FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism site made famous by Nate Silver’s coverage of the 2012 presidential election, today made its ESPN debut. The site plans to use mathematics to inform its coverage of everything from golf and technology to criminal justice and the weather.
Silver rose to prominence when he used the site to complement the New York Times’ existing politics reporting. Instead of relying on partisan talking points and political posturing, Silver used the sheer amount of data made available by public polls and voting records to present an informed, mathematic take on the political horse race. He then left the Times — partly because his “probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in,” the Times’ public editor wrote — and took the site to ESPN.
The result is a general interest site staffed with journalists who value facts over hunches. Its closest rival might be the yet-to-be-launched Vox news site, helmed by Ezra Klein, which plans to do explanatory journalism based on data-rich articles and easy-to-understand videos. Both sites hope to temper emotional arguments with rational explanations; to explain complex issues with clear prose; and to combine data analysis with traditional “shoe leather reporting.”
The difference is that FiveThirtyEight is backed by an old media network that created a new division to house its new media projects while Vox is backed by a new media company that will use it as the backbone of its other sites. Even though Silver and Klein are known for their disdain of horse-race politics coverage, they may find themselves in a competition of their own for the minds (and eyeballs) of savvy readers.
Reactions from around the Web
Grantland’s Bill Simmons, who also works at ESPN, tells Re/code about the advice he gave Silver prior to bringing his site to the network:
I was able to help as he was trying to figure out what the site was, by helping him carve out parameters about what he was going to do. Like telling him — get as much figured out before you start the site as you can, because once you’re in a big company, they have a way of trying to grab you here, and grab you here, and all of these people are coming at you. All he wants to do is do is this site, and do some ABC news stuff.
Also, I think it’s not the site that some people think it is. It’s not going to be a politics site. It’s going to be a really smart site that hits politics and weather and sports and pop culture. Which I think is smart, because he needs to grow. You don’t just want to be the guy who shows up every four years and goes 50 for 50.
ESPN’s Marie Donoghue describes the purpose of the new FiveThirtyEight to the Hollywood Reporter:
‘Nate clearly wants to cover more than sports; he wants to cover elections and lifestyle and technology. Some of his coverage on politics may end up infusing how we cover March Madness. About a third of his team is focused on data visualization. So in the next year or so, I’m not doing my job if some of that doesn’t infuse ESPN’s (on-air) data visualization,’ noted Donoghue, who has been at ESPN since 1998. ‘We’re not going to limit the content or platform areas we go into. We don’t want (FiveThirtyEight) to become a partisan web site, that’s not what this project is all about. And we think good storytelling is good storytelling.’
Silver explains the difference between his team and old media pundits in an interview with New York magazine:
Plenty of pundits have really high IQs, but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world, and so it leads to a lot of bullshit, basically. We think about our philosophy for when we choose to run with a story or when we don’t. We talk about avoiding ‘smart takes,’ quote-unquote. This is data journalism, capital-D. Within that, we take a foxlike approach to what data means. It’s not just numbers, but numbers are a big part of this. We think that’s a weakness of conventional journalism, that you have beautiful English language skills and fewer math skills, and we hope to rectify that balance a little bit.
Pando weighs in
Pando alum Hamish McKenzie wrote about those differences in November 2012 using a metaphor adopted by Silver and dreamt up by Isaiah Berlin:
Hedgehogs are ‘type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas – in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society.’ Foxes, on the other hand, are ‘scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.’ Hedgehogs are more easily seduced by clear narratives. Foxes are more data-driven, less willing to stake out strong positions.
One of these groups is more likely to appear on television. Guess which.
Pando alum Erin Griffith reported on Silver’s talk at SXSW 2013, during which he explained the problem with data-driven reporting:
Despite so many people working on the data problem, Silver believes the signal-to-noise ratio is actually getting worse. Humans are trained to make decisions quickly and recognize patterns. When we’re presented with so much information, we can misperceive random correlations for real signals. And that’s when we start telling stories around data, which is what gets us in trouble. ‘Stories are the best way to communicate,’ he said. ‘But you have to make sure the stories you tell are representative of a bigger picture and that they testify to the truth.’
David Holmes wrote about the limits of Silver’s predictive capabilities during March Madness 2013, and the accuracy of machine-powered predictions:
Some would argue that the Nate Silver of college basketball is, well, Nate Silver. He fills out a bracket each year using a methodology combining human- and computer-based predictive models. But Silver’s recent record when it comes to sports has been pretty dismal. At the onset of the NFL playoffs, he predicted that the Seahawks and the Patriots would play in the Super Bowl (wrong on both counts). Once the Super Bowl arrived, he predicted the 49ers would defeat the Ravens (wrong again).
So how do the machine-driven models compare to the experts? Two years ago, the winning bracket was more accurate than both Nate Silver’s bracket and a bracket filled out by always picking the higher seed. (The higher seed analysis is in some ways the purest human-driven metric: Seeds are determined by a back-room selection committee the weekend before the tournament commences).
He then wondered after the announcement that FiveThirtyEight was joining ESPN if the site could save the network from itself:
Can Nate Silver bring much-needed intelligence to a network that’s become dominated by whoever happens to be shouting the loudest and whoever is most smugly confident in the unfallibility of his opinions? Or are ESPN viewers already inured to the network’s tendency to pose unanswerable questions (“Is LeBron better than Jordan? Lol.”) and then answer them anyway? Will they reject Silver as the doofy numbers nerd, the Colmes to Skip Bayless’ Hannity? And isn’t there a risk that by reducing everything to numbers that the game loses some of the irrational magic that drives all sports fandom?
Time will tell, but I think Silver will fit in well. First of all, sports aren’t like elections, and so there’s no fear that Silver the wizard will ruin the game by accurately predicting the victor of every match (For example, his Super Bowl picks were way off). But most importantly, the questions he asks are often no less absurd than the ones posed by ESPN. The difference is the way Nate Silver comes up with the answer, which is always a lot more interesting.
[Image adapted from Thinkstock]