to duplicate it, and Silver’s site sounds like it will end up as Grantland with more numbers. Silver and Simmons are a lot alike, big names with devoted online followings who will bring traffic and readers and influence, and Silver repeatedly stressed the editorial independence ESPN has given Simmons as important to why he took the job. And while he guaranteed the new FiveThirtyEight would cover sports, politics, and economics, the rest is up in the air and dependent on who he hires, much like Grantland’s beats developed more through the voices that came aboard — think Wesley Morris’ movie reviews and cultural critiques or Jonah Keri’s baseball coverage — than through a specific plan to cover certain aspects of sports.

I thought Nate’s role at the NYT was one real bright spot in the evolution of journalism at the Times. So, it now seems, did plenty of others. And that was the problem. The good news is that the NYT needed Nate much more than he needed them, and what matters is getting an audience to write what you love to write about. At ESPN, he has all the resources he needs and none of the extraordinary resentment and envy so many old-school editors and journalists feel toward the blogstars.

Did I mention how great it is to answer to no-one?

(Photo: Nate Silver, Founder & President of speaks onstage at The Signal & The Noise during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2013 in Austin, Texas. By Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW.)