“FiveThirtyEight is drawing huge traffic,” New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told me yesterday. She added, “What’s interesting is a lot of the traffic is coming just for Nate.”
There has been plenty of controversy over Nate Silver’s presidential forecast, which currently reports a roughly nine-in-ten chance of a Barack Obama victory, down slightly from this morning. But supporters and detractors have at least one thing in common: they all visit his site. And so have many, many others over the past weeks and months. During the highest-profile period for the New York Times’ political coverage—and perhaps the newspaper as a whole—Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight, which the Times licensed for three years and began hosting in the summer of 2010, plays an astoundingly outsize role in the paper’s online political coverage, at least measured by page views. It suggests that even though Silver is a long-term contractor rather than a staff writer, the Times is closely associated with his forecasts, and therefore could itself come in for much of the criticism Silver has.
The Times does not release traffic figures, but a spokesperson said yesterday that Silver’s blog provided a significant—and significantly growing, over the past year—percentage of Times pageviews. This fall, visits to the Times’ political coverage (including FiveThirtyEight) have increased, both absolutely and as a percentage of site visits. But FiveThirtyEight’s growth is staggering: where earlier this year, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of politics visits included a stop at FiveThirtyEight, last week that figure was 71 percent.
But Silver’s blog has buoyed more than just the politics coverage, becoming a signifiant traffic-driver for the site as a whole. Earlier this year, approximately 1 percent of visits to the New York Times included FiveThirtyEight. Last week, that number was 13 percent. Yesterday, it was 20 percent. That is, one in five visitors to the sixth-most-trafficked U.S. news site took a look at Silver’s blog.
According to Alexa, a Web information company, “538” is the eighth-most searched-for term that led visitors to the Times last month. And over the previous month, it grew more than any other referral term; other increasingly relevant terms were “nate silver” and “538.com.” Notably, no other Times staffers or brands appear on Alexa's lists of top referral terms or rising referral terms.
This might be what Times public editor Margaret Sullivan had in mind last week when she called Silver “probably (and please know that I use the p-word loosely) its most high-profile writer at this particular moment.” If Silver’s status as a contractor is a “mitigating factor” when it comes time to enforce ethics rules, such as the discouragement of betting on political outcomes, then the Times might be better off with Silver as a full-time staffer. In the public eye, he is a Timesman already—in fact, at this moment, it would appear he is the Timesman.