What Nate Silver's success says about the 4th and 5th estates

Many are declaring the 2012 presidential election a victory for Nate Silver and his FiveThirtyEight blog. His success this political season -- in both predicting the electoral college vote and in driving traffic to the New York Times -- is a validation for the independent Fifth Estate, as well as the reassertion of journalism as a discipline of verification.

It might seem a bit heretical to link those two ideas -- the rise of independent voices and the rebirth of verification -- in the same sentence. After all, the spread of unfettered opinion seemed to coincide with an escalation in the amount of suspect information populating the marketplace of ideas. But they are, in fact, related.

Silver’s rise fits neatly with the other big trend of this election: fact checking. In both instances, journalism drove a stake in the ground for what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call the journalism of verification, in their book, "The Elements of Journalism." While Silver used an algorithm to analyze lots of statistical models, weighting those with historical accuracy, to come up with his assertions, the fact checkers used old-fashioned research.

Both solved a problem created by the changing media ecosystem.

Silver first trained his mathematical prowess on baseball, creating a predictive algorithm to assess performance and later sold that to Baseball Prospectus, a statistics-based website with an annual book geared toward fantasy players and gamblers. From my observations, it looks like the sports journalism world is approximately three years ahead of the rest of journalism in many trends, including the ability to create a universe of talking heads to pontificate ad nauseum and in using statistics to drive the narrative. So it made sense that Silver would take what he learned in sports journalism and bring it to political journalism.

Silver is a true Fifth Estate success story. He started his political blogging career as an anonymous voice on the Daily Kos. But in 2008, he created FiveThirtyEight. He garnered a lot of media attention during the Democratic primary, when polls were wildly inconsistent and pundits seemed to be favoring Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

The Times signed Silver to a three-year contract in 2010, transforming him from an outsider to an insider. But his blog was well established as a legitimate source – for many people the legitimate source – of reconciling and interpreting conflicting polling data, long before his association with the grey lady.

Silver hardly needed The New York Times. Other organizations were actively courting him. Penguin gave him a $700,000 advance for his book, which came out this year. It was clear he was going places.

Back in 2008, both Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and PolitiFact (operated by Poynter's Tampa Bay Times) with its pants-on-fire icon, seemed kind of gimmicky.

Both were a reaction to the cacophony that had become political discourse. Both were dismissed as liberally biased by conservatives. And both have weathered the criticism, mostly by being right but also by being popular with the audience.

FiveThirtyEight’s genius was to slay the pundits, who make predictions based on theories or notions, and suggest that those predictions have the same weight as statistical analysis.

PolitiFact’s genius was to slow down the political churn enough to point out the truths, half-truths and lies. And to do it in way that can be quickly digested and easily shared.

That brings us to the Huffington Post, which last presidential election was a three-year-old scrappy disrupter, with bloggers like Mayhill Fowler breaking stories like Obama’s “clinging to their guns and religion” statement.

Certainly the Huffington Post is no PolitiFact or FiveThirtyEight. If anything, HuffPo is contributing to the noise that Silver and the fact-checkers are trying to cut through. But HuffPo rivals its traditional media competitors in both influence and audience.

In fact, the popularity of FiveThirtyEight, PolitiFact and HuffPo reflect two desires among the audience, that might seem mutually exclusive, but in fact are co-existing quite well.

First, people want to cut through the partisan posturing. They want political analysis rooted not in political desire, but in knowable facts. PolitiFact provides that. But traffic to Huffington Post suggests some people also want information through an ideological lens -- they just want it delivered by a brand that is transparent about its ideology. HuffPo does that. And Silver does both. He’s honest about his personal views (a registered Democrat), and when he offers his predictions, he does so based on math, not ideology.

What happens four years from now? We’re in for a new cycle of upstarts who will mature to powerhouses. Silver may move on from the Times, or maybe he will work a deal where the Times continues to benefit from his algorithm, but he isn’t personally as involved. PolitiFact and the other fact-checkers will continue to refine their craft, starting with the rhetoric around the pending fiscal cliff.

And Huffington Post will certainly continue to thrive. One of Silver’s more interesting posts was an analysis of HuffPo’s business model after it was acquired by AOL.

In that post, Silver addresses aspiring bloggers who want to become the next big thing.

“Look beyond a site’s traffic numbers and consider how it presents your material and how prominently it is featured, as well as the sort of audience it is likely to attract,” he wrote. “Being a small fish in a very, very big pond isn’t always the way to build up a name for yourself.”

Where will the next Nate Silver come from? She’s probably already out there, churning out something unique, solving a problem we can’t yet articulate.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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