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April 25, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
Business Models

Disney is shrinking FiveThirtyEight, and Nate Silver (and his models) are leaving

Silver on ABC: “They have limited rights to some models post–license term, but not the core election forecast stuff.”

FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver and at least some of the data-driven site’s 35-person staff are leaving ABC News as part of broader layoffs at The Walt Disney Company. (Or, in the words of ABC News, FiveThirtyEight is being “streamlined.”)

Silver said on Tuesday that he expects to leave the politics and sports news site when his contract ends this summer. Several others at FiveThirtyEight — including deputy managing editor Chadwick Matlin, sports editor Neil Paine, senior audience editor Meena Ganesan, senior science reporter (and 2015 Nieman Fellow) Maggie Koerth, business operations manager Vanessa Diaz, and senior designer Emily Scherer — announced they were affected by layoffs, too.

FiveThirtyEight — named, of course, after the number of electors in the U.S. electoral college — has its roots in the “Community” section of the liberal news site Daily Kos, where, in 2007, a 29-year-old baseball statistician named Nate Silver began writing posts about the 2008 U.S. presidential election under the username “poblano.”1

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Silver launched FiveThirtyEight as its own blog in March 2008, and in the general election that year, his model correctly predicted the results in 49 out of the 50 states, as well as all 35 winners of the U.S. Senate races. The early, wondering coverage of Silver’s work frequently invoked magic. “Silver’s box of tricks sounds baffling, laced as it is with talk of regressions, half-lives and Monte Carlo analysis,” The Guardian’s editorial board wrote in 2008.” The New York Times, announcing its FiveThirtyEight “partnership” in 2010, referred to Silver a “statistical wizard.” FiveThirtyEight quickly became a massive traffic driver for the Times, where his presence provided fodder for then-public editor Margaret Sullivan. (He is now the frequent subject of discussion by the Times’ current public editor, Twitter.)

In 2013, Silver left The New York Times (Sullivan wrote about that, too) and took FiveThirtyEight to ESPN. Under parent company Disney, it was transferred from ESPN to ABC News in 2018 as ESPN sought to distance itself from political commentary, and has operated from there since.

When Silver leaves ABC News, he’ll leave behind the FiveThirtyEight trade name, but his models will go with him. “The models are licensed to them and the license term is concurrent with my contract,” he confirmed to Nieman Lab in a message. “They have limited rights to some models post–license term, but not the core election forecast stuff.”

Van Scott, ABC News’ vice president of publicity, said in a statement that “ABC News remains dedicated to data journalism with a core focus on politics, the economy and enterprise reporting — this streamlined structure will allow us to be more closely aligned with our priorities for the 2024 election and beyond. We are grateful for the invaluable contributions of the team members who will be departing the organization and know they will continue to make an important impact on the future of journalism.”

Not mentioned in that statement: Sports or science, both of which are key verticals on the current FiveThirtyEight.

“A 1950s-style cartoon illustration of a very sad fox,” Midjourney

  1. Bill Kristol, writing in The New York Times opinion section in February 2008: “An interesting regression analysis at the Daily Kos Web site (poblano.dailykos.com) of the determinants of the Democratic vote so far, applied to the demographics of the Ohio electorate, suggests that Obama has a better chance than is generally realized in Ohio.” ↩︎
Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     April 25, 2023, 2:58 p.m.
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