One Irony of Nate Silver’s Leaving the New York Times

by John Sides on July 23, 2013 · 4 comments

in Data,Media,Methodology

Nate Silver’s imminent departure from the New York Times to ABC and ESPN —see details in the links within this Jack Shafer post—has elicited stories of hostility to Silver within the Times newsroom.  The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, writes:

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.


I had a similar experience the night of the Iowa caucus in 2012.  Lynn Vavreck and I were in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott talking to a senior Times reporter when the subject of Silver came up.  The reporter went on a rant about how Silver did not know things because he hadn’t been in the field as reporters are, about Silver’s “models,” and about how Silver could talk about polls that did not meet the Times polling standards (a fact that the Times polling editor Kate Phillips also referred to as “a problem” in a Twitter exchange with political scientist Daniel Smith).

The problem with this critique of Silver is that, if you follow his work closely or read his book, he’s extremely cautious about what data and modeling can accomplish.  Moreover, if you read his book closely, he is quite clear that the kind of data reporters (or baseball scouts) often gather—which is qualitative, not quantitative—is exceedingly valuable for doing what he does. This is a point about the book that hasn’t received much emphasis in the reviews I’ve read, even though the potential value of qualitative data in quantitative forecasts is well-established (see, for example, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s approach).

For example, although Silver developed a quantitative system, PECOTA, for evaluating baseball players, that you might think was the natural antagonist of qualitative data-gatherers like scouts, his book chapter on this has a section called “PECOTA vs. Scouts: Scouts Win.”  Silver writes:

Although the scouts’ judgment is sometimes flawed, they were adding plenty of value: their forecasts were about 15 percent better than ones that relied on statistics alone.

He has the same view of quantitative election forecasting.  In a section of the book called “Weighing Qualitative Information,” he lauds the value in the in-depth interviewing of candidates that is done by David Wasserman and others at the Cook Political Report.  Silver uses the ratings that Cook and others have developed in his own House forecasts and finds that they also add value.

So the irony, as I see it, is that Silver faced resentment within the newsroom even though his approach explicitly values the work that reporters do.  Although I suspect that Times reporters wouldn’t like to simply be inputs in one of Silver’s models, I could easily see how the Times could have set up a system by which campaign reporters fed their impressions to Silver based on their reporting and then Silver worked to incorporate their impressions in a systematic fashion.

In short, even though it may be impossible to eliminate the tension between Silver’s approach and that of at least some reporters, I think there is an under-appreciated potential for symbiosis.  Perhaps Silver will find that at ESPN and ABC.

[Full disclosure: In 2011-2012, I was a paid contributor to the 538 blog.]

{ 4 comments }

Marc Ross July 23, 2013 at 1:07 pm

I think your hope is naive. ABC and the other networks have far fewer political reporters with even the modest sophistication the the NYT reporters have. I hope you are right in your optimism about collaboration but see no basis for it.

giantslor July 23, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Forget poll aggregation — I’d trust a single poll before I’d trust the judgement of a group of reporters. When it comes to elections, reporters see anecdotal evidence that’s not representative of the whole. Just one single poll gives you a better idea of how an election will go than a gaggle of reporters talking to campaign managers, visiting phone banks, interviewing supporters, etc. And poll aggregation is even better (a lot better) than a single poll.

Andrew Gelman July 23, 2013 at 6:03 pm

John:

I just wonder whether the newspaper is not a good place for a blog. I don’t know what your experience was with 538, but when I wrote for 538, it was very pleasant when it was Nate’s blog–I just posted things when I wanted to–and very frustrating when it was on the NYT. I would send them things and the editor would just ignore me or keep putting me off. It got to be pretty ridiculous, given that I could post stuff here at the Monkey Cage with no hassle at all.

Benjamin Byron July 24, 2013 at 4:02 am

John:

While Silver does give credit to the Cook Report and does value in-depth political reporting for its qualitative value, wasn’t the cultural friction over the kind of daily ‘horse-race’ political journalism that attempts to make trivial election news exciting by, as Ezra Klein put it, “blowing up unimportant news “. Margaret Sullivan claims that Silver’s approach also went against the in-depth narrative, but as you point out that wasn’t put at risk by his approach, but rather the daily chirping of the ‘punditocracy’ was at risk–while many have long held contempt for such political coverage, here was Silver showing how baseless their chirping was with Numbers.

The fact that Silver was able to make the election exciting from a data standpoint while also devaluing that particular kind of journalism must have been seen as an existential challenge to horse-race-style political journalism.

Speaking at an RSA event, Silver articulated the problem at the very core of mainstream political media reporting: the failure to simply and properly report polling data. As he put it, “this mere act of not even taking an average, but just counting the polls…just counting things is sometimes beyond the capability of some in the news media”. The instinct on the part of the political media to make the race appear as close as possible for as long as possible meant that they couldn’t report on polling data in a sensible way, which was the essential part of Silver’s system within the last months of the election cycle as well as many others. It is rather easy to see how Silver’s prediction system (as well as others) and the analysis he provides alongside it is a separate paradigm within political journalism and challenges the role of the political media to make every part of the campaign artificially game-changing and, by extension, exciting.

This kind of reporting is actually very similar to sports reporting that attempts to make every element of the off-season/front-office/off-the-field news appear potentially game-changing and exciting. So it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the sports journalism culture is ready for him.

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