Nate Silver and the future of media

Colby Cosh on the Sports Guy and the Witch

by Colby Cosh

Nate Silver.

About nine months ago I wrote a long piece about celebrity statistician Nate Silver, and I swear I would be content never to utter his name again if that hadn’t been the single most popular article I have ever written for anybody. Silver is back in the news because he has made a sudden move from a congenial-seeming home at the New York Times to the Disney-owned sports monolith ESPN. Silver captured the admiring attention of the world for his 2012 presidential election forecasting, and may have been as talked-about as anyone at the paper with the likely exception of Paul Krugman. Naturally, Silver’s departure was greeted with anonymous carping from Timesians. They appear to have deemed him a mollycoddled parvenu who lacks the true newspaperman’s all-important familiarity with the smell of a campaign bus’s exhaust and the splashing noises of an administration leak.

Silver’s fans suspect that the real grievance of the old Times hands is that our hero got ahead and stayed ahead of the news cycle using nothing more than mathematics, a language that might as well be Old Church Slavonic as far as 19 of 20 journalists are concerned. The Silverites may be on to something, although it should be said that the New York Times employs and publishes the world’s best data visualization specialists, and I do mean the world’s best: the U.S. Army, the Fortune 500, and the European Union combined couldn’t lick them, although the National Post might make them hustle right up to the finish line. The Times’ data artists did a lot to make the paper’s election coverage a success, and this included making Silver’s own work more reader-friendly. They didn’t get invited onto The Daily Show for it.

For better or worse, Silver is an independent media power now, a man who has dragged his own audience from place to place as it increases inexorably. He is said to have been recruited to ESPN with the help of Bill Simmons, who is becoming one of the defining figures of a media era. Simmons started his own “Boston Sports Guy” website in 1997 with little more than a decent sense of humour, a short but blessed lifetime of watching the Celtics at the Garden, and a bookish lad’s deep knowledge of the canon of American sports books, sports magazine articles, and sports movies, both fictional and documentary. In 2013 he is an honest-to-God magnate: bestselling author, NBA television commentator, hands-on executive producer of his own superb documentary series.

He still plunks references to 1979 basketball movie Fast Break into his columns three times a month, yet there is every likelihood that the man will win an Oscar within the next five to ten years. A Pulitzer is not entirely out of the question. The words “only in America” are called for one-thousandth as often as they are uttered, but Simmons’ career demands them.

ESPN wisely decided two years ago to turn Simmons loose on his own ESPN-owned website—Grantland.com, effectively an independent online magazine edited by Simmons. Indeed, they periodically cram the whole thing between covers and print it as a dead-tree magazine. The corporation did for Simmons what is hardest for corporations to do, and relented on its instinct for corporate homogeneity: Grantland has its own freestanding URL—you don’t have to go to http://espn.com/content/grantland or anything to find it—and its own distinct design. The site publishes much of the best sportswriting now being executed in the United States, but it covers pop culture well, too: it has room for pretty much everything but electoral politics, which, it occurs to me, might actually be one unstated secret to Simmons’ success.*

It seems like a solid bet that ESPN has something similar in mind for Nate Silver, whose trajectory already resembles that of Simmons. (Obviously the politics won’t be excluded from Silver’s site; it shall wallow in politics.) Like Simmons, Silver wrote for his campus newspaper, and like Simmons he first came to the world’s attention as a sportswriter with an unusual outsider’s perspective. His interest in political forecasting actually began as a fun, anonymous internet sideline that has swollen out of proportion Godzilla-fashion. The Times did let him build a personalized sub-site, although he was a poor editor of other writers’ material, and it let him experiment with Oscar forecasting and other trial balloons.

But no doubt Silver felt a bit straitjacketed in one of Earth’s most traditionalist, hysterically hierarchical, groupthink-riddled media environments. Simmons sometimes seemed to feel the same way when he was still “at” ESPN; if you were a fan at that time, you knew you had to read his stuff as soon as it went up, before the executives made the potshots at colleagues and the off-colour jokes disappear.

Silver’s move to ESPN betokens a media world in which individual content creators have significant power relative to the titles or brands for which they nominally work—but if, and only if, they have the ability to commune with and command an audience of their own. This seems like an obvious concomitant of being a popular journalist, but until the web era it was not common for writers to test their ability to build a following without any assistance from rich dudes who owned printing presses and publicity apparatus. Many scribblers have passed on, and many more will, without ever knowing if they could have pulled it off.

