ORACLES JULY 22, 2013
A couple hours ago, The Onion filed a gem: “Nate Silver Warns Against Overestimating His Value to ESPN.” The (fake) Silver of this article said, “The approximations of my future drawing power in fact resemble more of a random walk—in layman’s terms, a random model that cannot accurately predict future outcomes.”
But real-life Nate Silver told me much the same thing: “Sometimes people overrate too much the thing that FiveThirtyEight got 50 out of 50 right,” he said, alluding to the 2012 presidential race. “The fact that it sends positive attention our way is not something I’m complaining about, but it does say something about the bias people have.” He added, “We know we’re going to get one of these bigger elections wrong sooner or later. I guarantee you we’re going to screw something up. We’ve gotten too much credit now, we’ll get too much blame then.” The lesson he is taking from that? “You have to diversify your assets a little bit.”
And that, I learned Monday in an ESPN-hosted conference call with President John Skipper and Silver, the New York Times blogger whose FiveThirtyEight blog will soon be owned by ESPN, and in a subsequent 15-minute call with Silver, is what Silver is doing: Diversifying. Silver’s new ESPN site is going to go beyond sports and politics, into fields that could include, he said, “business and economics, weather, health, education, culture.” It will be unified, Silver said, by a “horizontal approach in how we do journalism,” which is a Nate Silver way of saying that these different topics will be filtered through a common sensibility—his own empirically minded, number-crunching, probabilistic sensibility. In other words, it will be like a magazine. In yet other words, it will be like Grantland, the online ESPN magazine built around and run by Bill Simmons.
Maybe the biggest “news” takeaway from the calls is that ESPN bought the FiveThirtyEight domain and url—unlike the Times, which licensed it. Silver and Skipper wouldn’t comment on how much Silver was being paid, nor the length of their deal (“longterm,” Skipper said—and if you want to read tea leaves, ESPN’s press release specifically mentions the 2014 and 2016 elections). Silver parried questions regarding New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s report, in which she wrote, “I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that,” and, “A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” Said Silver: “I had plenty of support I felt from Jill [Abramson, the executive editor] and other people. I don't want to dwell too much. I love the people at ESPN, but this culture stuff in the Times newsroom was not a big factor.”1
Another bit of “news” is that, according to Skipper and Silver and contra reports in both the Times and Politico, no specific decisions have been made regarding what television shows Silver will or won’t appear on. Maybe he will appear on Keith Olbermann’s forthcoming show, Skipper said, but that has not been determined. Ditto the Oscars. (Stay away! Silver did affirm later in the call that he continues to be interested in doing Oscars stuff.) They did confirm that he will do politics stuff for ABC in election years, but insisted that more specific parameters for that are to be determined.
Silver acknowledged that he had had several suitors, but wouldn’t divulge names (though he did laugh off a great question about whether Politico was one of them—the implication was that it wasn’t, but it was definitely a non-denial denial). Not all offers, he said, were to buy the site as opposed to license it. He told me that his conversations with ESPN on this track began in earnest several months ago.
The calls were most useful for drawing out the shape and ambitions of Silver’s future site, whose model, as he and Skipper said many times, is Bill Simmons’ Grantland. “That Grantland precedent was as close as anything in media,” Silver said. It, too, will be editorially independent, and it will be similarly staffed, at least once FiveThirtyEight is fully staffed up post-relaunch (Skipper pegged Grantland’s staff in “the low dozens”). It was clearly very important to Silver that he did not have to guess whether ESPN could build a Grantland-like site around him—that, instead, ESPN (and ESPN acting under the influence of Skipper) is what built Grantland.
Which is not to suggest this is foolproof. Although far from the lowest-common-denominator schtick of ESPN2’s worse abominations, Simmons’s sensibility—a combination of fratty and literary—strikes me as far more amenable to what ESPN is going for than Silver’s does. Grantland hews pretty closely to sports and pop culture, both of which, I would think, appeal to ESPN’s core demographic—young men interested in sports—more than weather and politics do. Simmons contributed regularly to (and then was on staff at) ESPN for a decade before Grantland launched, which is a big difference from Silver’s being brought onboard at the same moment that his own Grantland starts.
“Our goal is to make Silver comfortable that this is his long-term home so that he doesn’t have to do this every four years,” Skipper said at one point, as Silver laughed heartily. That was another thing. Skipper’s charm—his literary affectations, his personability—is a prominent feature of every profile (seriously, just look at the photograph accompanying this one), and is used by ESPN to burnish its image. Silver has pretty clearly been charmed: For example, he positively kvelled that when he had dinner with Skipper, the ESPN president had clearly read his book and grilled him about it.
“I think it's going to have an influence on the world,” Silver said of the new site. As I wrote earlier today, Silver’s grander ambitions to improve the way people think about the future is plain to see if you read his book, The Signal and the Noise, and he confirmed to me that he sees this new incarnation of his site as part of that project. I asked him if he felt he could do that at the same media company that routinely panders to lower denominators on some of its TV talkfests. “They're making a big investment in FiveThirtyEight, and I'm making a big investment in them,” he replied, continuing: “At any major media company, there are things aimed at a higher-brow audience, and a middlebrow audience.” He added, “I like the idea that ESPN wants to be the smart network as opposed to maybe some soon-to-be-competitors.” If he is already taking potshots at Fox Sports 1, then it is safe to say that Silver has gone Bristol. Which is a little bit worrying! “But I trust them to keep a high-quality suite of things at FiveThirtyEight,” he concluded. Time will tell.
Speaking of influencing the world, Silver’s hiring is an undeniable milestone in one way: He will certainly be ESPN’s highest-profile openly gay personality. (An ESPN spokesperson did mention writer LZ Granderson as another prominent openly gay ESPN personality when I asked about this.) “In the conversations with ESPN, it never came up,” Silver said. “Maybe a passing reference: ‘My partner works at Columbia,’” he added, or something of that sort. “When I was last in sports,” he continued, “I was more private with my sexuality, and I felt like it was more of an issue in 2004, 2005. It’s a lot different now in 2013 when you have leagues with out athletes.”
In a wise post this weekend, Dan Shanoff argued that, well, we shouldn’t overestimate ESPN’s value to Nate Silver. “The most talented (and even less-talented) individual media ‘names’ have jumped around for better opportunities since the beginning of media,” Shanoff noted. And: “Silver is a ‘99th percentile’ talent in media. It’s like when people cite Andrew Sullivan as a replicable model, as if any journalist can/will do what he did. Same thing goes for [Sports Illustrated]’s Peter King and his new MMQB site, launching on Monday—there are probably less than a handful of sportswriters who can carry a full-blown site spin-off.”
These are all good points. However, there is a flip-side, which is that the trend-lines right now are precisely toward those “99th percentile” talents—Simmons, Silver, King, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Ezra Klein (Silver also cited Wonkblog as a precedent)—building out their own brands and larger, legacy media companies—ESPN, SI, the Times, the Washington Post—absorbing them. Gatekeepers are not so much breaking down as giving new folks—and new kinds of folks—keys to their gates.