FiveThirtyEight.com boss Nate Silver is a superlative interviewee. He speaks passionately about his history in data journalism, his voyage from online poker whiz to independent blogger to New York Times breakout star to ESPN mainstay. His travels through the corporate and media worlds furnish a great number of stories. And he is unafraid to say the worst things about competitors, as he showed in a recent interview with Catie Lazarus on her show “Employee of the Month.”
Noting that Silver started his ESPN data-crunching version of FiveThirtyEight at around the same time that one-time Washington Postie Ezra Klein launched Vox.com, Lazarus wanted to get Silver’s take on this competitor in the nerd-policy space. Silver complied:
Silver: In some ways, we’re kind of quite opposite from from Vox, where, what I was kind of saying earlier, well, the idea of you read the Wikipedia page and you write, like, a take on it. That’s not our view exactly. I mean, we think that people should show their work.
Lazarus: Wait, I’m sorry, I just want to clarify: So you feel like Vox, they just like take the Wikipedia page and rewrite it?
Silver: Vox publishes a lot of things every day. You know, we publish five or six articles every day. They publish 40 or 50. I think the best five or ten things they do are terrific, right? They have some great people working for them. I think they also have a lot of less than terrific things…I know how hard my writers and my editors work to try and get get the facts right, to not always go for the hot take that you can’t really provide evidence for, right? To avoid errors and mistakes. And so, you know, I obviously have some skin in the game where I feel like if people are taking a lot of shortcuts and things that have the sheen of being data driven and maybe aren’t very empirical and aren’t very self aware, then, yeah, I guess I get really annoyed.
Vox launched in spring 2014 with a mandate to explain the news — and also to produce a heavy number of posts. Accuracy problems indeed ensued early on, with Vox getting snookered by that hoax about Vladimir Putin getting pooped on by a bird; Vox engaging in a clear conflict of interest when writing about bitcoins; Vox mangling a story about the riches created by Grumpy Cat; Vox … well, just check out Deadspin’s December 2014 summation under the title, “46 Times Vox Totally F—– Up A Story.”
Vox indeed pairs really serious policy stuff — “TPP’s government procurement rules, explained,” for example — with clickbait — “Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Live episode was worse than bad — it was boring.” Yet even for that Trump post, the site sticks with the mission statement, as the piece’s subhead proves: “The furor surrounding his hosting gig, explained.”
Last week, Vox churned out an average of roughly 25 posts per weekday, according to this feed. To judge by that same feed, Vox has produced about 12,750 items since its launch on April 6, 2014, or about 22 per day, a calculation that includes weekends. So perhaps Silver should adjust his Vox-oriented posting-frequency data journalism.
When asked about frequency and staffing, Klein wrote to the Erik Wemple Blog via e-mail, “I think, at the moment, we’re a bit shy of 20 full-time writers on the site, who write about once a day on average. I would love to see us at 40-50 pieces a day — sadly, we’re not there yet.” As to the criticism, Klein retorts, “Beyond that, I’m tremendously proud of the incredible work my writers do — good explanatory journalism is very, very hard, and as such, I think it’s best to let it speak for itself.” Classy leadership, displayed.
Lazarus succeeded in extracting other elbowy remarks from Silver, including a little rip against the New York Times. In a much-covered 2013 career move, Silver resisted offers from then-Executive Editor Jill Abramson to remain in place at the Times in favor of his roost at ESPN. As noted in an excellent column by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, some graybeards disapproved of Silver’s data methods and voiced those concerns forcefully via backchannels. Silver told the Erik Wemple Blog that the ESPN platform afforded him more flexibility to write colloquially. Looking back at his departure with Lazarus, Silver perhaps felt a touch less inhibited: “Part of what we do is we critique the mainstream media’s understanding of things, and we’re critical of conventional wisdom, and the Times, it’s an amazing institution, but it kind of perpetuates and reinforces a lot of conventional wisdom.”