Nate Silver's much anticipated "data-driven" news site FiveThirtyEight is finally here.
Will Nate's selling out to ESPN for a few pieces of silver, and leaving the venerable NYT, be worth it? Are we truly at the tipping point of a new type of journalism to take hold? Or is this just more hype in the news cycle which should invoke in us a healthy dose of skepticism?
To answer these questions, in the spirit of things, let's look at the data before us.
Make no mistake, the arcane world of statistics and number crunching, while remaining a geeky domain, has now found its place in pop culture. Silver gives credit to the Moneyball phenomenon for this transformation. It drew in even the likes of Brad Pitt. Silver had a passing association with pro baseball in the early years as well, developing PECOTA, a statistical system for the sport.
However, his moneyball moment was the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election when the original Fivethirtyeight (named after the number of votes in the electoral college) website was born. Polls were nothing new to the American people but Silver's robust forecasts combined with an ability to package his analysis well to a TV news audience, made him the new undisputed Numero Uno of the psephological world.
So what do you do when you become a media brand? License yourself to an even bigger media brand like NYT--which in Silver's case gave him huge exposure. In return NYT found that 20 percent of its traffic frequented Silver's blog.
ESPN meanwhile had been looking to replicate the early success of Grantland.com, its sport and pop- culture spin-off, helmed by long-time ESPN staffer and writer Bill Simmons.
With its overwhelming political focus though, the probability that the NYT would sate Silver's growing appetite for a data-driven deconstruction of the world around us , was always going to be low. Not that he exactly scored big with his sports forecasts.
By Silver's own admission he was looking for a partner who was more into supporting an entrepreneurial vision, so the matchup with ESPN seems to not have been driven by any ideology other than opportunity. Interestingly, the remit for the new Fivethirtyeight is not just sports and politics, but also economics, science and lifestyle--an ambitious editorial charter.
Before examining the hypothesis that we are at the dawn of a data-driven journalistic revolution it might be useful to consider a parallel construct of Silver's move to ESPN.
The last year has seen Yahoo! hire Katie Couric from TV, Glenn Greenwald quit the Guardian to join Pierre Omidyar's as yet unannounced media venture, which then morphed into a company called First Look Media. Ezra Klein quit Wonkblog and The Washington Post to found Vox Media, and Bill Keller the former executive editor of the New York Times, has founded The Marshall Project, a news website focused on criminal justice.
All of which indicates a huge shift of "news media" to new media, espousing an independent editorial line, and sustained on huge amounts of entrepreneurial effort. The fact that Nate Silver is a data-decipherer par excellence is honestly old news, what's going to be worth a watch is to see whether he can get everything from the hiring of his 20-person editorial team, to the website's look and feel, and yes, the fox logo right.
Grading Goalies...and Burritos
A statistical analysis concluding that goalies in the NHL are getting better at their game is a great example of the eclectic content that will be on offer on the new Fivethirtyeight site. The article attributes an increase in goal saving percentage to a new technique called the "butterfly", where goalies drop to their knees to effect a save rather than the earlier "stand up" technique.
What remains to be seen is how many of the "blood and thunder" devotees of ice hockey develop an appreciation for subtleties of titling the article "The Butterfly Effect." It refers to a theory coined by MIT mathematician Edward Lorenz that postulates that small changes in initial conditions can create large non-linear effects in a larger system. Such as a butterfly flapping its wings in South America causing a change of the weather in Central Park.
Serving up additional number munching will be Fivethirtyeight's attempt at finding the best burrito out there! Dubbed the "Burrito Bracket" this started out as Silver's personal quest to find the best burrito joint in his neighborhood and should provide the right ingredients to attract a large cross-section of readers to the site.
Diehard followers from his NYT blog should also have enough political content to deliberate on, such as a deep-dive into Crimean polling behavior and an explanation of how a 97 percent yes vote might have been achieved by the Russians.
In perhaps the best traditions of imitation being the best form of flattery, and possible validation of a market trend, the NYT has announced the launch of "The Upshot", its new data-driven journalistic venture mean to fill the void from Silver's exit.
In a quote, ironically falsely attributed in all likelihood to Benjamin Disraeli,a British politician, he is supposed to have said, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Can data-driven journalism turn that notion on its head and lead all of us to the truth?