Nate Silver Leaving the NYTimes is a Really Big Deal

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An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times politely describes the effect Nate Silver had as “against the grain for some at the Times.”

More like: “he was an antidote to everything that is wrong with today’s mainstream political coverage.”

Silver talks about it in his marvelous book, The Signal And The Noise, which aptly characterizes political punditry for what it is: shouting “predictions” with odds rarely better than a coin-toss and absolutely no accountability after the fact.

Reason, Not Blather

FiveThirtyEight was not just a brand that wonks and political noobs alike flocked to, it’s one of the few voices of reason at a time when a Rally to Restore Sanity still sounds like a great idea. While cable-news channels are desperate to hold our attention, the Internet has long since drank that milkshake, and the era of data-driven journalism means blowhards on the left and right have a lot less to blather about.

Who cares who “won the day?” Who cares what any of these pundits think the American people feel? Sure it’s entertaining, but give me five minutes of data-driven journalism followed by twenty-five minutes of cat photos and I’m coming out smarter than any of your thirty-minute yell-fest-segments.

In ‘08 and ‘12, whenever a grand pundit’s prognostication conjured its way into my newsfeed, I’d calmly hop over to FiveThirtyEight and remind myself that it was just another desperate ringing of the bell to keep me salivating. It reminds me of MBAs creating and perpetuating special jargon just to keep people believing ‘serious business’ only happened to people who had just the right ingredients and access.

Putting On the Robe and Wizard Hat

And then it happened to me. The Washington Post asked me to call the ‘12 election along with a slew of other folks, some “professional” pundits, others amateurs. I was clearly the latter, so I pulled my electoral vote predictions from 538 (sorry, Nate). How’d it go?

"Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of the social news site reddit.com, had the best electoral vote prediction."

But I ultimately lost because the Post asked a bunch of tiebreaker questions Nate didn’t publish answers for, so I had to guess, err, you know, be a pundit.

The person who ended up winning was Matt Matros, whose career shouldn’t surprise you: professional poker player.

Bet On Data, Please!

Ultimately, I wish Nate the best (and realize he’ll have far more work year-round at ESPN than he does tracking elections), and hope the Times drafts or promotes someone to follow his lead. Especially because sites like Priceonomics are built on data from the ground up.

They’d better, because this is the future of journalism (especially political), and Tom Friedman’s random sample of taxi drivers ain’t gonna cut it.

** Full-disclosure: Nate Silver wrote an amazing blurb for my forthcoming book, for which I’m quite grateful, though that had nothing to do with my writing this article.