Silver shoots to make numbers-based journalism sexy with FiveThirtyEight launch

Nate Silver, the statistical whiz and former New York Times blogger behind FiveThirtyEight, this week unveiled his hotly anticipated data journalism venture of the same name, promising to make "news a little nerdier."

Nate Silver, the statistical whiz and former New York Times blogger behind FiveThirtyEight, this week unveiled his hotly anticipated data journalism venture of the same name, promising to make "news a little nerdier."

Silver and his Times blog rose to fame during the 2012 presidential election when he accurately forecasted the Electoral College results of all 50 states.

The ESPN-backed FiveThirtyEight, which launched on Monday to coincide with the NCAA Tournament, will cover a wider range of subjects than just politics and sports, with articles on economics, science, and lifestyle, Silver explained in a lengthy introductory article.

Predictions will not be FiveThirtyEight’s main focus, but rather one of the many tools in its arsenal. The website will take a "quantitative" approach to journalism, using plenty of numbers, though Silver acknowledged in the article that the line between qualitative and quantitative journalism is blurring.

A prominent feature of the site is its fox logo. Its impetus is a quote from the Greek poet Archilochus: "The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many little things."

FiveThirtyEight’s target audience will be consumers who are interested in data journalism. Silver wrote that its challenge will be "figuring out how to make data journalism vivid and accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing rigor and accuracy."

The site will not compete to break news or comment, noting that data journalism and its method take time.

Technology journalist Gregory Ferenstein wrote on TechCrunch that Silver’s experiment is not a test of whether data journalism can work, but rather "a test of how nerdy the Internet’s news audience is."

"If Silver succeeds, it will be because the news industry underestimated just how much data-driven analysis the public wants," he wrote.

FiveThirtyEight faces competition in its quest to attract this audience, not only from media outlets such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, but also startups, wrote James Ball, special projects editor for the Guardian US.

"FiveThirtyEight is a data journalism website done well: it’s not reinventing the trade, but it’s markedly ahead of almost everyone else on quality, has a clean design, and a strong team," he wrote. "The site’s future will depend on whether that’s distinctive enough a proposition, whether the quality can be maintained, and how well it faces off the inevitable competition."

FiveThirtyEight has launched amid a flurry of new journalism startups, including Ezra Klein’s Vox, David Leonhardt’s Upshot, and Jim Tankersley’s new hub at The Washington Post.

Politico media reporter Dylan Byers wrote that he is bullish on FiveThirtyEight, but less so on the others.

"Like many of my colleagues, I'm getting annoyed by all the talk about these ‘revolutionary’ products that are about to go up on the market," he wrote. "I'm also growing increasingly convinced that, with the exception of Nate Silver, we're all going to feel pretty let down by them."

He argued that Silver’s proposition is forward-thinking, adding probabilities to analysis, which is unique. 

Kara Swisher, co-executive editor of Re/code, also welcomed the launch of Silver’s venture, tweeting: "And though I am flummoxed by this fox/hedgehog thing, so glad @NateSilver538 is back."

However, the high-profile launch has also drawn criticism from some corners of the industry. Influential economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote on Wednesday, "I have long been a fan of Nate Silver, but so far I don't think this is working."

Marc Tracy, staff writer at The New Republic, poked fun at the site’s fox metaphor, suggesting Silver is really a bit of a hedgehog.

"Foxes don’t write 3,500-word introduction-cum-manifestoes, as Silver did Monday for his new site, even in support of something as foxy as data journalism," he wrote. "Foxes are extremely suspicious of self-justifying systems, and thus would never write (as Silver does in his book), of a proposition they subscribe to."

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a column for The Guardian last week about the lack of diversity at FiveThirtyEight and its peers.

"Does the importance of clubhouse chemistry really override the need for a more thorough look at the statistical make-up of its membership?" she questioned.

When asked about Bell’s article in a New York magazine interview published days later, Silver said 85% of applications come from men – a stat that worries him – but the startup is hiring the best candidates for open positions. He added that the team is a group of outsiders, some of whom are gay and have different backgrounds.

"I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say," he commented.

With such a high-profile journalist at the helm, FiveThirtyEight’s launch was destined to be hotly debated, particularly since Silver himself is outspoken about the state of journalism, and in particular his disdain for pundits. Yet Silver acknowledges that the venture will need room to experiment and learn.

As he explained in the piece introducing the website, "We are going to screw some things up. We hope our mistakes will be honest ones. We hope you’ll gain insight and pleasure from our approach to the news and that you’ll visit us from time to time. We hope to demonstrate the value of data journalism as a practical and sustainable proposition."

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