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There Is a 99.45% Chance That Nate Silver Is Changing Journalism

His deal with ESPN is about more than Disney vs. the New York Times. If Silver-style analysis spreads, everyone can win.

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Amy E. Price / Getty Images for SXSW

Nate Silver speaks during the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 10, 2013, in Austin, Tex.

Today, Nate Silver and ESPN made official that the baseball-stats analyst turned election data-cruncher, whose aggregation of polls predicted the last two presidential elections more accurately than politicians and pundits alike, will leave the New York Times and join the sports network and its sister outlet, ABC News. As part of the deal, Silver will have a TV role on ESPN (including, reportedly, on Keith Olbermann’s new show) and on ABC, will get to return to his first love of sports while expanding into many fields beyond politics, and get to build a mini-empire in the form of an ESPN sub site modeled on Bill Simmons’ Grantland.

There have already been some dissections of why Silver might have left. Politico detailed negotiations that involved the Times’ highest leadership; the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, dropped a tidbit, in a post on Silver, that three high-level political writers at the paper had criticized him to her, apparently unhappy with his data-based style of prognostication (which embarrassed so many gut-based prognosticators).

Media folks love these dealmaking, back-biting stories, especially when they involve the Times, so there will probably be more. But it seems only appropriate, in a story about a data cruncher, to look beyond the personality-driven coverage and ask what the story means beyond the fortunes of one media guy. So, a few (admittedly gut-based) thoughts:

* Media people like Silver don’t have jobs; they have alliances. Right after the Silver story was broken—by, ironically, the Times’ Brian Stelter—I saw some “Oh No!’ reactions on Twitter and Facebook. Part of that might have been the misimpression that Silver was quitting politics altogether, but it also seemed like an outdated impression, from a time when leaving the Times would mean going into the wilderness. I like 538; I like the Times; I don’t need one to follow the other. This is not to insult the Times, a great paper which did give Silver resources to ramp up his work. But 538.com was highly visible before he signed with the Times, and the paper’s own comments about the online traffic he drove made clear he was bringing them more than they were bringing him. Silver didn’t really work for the Times; he had, and has, one job, running 538, whose interests for a while favored licensing its operations to the Times, and now it doesn’t. (Note: elaborating on the deal this afternoon, ESPN said it was buying, not licensing, the 538 brand. I doubt this much limits Silver’s freedom; at this point anyway, his name is bigger than 538’s.)

* Silver embarrassed pundits; he didn’t kill political journalism. I and other have written about the friction between Silver and political pundits during the 2012 election. It was entertaining, and frankly satisfying, to see so many professionals pooh-pooh his data crunching and insist Obama-Romney was a toss-up, whatever Silver’s computer machine said. But Nate Silver did not render the whole of political journalism obsolete, nor I’m sure, did he want to. He made a very specific kind of punditry obsolete–having experienced journalists apply their minds and expertise to predicting an election outcome. To be clear: if you were saying (and many prominent folks were), that “I can feel that this election is a lot closer than Silver’s percentages,” Nate Silver made you look ridiculous. But that’s not a bad thing, even for the pundits. It should show us that, if poll analysis is better left to actual analysts, it frees up prognosticators to apply themselves to things like the analyzing the themes, stakes, and matters of governance that make election results matter.

* Oh, and yes, what Nate Silver does is journalism. Let’s just make that clear. Number-crunching used to be looked down on as something less than “real reporting,” which involved doing interviews and cultivating sources. All that’s important, but so is research and data analysis. To the extent that journalism is about the pursuit of knowledge (answer: totally), sifting the data is no lower than working the phones.

* The most interesting part of the story may be neither sports nor politics. The distinctive thing about Silver’s deal with Disney, and maybe what intrigued him most, is its scope: his new venture will try to apply his kind of analysis to fields from entertainment to science to technology. I have a 0% chance of telling you how well that transition will work. Maybe many of these fields will lend themselves far less well to data-modeling than sports and politics did. Or maybe Silver will establish a Foundation at the end of the galaxy to foreshorten the coming 30,000-year collapse of civilization. Either way, I’m glad someone’s underwriting his ambitions so we can find out.

* But it’s about much more than Nate Silver. The media love to put a face on a story, and the upshot of coverage like this is often to exaggerate the accomplishments and unique infallibility of one person. But not to take away from Silver, other people are part of the same movement; leaving aside sabermetrics in sports, to take just one political-data example, the Princeton Election Consortium has also been remarkably effective at using poll aggregation. So the big question is not “Where does Nate go next?” or even “Who will be the next Nate?” but how will media outlets adopt his ideas—like numeracy as a journalistic skill and the power of big data—as part of standard journalistic practice.  Many are already starting to realize that—the New York Times prominent among them. If that’s the trend going forward, Nate Silver can win, and so can the ESPN and New York Times, and so can everyone else.