Nate Silver’s Rocky Year Ends With A Surge

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For Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the 2014 midterm elections must have provided some sort of sanctuary.

The statistical model that performed so well in the last three elections once again delivered in 2014, accurately forecasting the outcome of all but two U.S. Senate races. Months before Republicans comfortably locked up control of the upper chamber, Silver pointed to just such an outcome.

In other words, FiveThirtyEight successfully sustained the reputation it built in 2008, 2010 and 2012 as the premier election forecaster. But the rest of 2014 didn’t go quite as swimmingly for Silver.

After emerging from the 2012 election a bona fide star in the world of politics, Silver parted with the New York Times, FiveThirtyEight’s online home since 2010, and moved to ESPN to take on a “multifaceted role that will include coverage of sports, economics, culture, science and technology” on the sports media empire’s website.

The move was largely applauded. Some of Silver’s longtime fans were eager to see the stats whiz make a return to sports analysis, while others took glee in his decision to spurn the Times, where his style apparently rubbed some the wrong way.

But ever since its launch in March, the “new” FiveThirtyEight has drawn largely negative reviews — including from some unlikely sources. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was relentless in his criticism pretty much from the moment the site went live.

Although he called himself a “Nate fan,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist said he “expected more thoughtfulness” from FiveThirtyEight. A war of words ensued between the two wonks, with Silver chalking up the criticism to his penchant for taking shots at pundits, including those on the Times editorial page.

But Krugman wasn’t alone. Writing for Salon about a month after FiveThirtyEight’s launch, Elon Green offered up an observation that’s been echoed by many. As he surveyed the site’s not-so-newsy front page, Green struggled to find many stories that demanded to be clicked on.

“The world is a very bleak place, and a publication launched amid these realties would, one would hope, at least attempt a nod in their direction,” Green wrote. “Of what value is it, otherwise?”

The dearth of compelling editorial content has translated to a compartively small audience, putting Silver in an unfamiliar place. While Silver’s forecasts were devoured by political junkies in 2012, FiveThirtyEight’s traffic numbers have been somewhat modest, despite occupying prime online real estate on ESPN.com’s homepage.

Vox.com, the explainer site launched by former Washington Post journalist Ezra Klein a month after FiveThirtyEight, had more than double the number of visitors last month, according to the click-tracking website SimilarWeb.

ESPN spokesperson Amy Phillips, however, told TPM that FiveThirtyEight enjoyed a strong month in November. She pointed to statistics from Adobe indicating that the site racked up 16 million page views, 10 million visits and 7 million unique visitors last month.

But there have been personnel setbacks for Silver, as well.

In his first piece for FiveThirtyEight in March, Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, wrote that the increased cost of natural disasters were not the result of climate change. The piece was widely maligned by several members of the science community, many of whom said Silver should have never hired Pielke in the first place. Pielke wrote just five more stories for FiveThirtyEight. By July, he left the site.

And FiveThirtyEight might be on the verge of suffering an even bigger dent to its masthead, with managing editor Mike Wilson reportedly in talks to head to the Dallas Morning News a little more than a year after joining Silver’s team.

Wilson did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.

In spite of all that, ESPN still has Silver’s back — publicly, anyway.

Insiders at the company told USA Today’s Jason McIntyre in September that FiveThirtyEight’s disappointing traffic and ad revenue represented a “disaster,” and that the failure was blamed on Bill Simmons, the ESPN star who helped lure Silver from the Times. Yet in the same report, a spokesperson for ESPN defended FiveThirtyEight, telling McIntyre that the site’s “[t]raffic is ahead of where it was with the New York Times.”

Silver chose not to comment on this story on Thursday, instead passing on TPM’s inquiries to Phillips.

Phillips did not respond directly to any of TPM’s questions, but she did refer us to a portion of a September interview with ESPN president John Skipper, which she said would be “helpful as you frame the way ESPN looks at FiveThirtyEight.”

In the interview with ReCode’s Peter Kafka, Skipper heaped praise on FiveThirtyEight.

“It’s doing fabulous…If you haven’t been on FiveThirtyEight, it’s great. It reads well, it’s smart, it’s designed well,” Skipper said.

Skipper acknowledged that he’d be “disappointed” if FiveThirtyEight’s traffic numbers fall flat in year two but he also said that people like Silver and Simmons boost ESPN’s “brand,” even if they don’t drive revenue.

“That helps people think about ESPN,” he said. “One of the biggest things we face is that we are big, and big companies are not lovable.”

The effect on ESPN’s brand might be tough to quantify, but Phillips insisted that Silver’s success can be measured, too. She said that FiveThirtyEight, bolstered by its coverage of the election and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, “set site records across all metrics” in November.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Kludt is a reporter for Talking Points Memo based in New York City, covering media and national affairs. Originally from South Dakota, Tom joined TPM as an intern in late-2011 and became a staff member during the 2012 election. He can be reached at tom@talkingpointsmemo.com.
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