Nate Silver and the future of media

Colby Cosh on the Sports Guy and the Witch
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.