Nate Silver is good for political journalism

July 26, 2013

Nate Silver, king of the data geeks (we say this lovingly), announced he was leaving the New York Times to join ESPN/ABC this week.


Nate Silver. AP photo.

The Internet -- and in particular Twitter -- nearly exploded reacting to the news, with praise for Nate outrunning criticism but plenty of both to go around. That's nothing new of course. You could write a tweet that reads "I love good things" and within five seconds you'd have 10 people telling you why good things -- and you -- suck.

But, one critique of Nate and his work stood out for me.  It was in a piece by the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan entitled "Nate Silver Went Against the Grain for Some at The Times".

In it, Sullivan writes of how Silver never totally fit into the Times culture:

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.”

Then she adds:

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.

I don't get this criticism -- and I think it's a fundamental misread of how we should go about doing political journalism. (Sidebar/disclaimer: I have met Nate, in passing, once but we have no relationship aside from that.)

For all of the talk that journalism is dying, I think we are at a point where the appetite for political coverage and analysis has never been higher. (The Fix family thanks you for your continued interest.) I find myself waking up every day not worried about having enough to write about but about having too much to write about.

Given the glut of political news and the intense interest in and appetite for it, we need to embrace a sort of "both/and" model of political journalism.

Here's what I mean. I read Nate's coverage of the 2012 election via Five Thirty Eight. I also read Ashley Parker's reports from the Romney bus. And Mike Shear's reporting. And Peter Baker's. And Brian Stelter's. And lots of other Timesfolk.

Journalism in the modern age isn't a zero-sum game. The political world needs both the sort of data-driven analysis that Nate does and the nose-to-the-ground reporting that lots of other reporters at the Times do.  Ditto the Post where what we do on The Fix complements and supplements the work done by the other folks on the political staff.

Does anyone really go to the Post -- or any news site -- and say: "Ok, I can only read one take on a big political story?"  No.  If you are interested in politics -- and, thankfully, there are lots of you out there -- you read Dan Balz, Ezra Klein and The Fix as well as all of the great reporters we have covering Congress, the White House and so on and so forth.

Nate's success -- whether in page views or profile -- doesn't take away from the work everyone else at the Times did during (and after) the 2012 campaign.  Instead of tearing down Nate for the brand of journalism he practices, why don't we embrace his ability to expand the number of people interested in the subject we have dedicated our lives to covering?

I say kudos to Nate. His success lifts all of us.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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