Nate Silver and the best media writing of 2012

For most of the last few years I’ve summarized the media that provoked the most thinking about media and technology. (Here are my lists from 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. I skipped 2011, not sure why.)  This year Nate Silver tops the list– for his election modeling and the debates he engendered on the application of data in journalism.KirkSpock2

Harper Reed, fresh off his stint doing technology for the Obama campaign, was asked at NewsFoo if he had any advice for journalists, and answered “Fucking do math.” Silver was the most prominent mathematician in journalism this year. In Out Magazine (which named Silver Person of the Year) Nick Denton captured Silver’s key attribute: “He’s not necessarily the best statistician, but he might be the best stats geek who can also write—and perform on television.”

Silver’s predictive modeling was not just accurate– it was popular, too. During the last stretch of the election, Fivethirtyeight represented one-fifth of the New York Time’s page views. “A lot of the traffic is coming just for Nate, ” said NYT executive editor Jill Abramson.

Politics is the second journalistic field that Silver has disrupted. Creator of the PECOTA performance projection, he was a key part of the popularization of math-driven analytics in baseball. (In between he was a burrito judge.) “Nothing could have prepared Silver better for the slings and arrows of a surly and willfully obtuse pundit class than working on the fringes of sportswriting over the past decade,” wrote David Roher this fall.

Silver’s political analysis extends the progress made in baseball journalism over the last decade. Amateurs-led efforts like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have provided better coverage of the sport than the paid professionals in the newsroom. In an odd reversal, fans imbued in analytics are better informed than those who continue to be paid to cover the sport. (ESPN, the worldwide leader, splits the difference, employing both logicians, like Keith Law, and bloviators, like John Kruk. The latter get more airtime, the former are mostly found behind the subscription pay wall.) We saw some of the last manifestations of this gulf this year when the Baseball Writers Association of America, motivated by non-analytical attributes like “guts” and “clutchness” voted the American League Most Valuable Player award to Miguel Cabrera instead of Mike Trout. Silver commented on it here. Despite the vote, advanced sports analytics are becoming commonplace. Earlier this month stats-head blogger John Hollinger was hired to help run the Memphis Grizzlies; Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein joined the Houston Astros earlier this year and statistics in like QBR have caught on with ESPN.)

Baseball and politics have lots of data to work with. Can other types of journalism being transformed by data analytics? Financial news? Education? The environment?

Jonathan Stray argues that his work “has obvious lessons for journalism about data-related topics such as statistics and uncertainty. But I think I also see wider implications for the evolving role of the political journalist. At heart, these changes are about the response of journalism to a world that is increasingly complex and networked.”

Silver gave his own take on his impact on journalism in this podcast interview with Bill Simmons in which he indicted publications like Politico. “In politics, you can have a month where nothing of any import whatsoever happens. But you still have to have Politico produce a paper seven times a week and that’s when they’re trying to start trouble.”

One frontier Silver has did not claim in 2012 is that of transparency. In 2008, Silver was up-front with his political proclivities: “I vote for Democratic candidates the majority of the time (though by no means always). This year, I have been a supporter of Barack Obama.”  In an October interview with Charlie Rose, Silver said he that he stopped voting after joining the Times. Silver started his political journalism in 2007 blogging as Poblano DailyKos.com—that, coupled with his avowed 2008 support for Obama suggest that his leanings are left. On the other hand, he told Rose “I’d say I am somewhere in-between being a libertarian and a liberal. So if I were to vote it would be kind of a Gary Johnson versus Mitt Romney decision, I suppose.” It’s too bad Silver can’t be up front about his political opinions, that we can’t digest his analysis with clarity of his preferences.

Some other threads that stand out as the year ends:

One thought on “Nate Silver and the best media writing of 2012

  1. I wore my nate silver for President t shirt the other day and got a ton of comments.

    I love the question what other topics are ripe for this.

    And the observation that it takes a good writer to interpret this stuff for the masses is key. His model alone, as, say, a website, would not have had the same impact.

    Here’s to 2013!

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