Both Silver and Bill Simmons started with little support from the traditional media and stumbled upon unexploited audience segments, groups of people like themselves who had gone unaddressed in some respect. In Simmons’ case he found the fan perspective, as such, absent from the sports page: the hidden foundation of his career, as he has all but acknowledged, is the screenwriter William Goldman’s “Fan’s Notes” in the 1988 quickie sports book Wait Till Next Year. (I cherish my grimy, tattered paperback copy. Good luck finding one.) Silver’s métier is, of course, statistical forecasting. He speaks to those who like math, and to those who might not like it but sense its puzzling absence from coverage of democratic exercises that end in a frenzy of counting.

It is amusing to me, and I bet it is pretty amusing to him, that Nate Silver has become so venerated even as the popular understanding of what he does remains so impoverished. (The semi-innumerate Simmons used to call him “The Witch”; maybe that will be the name of Silver’s site for ESPN.) Silver went to the trouble of writing a whole book about what he does, but it is in the nature of such books to be bought more than they are read and read more than they are understood. The proof is that Silver’s name has become inextricably linked with one of the oppressive buzzwords of 2013: “big data”.

People know “big data” has something to do with statistics, and, hey, who’s the most famous statistics guy on the planet? I’ll let you in on a bluffer’s secret: what “big data” denotes are massive realtime streams of ever-changing information, such as web traffic or the Twitter “firehose”, that can potentially be bent to commercial purposes using powerful and bleeding-edge computational techniques. Silver has always worked exclusively, at least in public, with what might be called “small data”: sets of a few hundred political polls or ballplayers’ statistical lines. He is living proof that there is money to be made applying 50- or 100-year old statistical nostrums and exploratory techniques to such small data. The “big” stuff is a fad whose promise is likely to prove elusive, so don’t worry, people will stop boring you about it soon enough.

*I’ve consumed everything Simmons has written over the past decade along with a few hundred podcast interviews: I can name six of his college buddies but I can’t tell you if he’s a Democrat or a Republican. This must be intentional. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Simmons’ own best pals among high-profile contemporary writers are Malcolm Gladwell, who rarely deigns to write about quotidian horserace politics, and Chuck Klosterman, who is more likely to start wondering aloud what kind of president Eddie Van Halen would make.

Nate Silver and the future of media

  1. Good to see Silvers moved beyond his graduate training in economics and recognized the world is vastly more complex than a point of intersection of two lines on a graph.

    • What does that even mean? He wouldn’t be who he is without staring at two lines on a graph. And no, most things are not more complicated than that.

  2. Your general point re: politics is right. With specifics, my memory’s a bit hazy, but I seem to remember a few George W. Bush and John McCain jokes as the respective elections neared, they only stick out because of how little he’d remark on those things.

  3. Entertaining column about people and careers that don’t interest me.

    • Then why take the trouble not only of reading, but of commenting?

      • I like Colby.

  4. When you use the buzzterm “bleeding-edge” I take it you are aware of its intrinsic admonitory/pejorative connotation within engineering (in contradistinction to leading-edge), albeit a cognizance not shared among the journalists so frequently, witlessly, and erroneously appropriating it to mean “latest/greatest,” state-of-the-art, etc.

  5. I, too, have read most of Simmons’ columns for a decade or longer but it seems beyond doubt that he is a Democrat supporter.

    • I get that impression of most people who stick to facts.

  6. One is ‘in the tank gay liberal hack’ and the other is a ‘full of himself Celtics fan’. Both will be on the unemployment line within five years. At least Simmons has some cool stories about Red and Larry Bird. Silver is doing nothing more than second year grad student math and states he’s not in the prediction business only when his predictions fail. I hope they all enjoy long nights in a windowless room with Keith Olbermann.

    • Silver’s in a class by himself. I think he’s psychic and covers it up.

    • Big words. I’ll definitely mark this post because of how completely wrong it is. Sorry, did you correctly predict 50 out of 50 states votes for the 2012 Presidential Election? No? You know how many other people correctly predicted all 50? Zero. Additionally, and I’m surprised that this was not mentioned directly in the article, Silver got his start as a baseball sabermetrics guy and has mentioned in numerous interviews that he’s returning to his first love, sports statistics.
      Regarding Simmons, if you know or care anything about the NBA, Bill Simmons is quite simply the best and most interesting writer that has ever covered it. Period.
      Clearly you’re letting your personal politics color your willingness to critically regard their talents and accomplishments. Don’t.

