The New York Times is losing political stats star Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog to the Walt Disney Co. — primarily its ESPN franchises — after his current contract ends in August. The consensus is that this is a big blow to the Times, which was aggressively trying to retain him in a secret, top-level, months-long bidding war with several major media organizations.
The switch to ESPN is a coming-home of sorts for the 35-year-old Silver, who started his career as a sabermetician, or statistical baseball prognosticator, at Baseball Prospectus. But ESPN largely won because the Disney family offers Silver opportunities to "expand the franchise he had built around FiveThirtyEight" in ways The New York Times never could, says Mike Allen at Politico.
Silver had told The Times that he wanted to expand to weather, economics, and anyplace else at The Times that had statistics and numbers he could bring to life.... As recently as last month, some executives at The Times were confident Silver would stay, mainly because they had given him everything he had asked for. Silver is very interested in prestige, and the prestige of The Times was a huge deal to him....
ESPN has deep pockets, and the rich, multi-platform offer to Silver, funded mostly by ESPN, is a drop in the bucket.... Nate will appear on the air on ESPN and ABC, and will get "verticals," or web hubs, devoted to a variety of new topics. He's very interested in education, so there's been a lot of conversation about that. And, of course, weather and economics. His Oscars predictions did well for The Times, and now he'll work for the TV home of the Oscars. [Politico]
So Silver gets more time on TV, a return to his first love — sports — plus the ability to pursue other interests for his statistical modeling. And he probably gets a fat raise, too. ("When it came to money, Silver was aggressive but not greedy," says Politico's Allen, citing people familiar with the negotiations.) Meanwhile, ESPN/ABC News gets a rising star with an incredible record of predicting elections and baseball careers.
While Silver was remarkably accurate in his forecasts for the 2008 and 2012 elections, however, he isn't equally beloved across the political spectrum. In 2012 especially, Silver's steady prediction that Obama was the overwhelming favorite to win, with odds consistently above 80 percent, "drove conservatives to distraction," says Rem Rieder at USA Today. "They couldn't understand how Silver could be so sure of the outcome when they saw a highly competitive horse race."
By the same token, his FiveThirtyEight blog was a place for panicked liberals to go when the political "narrative" started shifting against Obama and the Democrats. And they turned to him a lot — in the heat of the 2012 election, a fifth of visitors to the Times website stopped by FiveThirtyEight, and in the week before Election Day, 71 percent of the site's political traffic included visits to Silver's blog, says The New Republic's Marc Tracy.
If he is busy talking about baseball, the Oscars, poker, the weather, economics, and other interests, what will nervous liberals do in 2016?
The short answer is: Watch ABC News or go to FiveThirtyEight.com, which will reportedly stay a semi-autonomous blog like ESPN's Grantland. Brian Stelter at The New York Times also predicts that Silver "will most likely be a regular contributor to Olbermann, the late-night ESPN2 talk show hosted by Keith Olbermann," the ESPN star turned MSNBC liberal pundit — though it should be noted that Olbermann's contract reportedly has a no-politics clause.
There is every reason to believe that Silver will continue with his special brand of polling aggregation and analysis when the 2014 midterm elections start approaching. That's a big part of what Disney is paying him for, and it's a role he evidently enjoys playing. But while that's great news for political junkies, it's not necessarily great news for liberals.
Silver's whole rationale for FiveThirtyEight, and the reason it is such a must-read near election time, is that he seeks to accurately forecast how elections will turn out. And like other political prognosticators, Silver will be judged by his results, not what he may hope happens. Annoyed conservatives and admiring liberals remember Silver for his 2008 and 2012 coverage, but both camps would be well-served to remember 2010: FiveThirtyEight pretty accurately predicted the Democrats' drubbing.