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What Nate Silver’s Move Means for the ‘Times’ and ESPN

In maybe the juiciest free agent signing since LeBron James bolted for Miami three years ago, it looks like Nate Silver, the political forecaster behind the FiveThirtyEight blog, is departing the New York Times after serving out his initial, three-year contract, and going to ESPN. According to (who else?) the Times, Silver will, presumably among other things, appear frequently on Keith Olbermann’s forthcoming, New York-based late-night show on ESPN2, and also do some politics work for ESPN’s corporate sibling ABC News. He had reportedly been in negotiations with the Times to sign a new contract.

Silver, who a decade ago was working at Baseball Prospectus analyzing the sport with advanced statistics, started blogging about politics at Daily Kos and then his own blog during the 2008 primaries and election. He became popular for forecasting elections, most prominently the presidential election as it plays out in the electoral college (hence “FiveThirtyEight,” for the 538 electoral votes), by averaging polls and weighting them to adjust for the ways in which they had been inaccurate in the past—a method not dissimilar from the one he used to devise a well-regarded algorithm for forecasting the future performances of baseball players. He moved his franchise to the Times in the summer of 2010. Particularly last November, he became a lightning rod for this more empirical way of following elections, as contrasted with the “narrative”-heavy approach of many pundits. He did not reply to a request for comment Saturday.

ESPN has been trying to land Silver for at least five years. Gary Belsky, a onetime editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine now a content consultant and contributor to Time, told me Saturday that that original effort had been spearheaded by Gary Hoenig, then the general manager of ESPN Publishing, and that the original plan had been for Silver to write for the magazine and ESPN Insider, a collection of paywall-protected premium content on the web. (Hoenig was reportedly laid off along with hundreds of other ESPN employees last month.) According Times TV beat writer Brian Stelter, NBC and MSNBC were among Silver’s other suitors this time around.

“His departure,” reported Stelter (who received a reporting assist from James Andrew Miller, a frequent Times contributor on ESPN news who also co-wrote the ESPN oral history Those Guys Have All The Fun), “will most likely be interpreted as a blow to the company, which has promoted Mr. Silver and his brand of poll-based projections.” And it will similarly be interpreted as a boon for ESPN, which is worth an estimated $40 billion and is by far the most important media company in the world of sports; it is arguably the most imporant asset that its parent company owns—and its parent company is Disney.

The specifics of the new deal are unclear, and neither the Times nor ESPN (or Disney) has confirmed it.

Silver was the Times news section’s most recognizable politics writer. As I reported last November, in the run-up to Election Day, one-fifth of visits to included stops at Silver’s 538 blog. In many cases, visitors arrived at the site by searching for him. “He has been a journalist of great value to the Times in this election,” executive editor Jill Abramson told me at the time. “What’s interesting is a lot of the traffic is coming just for Nate.” (Abramson declined to comment Saturday.)

So of course it is a “blow.” But it is at least worth noting that what Silver did was never the Times’ core competency when it comes to politics. And the sort of thing that Silver grew famous for condemning, in which cable-news prognosticators discuss “narratives” while disregarding the polls that sit right in front of them, is also not a good description of what Times politics coverage does best. David Leonhardt, the Times’ D.C. bureau chief—who used to write a column about sports statistics—parsed the distinction well when I spoke to him last November. “Nate is a threat to the worst forms of punditry: To The McLaughlin Group, to people who think the contours of the presidential race change qualitatively every six hours,” he said. “He's not a threat to good, traditional political journalism, because he doesn't do what strong political journalism does: Investigative reporting about campaign finance, the strategies the campaigns follow, the people who are running and how they learn to give speeches and practice for debates. And all those things matter.”

It is not that Silver does not understand politics: In fact, as Matthew Yglesias and others have noted, his analysis relies not just on facility with numbers but also on a keen understanding of politics. Still, when Silver told (foreshadowing alert!) ESPN’s Bill Simmons last November that Politico and its ilk are “trying to cover [politics] like it’s sports, but not in an intelligent way at all,” he elided the fact that, in focusing on forecasting outcomes, he himself covers politics like it’s sports, just in a very intelligent way.

Stelter noted that there were rumors of rifts between Silver and the Times: “He occasionally hinted in interviews and public appearances that his relationship with The Times had moments of tension.” I heard a little about that myself. As I just mentioned, he covered politics in a demonstrably different way than most of the Times. Despite being on the news side, in algorithms and aggregations he utilized pollsters that other Times reporters were not allowed to cite (Democratic-leaning PPP is an example). Silver’s status as an independent brand who actually kept his brand upon joining the Times (unlike, say, Stelter, who was hired on the basis of a blog, or many others) made him stand out. Last November, Abramson downplayed reports of conflicts, telling me, “There are always tensions in a large newsroom, especially one as competitive as ours.”

