July 22, 2013
Nate Silver leaves New York Times
Nate Silver (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Like any industry, the news business sees its share of turnover on the personnel front. Jake Tapper jumps from ABC News to CNN; Elisabeth Hasselbeck bolts “The View” for “Fox & Friends“; David Shuster joins Al Jazeera. Sometimes the moves tell a boring story about a news organization trying to fill a hole, and sometimes they tell a broader story with implications for the industry.

Into that latter basket falls the departure of Nate Silver, of the popular blog FiveThirtyEight, from his perch at the New York Times for a new spot at ESPN/ABC, where he’ll be doing a bit of everything. Announcement of the deal concludes some fierce competition for the services of Silver, whose arrangement with the New York Times expires in August.

Those who aren’t acquainted with Silver clearly weren’t desperate for constant real-time assessments of polling data in advance of last year’s presidential campaign. That’s what he provided, in clear, incisive and often very lengthy posts. As has been noted everywhere, Silver’s snapshots of the race drew bottomless amounts of traffic to Nytimes.com, in large part because he had the reputation for being right about things.

It bore out: He nailed the election just about as closely as it can be nailed. In the process, Silver essentially invalidated an entire Beltway industrial category — that of the pundit who “breaks down” a race with fancy talk of things like “momentum,” “swings of opinion,” the “youth vote” and so on. Better to examine the data, Silver said. “I think we represent a counterweight to a lot of the BS, frankly, that you hear in the mainstream media,” Silver told the Erik Wemple Blog for an Outlook piece last year.

What a delicious weapon for the New York Times: A property often chided as a mainstay of the Washington establishment deploys a statistician to expose one of the Washington establishment’s great frauds.

Only it didn’t last. Letting Silver escape to the broadcast world will forever be a centerpiece of assessments of Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s time atop the New York Times. It’s no secret within the newspaper that she signaled to President and CEO Mark Thompson that Silver’s retention was one of her priorities; that his work was an indispensable part of the New York Times’s political coverage; and that his departure disappointed her.

Yet neither Abramson nor Thompson should be judged too harshly for the loss of Silver. In this case, they just happen to suffer from platform deficit. As reported by the New York Times, Silver will be writing his FiveThirtyEight blog at ESPN; he’ll likely have a role on the ESPN2 talk show “Olbermann” to be launched with Keith Olbermann. And when politics heats up, Silver will be welcome to help out corporate sibling ABC News, which is delighted to claim a bit of his work product.

Don’t take the word of the Erik Wemple Blog. Listen to the canned Silver quote from a just-issued ESPN press release: “This is a dream job for me. I’m excited to expand FiveThirtyEight’s data-driven approach into new areas, while also reuniting with my love of sports. I’m thrilled that we’re going to be able to create jobs for a great team of journalists, writers and analysts. And I think that I’ve found the perfect place to do it. The variety and quality of the assets ESPN and ABC News presented to me was compelling and unparalleled. I can’t wait to get started.”

How can the New York Times, prestigious and respected though it is, compete with all that? It cannot. The New York Times, like the Washington Post and Politico, among many others, has built out a set of video component to showcase the commentary of its star reporters. The offerings are often fun and insightful and not even remotely as powerful as the broadcast and cable reach of ESPN and ABC News. Silver’s departure sends a clear signal to newspaper executives: Your video platforms may be critical to saving your business model, though a tad ineffective in retaining top talent.

Here’s one proprietary advantage that the New York Times had over ESPN/ABC News: A famous, 161-year-old daily print edition. Any guesses as to how pivotal that product was in the negotiations?

On one level, Silver’s departure looks routine. Big-time newsroom talents, after all, have a history of outgrowing print properties and taking their wares to the broadcast world or other, more lucrative ventures. Local sports fans need only think about Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, former Washington Post sports columnists who moved on to…ESPN. Yet the task of back-filling a couple of vacated sports-columnist jobs isn’t the same as back-filling the work of an exalted journo-statistician. A quantitatively challenged profession, journalism hasn’t spawned a population of little Nate Silvers. The New York Times will have to do some yeoman exploration to fill this hole. As it must. Sure, all that reader traffic was an endorsement of Silver’s masterful breakdowns of polling data, but it also reflected a thirst among political types for a break from blather — a thirst that the New York Times, as well as other outlets, will ignore at their peril.

In a fine post on the matter, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted that not all Timespeople supported Silver and his brand of journalism. She recounts how, after she wrote that print readers should have more access to Silver’s work, she received notes from “three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work.” In the snarky lingo of social media, here’s the takeaway from this revelation: BREAKING: Traditional newsroom disses non-traditional journalist!

There is no way of knowing at this point whether the less-than-unanimous support for Silver within the walls of the New York Times actuated his move. What we do know is that a great newspaper staffed in part by at least three crotchety types couldn’t hold onto a huge talent. In my interview with him last fall, Silver spoke about those who had taken to challenging his breakdowns of polling numbers: “I know as a matter of practice that I’m going to have more opportunities if my prediction looks good and fewer if it doesn’t.” That forecast, too, turned out to be correct, this time to the dismay of the New York Times.

This afternoon, Silver will chat with reporters on a conference call. More to come.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.