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Oct. 23, 2013, 12:09 p.m.
Reporting & Production

“We want people to do their own thinking”: What Nate Silver’s looking for at the new, ESPN-housed FiveThirtyEight

Silver says he wants a mix of features and the daily metabolism of blogging. Finding people who can do both is tricky.

What will the new FiveThirtyEight look like when it debuts next year? More politics, more sports, and, according to Nate Silver, all the other data they can get their hands on.

“For example, maybe topics like education. And probably having a little bit of fun from time to time. Having a data-driven take on burritos, of course — kind of tongue-in-cheek,” Silver said in an address at the Online News Association’s annual conference in Atlanta.

Silver made news earlier this year for leaving The New York Times to join ESPN and selling FiveThirtyEight to the Disney-owned company as part of the deal. Silver shed a little more light on the new site at ONA, repeating that it will follow in many ways the model of ESPN’s other digital spinoff based on a franchise personality, Bill Simmons’ Grantland.

But what exactly will that look like? “The idea is that it’s a web product, first and foremost. I’m sure we’ll build out podcasts and video coverage over time, but really the core challenge is in identifying writers and journalists who have the right critical thinking ability,” he said.

I had a chance to talk with Silver about developing the new site and the challenge of finding people who can do the types of things he does, blending an accessibly writing style with analytics across a wide variety of topics. (FYI: They’re currently hiring writers and a managing editor.) We also talked about the state of data journalism in the news, and what lessons Grantland offers in audience building. Here are some lightly edited excerpts of our conversation.

On how news organizations are using data to tell stories today
If I had more time in the talk today, the ninth point might have been that visualization — a picture is really worth a thousand words sometimes when it comes to complex data sets.

The New York Times obviously does a great job with that stuff. The Guardian stands out for that as well. Having people who are thinking — these designers, who are thinking, number one, that it should be coherent and attractive aesthetically, but they really are journalists as well.

It’s all about taking complex information and finding ways to present an accurate but nevertheless understandable model of it for a broader audience.

On balancing features and blogging-style analysis
We see them as two related, familial, but separate content silos. From a practical economic standpoint, one of the wonderful things about blogs, as they were originally invented, was you had relatively low transaction cost for producing a blog post. Not that it doesn’t have to be high quality — but you’re not necessarily spending as much of an editor’s time on it, you’re not going through multiple iterations. It’s more thinking about things in real time.

So in some ways, we want to, on our blog, get back more to what we think are the core differentiating values of blogging, and not this kind of in-between space a lot of news organizations have wound up in where everything became called a blog, and then it became unfashionable, so nothing gets called a blog.

We do make a distinction based mostly on how quickly the content is turned out. What we call a feature is something where it’s assigned, generally in advance, and goes through at least one, maybe multiple rounds of edits.

A blog is something which still has to be very good — and it’s as hard, relatively, to hire bloggers as it is to hire feature writers. It’s something that might get a quick read, and maybe has a little bit more voice, but also saying “this is my thinking in real time,” or my work in progress. How we’ll flesh that out exactly in practice, I’m not sure, but I feel like there is an important distinction to be made between the two.

On exploring new data outside of sports and politics
Some of it is getting back into the sports world and doing things with basketball and soccer, in particular. I have some ideas about how you might look at education data. I have some ideas about travel data. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road this year, and data on the aviation industry is very publicly available. There’s some very interesting economic cases you can do with that.

It’s a pretty wide array of topics. Looking at the behavior of Congress in different ways. So we have seven or eight ideas, not all of which I can disclose, that we have lined up to be rolled-out over the next year or so.

On lessons from Grantland on appealing to a crossover audience of readers
I think with almost any web product you have two types of audience. You have your core, everyday readers and then you have the people you reach out to from time to time. I think that having the right content mix, where you can have big spikes in content by doing something interesting and different from time to time, but also making sure that people who are reading the site every day feel they’re getting a good healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday, full of FiveThirtyEight content.

You can talk about these things in the abstract, how you manage it in practice is perhaps more challenging. I guess the big question is the kind of down-site scenarios that you have — your sports readers and your politics readers, they kind of come and go. I think what will make it be a really successful product, versus a somewhat successful product one, is the hypothesis that you can take a more horizontal approach towards news coverage — where people come in to buy their green beans and they wind up buying a fine bottle of wine instead.

That’s what we hope we can do. That’s partly why we’re spending a fair amount of our budget on designers and the visual identity of the site. We’re thinking carefully about what the style guide ought to be. Because it covers so many different subjects, I think you need to have a coherence in at least the look and feel of things.

So we might be stricter about that stuff than people let on. We don’t want it to seem like a hodgepodge of content coming from all over the place.

On the people he’s looking for to write for the new FiveThirtyEight
We’ve gone back and forth on this a little bit. We’ve only hired a few people out of our overall headcount so far. One issue we’re encountering is that there are some journalists who might have covered data-driven fields, but don’t necessarily have strong analytical abilities themselves. We’re coming more and more to the view that we want people to do their own thinking. It’s going to be, literally, a collaborative workspace where we’re actually going to want people to come into the office for at least part of their work days. We don’t want to have it be an assembly line where you have a writer who gets a data sheet from the stat geek and then writes up the report. We want to make a more sustainable model where people can do their own critical thinking. And that’s hard to find.

I think we’re gonna certainly end up with some people who come from a journalistic background and maybe now will have fewer constraints, in some ways, at FiveThirtyEight. I think we’ll have some people who come from more non-traditional backgrounds. We’ll also probably experiment a lot with different freelance writers.

We have a strong preference for people having demonstrated a capacity to write and write somewhat frequently, at least. If you’re only writing something a couple times a year, well, it’s much different than a couple times a week — even though we think that allows a lot of time to focus on quality.

At the same time, many traditional reporting backgrounds wouldn’t be a great fit for us. So it’s tricky. We’ve had some better and better resumes come in over time. One thing you learn when you put a job advertisement up is the first 10 people or 20 people that apply usually have put no thought whatsoever into why they have applied for this position. No effort into really catering their pitch.

It’s better the longer something is marinating out there. So we feel like we have a lot of good choices and are in the process now of actively talking with different journalists and analysts — or whatever we wind up calling them.

Photo of Nate Silver by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 23, 2013, 12:09 p.m.
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