      • So wrong it took you 150+ words to NOT refute my statements ? I won’t be marking your post as it bores me to no end. They have neither talent nor accomplishments in which to acknowledge. Maybe Bill and Keith can get little Nate into some locker rooms ?

  7. I’ve read as much Simmons as you have and can clearly tell you he a died-in-the wool liberal.

    • Dyed.

  8. I never understood Silvermania. I mean, how much number crunching does it take to predict that California and Massachusetts are going dem? After all, there are very, very few true tossup states, and you still have a 50-50 chance at predicting their election outcomes in the complete absence of any polling data. The Super Bowl, on the other hand, is a different story. Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots? Ha ha ha ha. Then when it came down to the final two, when he DID have a 50-50 chance of picking the winner, Silver went for the Niners.

  9. I think Bill goes out of his way not to engage in politics, but sometimes it leaks out, like when he used to do those hours-long live chats on espn:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons

    “Bill Simmons: Im still in disbelief. I talked to my buddy JackO yesterday, huge Yanks fan – listening to him gripe about the yanks and how bummed out he was, I felt like I was in Bizarro World.

    Bill Simmons: Plus he’s a big Republican – he said that if Kerry wins, he’s going to move into a cabin in the middle of nowhere and become the next Ted Kaciznski.

    (snip)

    The Dude (CA): Your buddy JackO is both a yankees fan and a big republican… why are you friends with this guy?

    Bill Simmons: I’ve been asking myself that for 15 years.”

    That, coupled with being from Boston, and his interview with Obama (which truthfully Obama needed more than Simmons did) not being one that a conservative would give- I think the jury is out on this one- Bill is decidedly liberal.

    However, For all you Simmons-Cousin Sal Podcast fans out there, I’ll put into terms you can understand.

    Id place the odds of Bill Simmons being a liberal at -2000.

    • You’d have to be a pretty crazy ideologue to not want to interview the POTUS if you get a chance, whatever the partisanship of either.

      • I disagree.

        First, I didnt say Bill didnt want to interview Obama, I said he didnt conduct the interview as a conservative. You cant refute that.

        2ndly, Bill was running the risk of alienating some of his fans- therefore, like I said, Obama had more to gain from the interview than Simmons.

        I think ultimately he did the interview because he wanted to, and genuinely likes Obama. If he didnt, then I seriously doubt he would have pushed for it.

  10. I’ve read Simmons since he was “the Boston Sports Guy” and you must not be reading him or listening to him because he is most definitely a liberal. All you have to do is listen to his snickering and laughing from his podcast last week with actor Michael B. Jordan when Jordan said “I was in Austin. I like Austin–it’s cool but the rest of Texas–I don’t go there. (laughing). Simmons (laughing): yeah, I can see why. Austin is great but Texas–yeah we all know why the rest of it isn’t great”.
    Everyone knows Austin is the liberal city in Texas and the rest of Texas is Conservative. A funny note though for Simmons is how well is California (the state he lives in) is doing economically vs. Texas–so maybe the jokes on him. Just sayin.

  11. Silver’s celebrity status will last as far as his first mistake. Then he will be forgotten and a new “guru” will take his place.

    • Pundits and pollsters regularly make mistakes. Silver made ONE in 2008 and ONE in 2010.

  12. I think most of the people reading this on line know how to obtain an out-of-print book, Mr. Cosh.

  13. I love the way people are poo-pooing Silver. I don’t know why they find him so threatening.

    • It’s not that they find him threatening it’s that he is is superfluous. Everyone who wasn’t a Republican could see that Obama was going to win comfortably. We didn’t need Nate Silver to tell us what the facts on hand were telling us. Incumbent electoral advantage, immense unpopularity of the previous Republican administration, Milquetoast Mitt, and the chaotic, rudderless, state of the GOP all were indications that Obama was going to win handily.

      This is not to forget Obama’s superior grass roots operation and high appeal among young and minority voters. This last element is something the Democrats are looking to replicate with Hillary in 2016. With the Republicans looking very much like they did in 2012 I can say–without needing Silver’s arithmetic–that Hillary shall will fairly convincingly. Logical deduction from the facts at hand are all that is needed.

  14. Van Halen would make the best President in more than twenty years!

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