Nate Silver has taken a lot of abuse since the relaunch of FiveThirtyEight. He’s been criticized professionally and personally. Data journalism, as a field, has taken a beating. Many of these critiques are right and Silver has done nothing to help his cause, but the almost-gleeful manner that journalists have piled on him hurts the industry itself.
Silver has taken a big chance with his new project and it might very well fail. But the willingness to try innovative forms of journalism in the hope of better informing the public and expanding readership is something that all journalists should support.
Over the past decade, the news industry has gone through rapid changes as it adjusts to the digital world. For readers, there is more quality content available than ever before. For journalists, there is no longer a constraint on space. But in many ways, journalism has yet to go through a sweeping transformation. Newspapers continue to produce content in the same form as they did in the pre-internet world. None has tried to revolutionize the way they deliver the news to fit the digital age. That’s not surprising. Newspapers have long depended on ads to survive. Redefining how they deliver the news could certainly make advertisers a little more hesitant to purchase ads. Status quo bias is a powerful inhibitor to change as well.
That’s why we—journalists—need the Nate Silvers of the world. We need Ezra Klein, Jim Tankersley, David Leonhardt and Glenn Greenwald. Regardless of their political views, each is trying to make journalism better. Some, like Klein and Greenwald, are trying to do so in ways that are more radical. They are trying to recreate how we deliver the news. Others, like Tankersley and Leonhardt, are working within legacy institutions, the New York Times and Washington Post respectively, to put star-studded teams together that can produce high-quality pieces fit for both print and the web.
I have faith that many, if not all, of these projects will succeed. I believe the appetite for quality journalism in the online world is much larger than what we see right now. I may be wrong. But we won’t know unless we try. FiveThirtyEight has plenty of problems. It also has a young staff and has been live less than two weeks. It will improve and we will see whether data journalism can cover the news as well as Silver imagines.
This doesn’t mean these enterprises deserve a free pass. Thoughtful critiques are necessary for them to improve. Many have offered such critiques in the past two weeks and Silver would be smart to read them carefully. Collectively, though, the criticisms have felt like many are out to get Silver. At times, reaction to FiveThirtyEight’s sub-par launch has bordered on gleefulness, as if reporters are almost rooting for Silver to fail. That has potential implications on other new projects as well.
For instance, look at Klein’s new site, Vox, which seeks to “explain the news.” It’s an ambitious undertaking and one that could radically change the news industry if it succeeds. Vox deserves that chance as well, but the initial reaction to FiveThirtyEight must keep Klein up at night. Trying to change how the media delivers the news is scary on its own. Doing so after so many journalists, many of them previous supporters of Silver, have criticized FiveThirtyEight must be terrifying.
If that causes Klein or others to rethink their plans, or deters other journalists from trying their own ideas, we are all worse off for it. Silver relaunched FiveThirtyEight with sky-high expectations and it hasn't lived up to them. But for the good of the industry, it deserves a chance to try.