It’s the doldrums of the presidential campaign season — just seven months into Barack Obama’s second term — so not everyone may be aware that the political prognosticator Nate Silver has left The New York Times for the sports network ESPN. Fans, not to say addicts, of Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog have been reacting as if the dog died. “Don’t leave us, Nate!” keened a typical comment on his last posting, in July.
For the Times, the decamping of the boy wizard (Silver is 35) is also a major blow. He was a huge driver of traffic to the newspaper’s website, searched for more often during the 2012 campaign than any other individual byline, according to the web analytics company Alexa. By November, something like 20 percent of all visits to the Times website included a stop at Silver’s blog. One media observer sent around an e-mail when Silver defected last month, laced with a bit of schadenfreude. “RIP NYT” the subject line read.
I wouldn’t go that far. Silver’s relationship with the Times was symbiotic: Each benefited from a connection with the other. The notion of “free-agent journalism” — where a reporter’s strong personal brand has a value greater than the associated news outlet — is overrated. Still, the popularity of FiveThirtyEight contains a lesson for more traditional political journalists, some of whom grumbled that Silver’s odds-making approach to campaign reporting didn’t fit at the Times.
Silver became a cult figure not just because he correctly called all 50 states in the race between Barak Obama and Mitt Romney — 48 of them within his projected margin of victory. His predictions were based on an aggregation of polling results conducted by others, after all. Silver’s great contribution, and perhaps his greatest departure from traditional campaign reporting, was transparency. He showed his work, describing in exhaustive detail his methodology: which polls he picked to follow and why (i.e., forget national polls, since in the Electoral College the state results are all that matter); how he adjusted the polling averages to consider variables like economic factors or demographics; how he treated tracking polls that accrue rolling averages over several days.
He included a glossary of terms veteran journalists casually drop into their coverage but which are bewildering to average readers, such as the ubiquitous phrase “margin of error.” Four days after the election, he offered a review on the accuracy of 90 different presidential polls to evaluate which techniques are most effective. Readers could see the weaknesses of land-line and automated telephone polls, and the surprising accuracy of many online polls. Silver’s website wasn’t just a blog, it was an education.
The late John Silber often chastised reporters covering his 1990 gubernatorial campaign, insisting that his words and actions should be viewed “as if through a clear pane of glass,” that is, with no external analysis. That’s not the kind of transparency Silver provided. He made judgments all the time: about which polls to trust, how to weight them, and so on. But he explained himself. Even readers who don’t grasp regression analysis felt Silver’s words were undergirded by the comforting hardness of numbers. “His relentless focus on the data provided an anchor that his readers could cling to,” said Tom Fiedler, dean of the college of communication at Boston University, “while the news media’s fickle winds blew in a different direction on any given day.”
Silver was a refreshing break, in other words, from the oracular pronouncements of traditional political punditry. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, Silver explained his appeal to what he described as his somewhat younger, web-centric readers: “They want the score, the bottom line. They don’t care about the gossip as much.’’
Voters have repeatedly been burned by polls, but they are getting more sophisticated, and Silver has developed a million-dollar method for separating the signal from the noise, as he might put it. Early next year he’ll be returning to his first love, sports, but he will also keep up FiveThirtyEight and soothsay on economics, the weather, and other fields that lend themselves to statistical analysis. Is this nerdy numbers-cruncher good enough to drive a sports agnostic like me to ESPN? I’ve already got it bookmarked.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.