The (Almost) End of 538

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We just got news earlier this afternoon that Nate Silver is being let go by ABC News/538 as part of a round of Disney layoffs. ABC News is part of the Disney corporation. Just as important, though ABC News is apparently holding on to the 538 brand, they are apparently letting go of most of the staff.

I’m a bit confused by this turn of events because it had been my strong understanding that Silver had essentially leased the 538 brand first to the Times and then to ABC. Since ABC is letting Silver go and holding on to 538 that must no longer have been true. Regardless, it seems like 538 will continue on in a dramatically diminished form. Staffers are going on Twitter this afternoon announcing that they’ve been let go.

Silver essentially fired me as a friend couple months ago over disagreements about COVID policy. So that was a bit weird. But what resonated with me today was seeing people say — very accurately — that Silver and 538 significantly changed the face of election reporting in this country. We still have bad reporting and groupthink. The 2022 midterm was an example of that. But the broader public elections discourse now includes people who work with data rather than impressions and assumptions. That is a big difference. It can almost be hard to remember that more than 15 years ago you could listen to news coverage of a whole election cycle and not really hear from anyone whose worked mostly with data — poll data, elections data, demographic data. It would overstate things to say those were never discussed. But they were never the focus and they came up mostly to back up impressions. And let’s be honest. By impressions here I mean bullshit.

The other thing I noticed watching these comments on 538 is that Silver and 538 were the inspiration for a lot of the younger generation of elections and data analysts who I follow now. That’s a big accomplishment. I mention my Twitter list of numbers crunchers a lot. It’s where I go when I want to understand electoral developments. A lot of these folks got into the idea of elections analysis from 538. Some got their start at 538. Others got the idea of doing it from 538. That’s a big deal.

I don’t know the inner workings of what happened here with Silver or the 538 website or in what form 538 will continue. Again, things can go wrong when an organization is run from a distance with goals and objectives which may not be closely related to the goals of the organization itself.

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