Until six months ago, Nate Silver had never worked in a newsroom. Now he’s at The New York Times, building his brand, strengthening his writing skills and developing new audiences for his FiveThirtyEight blog.
This week marks the six-month anniversary since FiveThirtyEight — a blog devoted to the analysis of data and statistics in politics and other topics — first appeared on the nytimes.com as part of a three-year-long partnership. Silver has faced some unexpected challenges — namely learning to adjust to the Times’ standards even when he doesn’t agree with them.
Separating news from opinion
One of the biggest adjustments has been getting used to the distinction the Times makes between its news and opinion content. The distinction caused Silver, whose blog falls in the news category, to modify his writing style so it is less opinionated but still has a voice.
“I used to be able to refer to some politician as being overrated or poor. At The New York Times you have to be more careful about that type of thing; parenthetical remarks can get you in trouble,” Silver told me in a phone interview.
“I think it took me some time to figure out how you can write with a fair amount of voice and not make your prose too formulaic or dry, but at the same time abide by the Times’ rules and standards.”
He’s still getting used to some of them, such as the Times’ use of courtesy titles. Mr. and Mrs. look nice, Silver said, but they seem arcane.
Having an editor to bounce ideas off of has helped Silver adjust to the Times’ standards and has ultimately strengthened his writing.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world to have someone make sure you’re not posting something really stupid,” said Silver, who’s been described as a “number crunching prodigy” and a “statistical wizard.” “Probably every blogger has had posts that they would have taken back, so it’s good to have that filter.”
Silver tries not to censor himself too much, and said if he wants to use language that’s bold, he relies on his editors to tell him whether or not it works.
Building a new audience & filling a niche for the Times
Jim Roberts, assistant managing editor of the Times, said by phone that Silver has attracted new, and perhaps even younger, audiences to nytimes.com. He noted that in the two months leading up to the midterms, FiveThirtyEight was either the most popular or second most popular blog on nytimes.com, next to The Caucus.
“I’d like to think that our audience appreciates it, not just because Nate is an interesting individual, but because it really does round out our coverage,” said Roberts, who has edited some of Silver’s posts.
“We have a lot of really good political reporters who are able to capture the essence of the news, analyze it and follow trends, but we really felt that there was a niche that Nate could fill in helping to evaluate the exploding world of polling and really give people a sensible understanding of what polls mean and how to judge them.”
So far, Silver done a good job of filling that niche. “I think the blog is doing exactly what we wanted it to do,” Roberts said. “I can’t say enough good things about it.”
Silver is also bringing his expertise to other Times blogs — something that Roberts and others at the Times hoped would happen. Recently, he wrote a Carpetbagger piece about which movie could win Best Picture at the Oscars and an Arts Beat piece about whether “Dancing with the Stars” needs electoral reform.
Prior to the partnership — which is structured as a license with a term of three years — Silver occasionally wrote posts unrelated to politics. Now he’s doing more and has found that readers respond well to them. Silver’s recent piece about The Huffington Post, for instance, was one of his most-read posts.
“The folks at the Times very much encourage me to do stuff that’s not just politics. If there’s not a story to cover in elections or polling, then maybe instead of writing about whatever the political controversy of the day is, I’ll write about sports,” said Silver, who used to specialize in baseball statistics.
“It’s almost like you have two blogs in one — a strictly focused blog on the election and forecasts and a more general blog about statistics and data. In some ways, I enjoy this part of the cycle more when I can write about different kinds of topics.”
Writing about topics other than politics is one way for Silver to attract new readers. FiveThirtyEight’s audience has grown by more than 40 percent since the blog switched to nytimes.com, he said.
Though Silver wouldn’t share the blog’s current page views, he said that before the switch, FiveThirtyEight got an average of 100,000 page views per day. During an election cycle, page views would increase significantly. On Election Day 2008 — the year Silver started FiveThirtyEight — the blog had about 4 million unique visitors.
Silver hasn’t heard many complaints from readers since the switch, but said some expressed frustration over not being able to comment on posts the way they used to.
“There was no real moderation before,” Silver said. “Some people were upset to move to an environment where comments are not posted immediately and where they are moderated, and where things that are inflammatory might not get posted at all.”
Writing with fewer FiveThirtyEight contributors
Before his partnership with the Times, Silver had five contributors who wrote about half the posts on the site. Now none of those contributors write regularly for the blog, meaning Silver writes about 85 percent of the posts with occasional guest contributions. The Times, Silver said, wasn’t comfortable allowing some of the contributors to continue writing because of their tone or political affiliations.
“That is one of the challenges — getting people that meet the Times’ standards of what it means to be a journalist. You can’t have too many conflicts of interest and you really have to write in a way that comes across as being not overly opinionated,” Silver said. “I disagree with some of the decisions the Times made as far as what they considered disqualifying, but the fact is they do have a standard which is both high and in some ways kind of quirky.”
Roberts explained that the Times decided contributor Ed Kilgore would stop writing for FiveThirtyEight because his work would have violated the Times’ ethics policy. Kilgore is also managing editor of The Democratic Strategist – “a partisan connection that was a bit too close for comfort,” Roberts said.
Two of the contributors who used to write regularly for FiveThirtyEight — Renard Sexton who covered international politics and Hale Stewart who covered economics — have both written some pieces for the blog since the switch. But they’re doing so less frequently, Silver said, because the Times already has reporters who write about the same topics.
“One of the things that I have to think about now that I didn’t have to think about before is how FiveThirtyEight’s coverage relates to everything else The New York Times is doing,” said Silver, who hopes to add other contributors to balance out the workload and give him time to work on longer-term projects.
“On the one hand, that can create opportunities to write about subjects that I might have skipped before. … But in other circumstances, there can be issues with duplication or redundancy.”
Though Silver is writing more with fewer people, he no longer has to be a one-stop shop. ”I feel like I ought to weigh in on major events,” Silver said, “but if something doesn’t cater to my strengths in politics, that’s fine because there’s probably already a great post about it in The Caucus.”
And he no longer has to worry about pixelated graphics. Previously, Silver would cut and paste data and graphics from Microsoft Excel, upload them to Flickr and then post them on his blog. Now, Silver sits next to the graphics folks at the Times and works with them to improve the blog’s overall appearance.
“That was a real incentive for me to go there — enhancing the way the data would be presented and the chance to work with people on that team” said Silver, who is working on a book about forecasting that’s due out in 2012.
So if it were time for Silver to renew his partnership agreement, would he? Silver said he has a lot of ambitions and isn’t sure how the Times fits into them.
“I’m quite happy at the Times on balance, and they’ve lived up to my expectations. But I’m smart enough to know that it would be foolish to render a ‘prediction’ about what I’ll want to do after 2012,” said Silver, noting that he may want to pursue something entrepreneurial instead of writing.
“Even if I moved somewhat away from the direction of politics, it still might involve The New York Times in some way.”