Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 22, 2019, 11:20 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Here’s what The New York Times’ The Upshot looks like five years in

“You look all over the paper, in all kinds of different ways, and it’s clear that readers had a demand for this sort of journalism. This funny mix of really substantive on really big, complicated topics, but presented in a really approachable way.”

Nate Silver left The New York Times. And The Upshot was born.

Okay, so it was a little more complicated than that. But the departure of Silver’s FiveThirtyEight franchise (first to ESPN, then to ABC News) left a hole where the regular application of statistical modeling to topics of news interest had been.

Less than a year later, the wonky, data-viz-filled subsite The Upshot reinjected some of the formats and techniques of the academic, policy, and political blogging worlds into the Times — with perhaps a more Times-friendly voice. As then-public editor Margaret Sullivan put it, “I don’t think Nate Silver ever really fit into the Times culture and I think he was aware of that. He was, in a word, disruptive. Much like the Brad Pitt character in the movie ‘Moneyball’ disrupted the old model of how to scout baseball players, Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics…A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.”

In recent years, The Upshot has taught us about the difference between the Twitter Democrat electorate and the real Democrat electorate, the extent of racism for black boys, how your community relates to others in the U.S., the godforsaken election night needle, your opposite job (reporters’ are physicists), and much more. For the site’s fifth birthday today, the Times pulled together its big-hit Upshots on a single page, highlighting both the team’s favorites and the most-read:

News professionals have devoted countless hours on what makes something popular, and while there are no simple answers, a commonality for us has been that many of these stories have addressed aspects of identity: where we come from, what we eat, how we talk, for example.

People also like thinking about what they would do if they won the lottery, and keeping up to date on whom President Trump has insulted lately.

“You look all over the paper, in all kinds of different ways, and it’s clear that readers had a demand for this sort of journalism. This funny mix of really substantive on really big, complicated topics, but presented in a really approachable way,” David Leonhardt, then The Upshot’s inaugural editor and now an op-ed columnist at the Times, told Nieman Lab in explaining his vision five years ago. “Our hugely successful interactives are another example of this. The most visited page in New York Times history is based on an academic study about linguistics, right? That’s amazing.”

Leonhardt back then:

What this grew out of was Nate Silver’s departure. Nate left, and I was well known internally as a champion of Nate’s. I was a sort of obvious person to put on a committee to figure out to do after he left.

We decided quite quickly — maybe even in our first meeting — that we didn’t want to go out and replace Nate. Nate has a set of skills that is unusual, in a good way. And not only that, but that 2012 wasn’t going to be repeated. There wasn’t going to be, in all likelihood, another election that went the way that one did. Trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle, when other people out there — including Nate — were going to be out there doing it, seemed like not the right way to go.

On the other hand, we said, you know what? The lessons of FiveThirtyEight are not narrow lessons. They’re consistent with a bunch of whole other lessons we think we’ve heard here.

Leonhardt also pointed out the new site would be “integrated in the newsroom. I really want us to work with other Times reporters — on the national staff, on the political staff, on the science staff — who are interested in doing this kind of journalism. We’re not separate.”

We’ve dug into lots of The Upshot’s work at Nieman Lab over the past half-decade, chronicling some of the vertical’s early innovation like The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up in 2015:

Once you have the data, you need to translate it into something useful to users. The Upshot team decided to use prose templates that could be rewritten by a bot based on the data specific to where you live and your neighboring counties. Sharp-eyed readers can see the changes on the page if you enter another county while reading the story.

The 2014 election night voting estimation was “one of the most important innovations we’ve seen”:

So when a candidate takes an early lead in the hours after polls close, is that real or an artifact of where the early votes are coming from? If you know the historical data around specific precincts — how Democratic or Republican they’ve voted in the past — and you can make informed estimates about turnout, you can read into those numbers. (“Our adjusted leads will be based solely on current and historical returns. They will not use data from exit polls, or any forecasts from Senate models.”) Smart analysts have always done this; now readers will be able to see it in real time, not just in tossed-off anecdotal comments. Very smart.

And just a few months ago, we looked at the new way The Upshot reported polling data in real time, phone call by unanswered phone call.

Personally, I find this stuff fascinating, I don’t put any particular emotional weight on a 1-point lead in one direction or another, and I applaud the Times for putting this much work into exposing the inner workings of what typically gets reduced to a plus sign and a positive integer.

But I do wonder if the laudable “transparency” at work here will have any of the intended impact. As I wrote about yesterday in describing a paper from Sweden, it’s unclear that audiences view transparency as anything like the trust salve that many journalists do.

Our upshot? The Upshot is one of the Times’ best efforts to explain high-level policy and data on a truly relatable level. Silver’s departure and launch of FiveThirtyEight added to the growing corner of wonkiness that the internet thrives on. Just be more careful with the needle.

POSTED     April 22, 2019, 11:20 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”
“Impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would”: How Rachel Aviv wrote that New Yorker story on Lucy Letby
“So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that [Lucy] Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.”
Increasingly stress-inducing subject lines helped The Intercept surpass its fundraising goal
“We feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”