New York Times wants to hold Nate Silver to newsroom standards

The New York Times | Talking Points Memo | Poynter

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan spanked Times blogger Nate Silver in a blog post Thursday evening for betting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that President Obama would win next week's election. The bet "is a bad idea – giving ammunition to the critics who want to paint Mr. Silver as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome," Sullivan writes.

It’s also inappropriate for a Times journalist, which is how Mr. Silver is seen by the public even though he’s not a regular staff member.

“I wouldn’t want to see it become newsroom practice,” said the associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett. He described Mr. Silver’s status as a blogger — something like a columnist — as a mitigating factor.

I didn't do quantitative analysis on the comments below Sullivan's post, but they seem to trend pro-Silver. One calls the headline -- written in the preposition-first Times style that was lampooned by Twitter users Thursday -- "particularly unfortunate."

General reaction on Twitter seemed to favor Silver:

What Sullivan calls Silver's "free agent" status, Josh Marshall writes, is instead a reflection of a media environment she and the Times don't necessarily understand: The blogger who doesn't much need the organization providing his Web hosting.

Like a number of media personalities/experts (and I mean that in a positive sense), Silver is not really reliant on the Times at all. He’s his own brand. In the political realm he built it in the 2008 cycle (he obviously had a baseball sabermetrics rep before that). I don’t think there’s any question the Times gained considerably more than he did in the bargain. That’s why I suspect they’re paying him quite a lot of money and he was able to negotiate a deal in which the entire 538 franchise is still his. He’s just leasing it to them.

Sullivan wrote Silver had gained "a lot more visibility" when he took his blog to the Times. Silver talked about the transition in February 2011 with Poynter's Mallary Tenore, outlining the adjustments he'd had to make to Times standards regarding opinion in his writing and hiring contributors. He described The Times' graphics department as a "real incentive" and said he was "quite happy at the Times on balance." He also said he may leave the paper after the election, "noting that he may want to pursue something entrepreneurial instead of writing," Tenore wrote. More recently, Silver sounded weary about politics as a business, telling Jon Stewart "a lot of news is really entertainment masquerading as news" and Jason Zengerle in New York magazine, "Before I did politics I did sports, and there weren’t nearly so many assholes in sports coverage."

A feud between Silver and Politico's Dylan Byers has turned quite caustic, with Silver throwing elbows at Byers' employer on Twitter, and Byers returning the favor. But those tweets haven't made Sullivan's column yet.

And it is an interesting question how such star journalists should behave while their boats are tied up at big news orgs' docks. As Alexandra Samuel wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, "clear expectations and guidelines are essential" when companies take on with what Samuel calls "co-branded employees."

Sullivan also recently took freelancer Andrew Goldman to task for a Twitter freakout, reminding him he was "highly replaceable." But Goldman — currently suspended — does Q&As, not brute-strength number-crunching, for the Times.

If Silver wants to keep doing FiveThirtyEight, or something like it, his franchise is probably much more valuable to other news organizations. His situation is similar to a musician who's sold hundreds of thousands of records without the intervention of a major record company. Could another news organization offer him anything that he couldn't do for himself at this point, with less agitation?

Some good explainers about how Silver works have been published in the past few days. Here are some I've found very helpful: "Why political journalists can’t stand Nate Silver: The limits of journalistic knowledge" (Mark Coddington) | "Probability, Fantasy Baseball, and FiveThirtyEight" (Chicago Magazine) | "Is Nate Silver’s value at risk?" (Daily Caller) | "Nate Silver’s Braying Idiot Detractors Show That Being Ignorant About Politics Is Like Being Ignorant About Sports" (Deadspin) | "To ‘Predict’ Nate Silver’s Future, Look to the More Enlightened Sports World" (The New Republic)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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