I strongly suspect that tensions such as these had little to do with Silver’s departure. Although his style—among other things, he challenged MSNBC host Joe Scarborough to a $2,000 bet on the outcome of the presidential election after Scarborough questioned Silver’s methods, earning Silver a rebuke from Times public editor Margaret Sullivan—had the potential to rub people the wrong way, anyone with half a brain would have recognized his value to the Times, and that was before his forecasts were, yet again, shown to be pretty on the money when he “got” every single state right in the electoral college. Most importantly, Abramson, the boss, was a fan.

Which isn’t to say the Times is faultless. This wasn’t unpredictable: Silver’s contract had a clearly marked expiration date. The Times could have taken a page from the sports world, where small-market franchises in leagues without salary caps sign young stars to long-term contracts, in which the player sacrifices the potential to get an extremely rich second contract with one of the teams from New York or Los Angeles in exchange for the stability of guaranteed paydays (the Tampa Bay Rays’ Evan Longoria’s contract extension is a good example). 18 months ago, before Silver was vindicated again in the November 2012 elections, could the Times could have struck a similar deal with Silver and avoided his being poached by the Yankees in Bristol?

And there may have been other things around the margins that the Times could have done. For example, assistant managing editor Jim Roberts was an important patron of Silver’s; in February, he took a buyout, and his leaving cannot have helped, and it is possible it hurt. It is now up to the Times to demonstrate—as both Abramson and Leonhardt insisted to me last November—that this kind of politics coverage is also valued there.

Moreover, the resources and opportunities the Times can offer Silver are probably dwarfed by those that ESPN/ABC/Disney can. (The Times report implies that the deal is primarily with ESPN, but nobody has officially announced anything as of Saturday afternoon.) This isn’t just about money—although since ESPN pays mediocrities Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith well more than $1 million each year combined, it is not difficult to imagine Silver netting seven figures for himself. But consider the possibilities in terms of resources, branding, and things to cover. ESPN has built a magazine around personality Bill Simmons and is building a late-night show around personality Keith Olbermann. Its stars toggle relatively seamlessly from Web-writing to print writing to television to podcasts to radio. Maybe he would prefer to talk more about baseball and other sports? His book, The Signal and the Noise, spent extremely little time on politics. Silver is a noted poker buff; guess which network airs the World Series of Poker? And so on.

Meanwhile: ESPN ate its Wheaties this week. Olbermann and Silver are not like Bayless and Smith—populist demagogues whose continued employment makes a certain kind of business sense even if they leave a sour taste in the mouths of all thinking fans and executives (for which reason, I would argue that they represent stupid long-term investments). Nor are they like some of Grantland’s and ESPN The Magazine’s best writers and editors, who are simply, y’know, talented employees, whose names are unknown to all but the most jonesing of sports-media junkies. Olbermann and Silver are best-of-both-world situations: Big-name journalists who are likely to bring in good ratings and pageviews, earn plaudits from highbrow validators, and produce great stuff on a variety of platforms.

There are unanswered questions. In public and TV appearances, Silver frequently comes off as awkward and less-than-telegenic (in other words, like a writer). There is training that can help that, but still. It is also not entirely clear how well sabermetrics translates to the small screen: ESPN’s attempt to create a show around the subject, “Numbers Never Lie,” hasn’t worked. Although I am massively pro-Olbermann, he has undeniably alienated co-workers and staff at four different networks, including ESPN; that show could blow up and nobody would be surprised.

Additionally, the optics of ESPN laying off a few hundred employees last month only to hire and presumably shill out big bucks to two rock stars are crappy. But, as the man said, this is the business we’ve chosen.

It is hard to believe ESPN’s moves were not provoked somewhat by the impending threat of Fox Sports 1, the first serious contender the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” has faced in quite some time. An excellent Businessweek story this week revealed that the upstart network, which launches next month, aims to compete with ESPN by selling what it called “jockularity”: “The plan is for FS1 to be the funny, irreverent, less serious sports channel,” Karl Taro Greenfeld reported. Focus groups, he added, apparently showed that “fans were growing tired of ESPN’s stat-happy approach and wanted a funnier, more irreverent take.” Olbermann and Silver are serious; at best mildly irreverent; and stat-very-happy. Their hires are a sign that ESPN considers both sports and the challenge presented by Fox Sports 1 to be no laughing matters.

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