Is Nate Silver’s departure an indictment of the journalistic culture at the NYT?

Nate Silver — statistician and analyst whose blog FiveThirtyEight was most recently hosted by the New York Times — has moved to ESPN:

Silver, who rose to fame with his award-winning website,, also will appear on ESPN and its broadcast partner, ABC News., which had been hosted on The New York Times website since 2010, will be independent of ESPN but connect to other sites owned by the network and parent company Disney.

Silver gained attention analyzing baseball statistics before he moved to politics. In 2012, correctly predicted the presidential election outcome in all 50 states. The site will include forecasts of the 2014 and 2016 elections. […]

The FiveThirtyEight’s new incarnation will allow Silver to return to his sports roots while expanding his approach to other disciplines.

In the brief ESPN article quoted above, Silver says he now has his “dream job.”

But shouldn’t working for the New York Times have been a dream job?

If you want to get a taste of some of the tensions in journalism today, read this post today by the NYT’s public editor Margaret Sullivan: Nate Silver Went Against the Grain for Some at The Times.

In that revealing and somewhat disturbing post, Sullivan downplays her own criticism of Silver at the height of last fall’s campaign and overstates her support for him. I blogged about the issues involved (CLICK HERE for that lengthy post a few days before the fall election), and the various nuances of the controversy left me convinced that Sullivan herself didn’t even quite understand what Silver was even doing with his ratings and aggregation of various state and national polls.

Now comes this from Sullivan’s post today:

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.

His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that The Times specializes in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or “punditry,” as he put it, famously describing it as “fundamentally useless.” Of course, The Times is equally known for its in-depth and investigative reporting on politics.

His approach was to work against the narrative of politics – the “story” – and that made him always interesting to read.

As it turned out, of course, the traditional “horse race” model of how to cover politics led many Americans — and apparently even the Romney campaign itself — to many flat, dead, totally wrong conclusions about the state of the presidential race.

If Silver “disrupted” that journalistic culture, then good. The Times should have been embracing Silver and his approach not only to political polling but also to other fields heavy in data.

And this from Sullivan:

A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.

Let me echo Kevin Drum’s thoughts in Mother Jones about that snippet:

Even for those of us who are pretty cynical about political reporting, this is astonishing. If I were editor of the Times, I’d do whatever it took to find out who those three are, and then fire them instantly. Whoever they are, they shouldn’t be trusted to cover the pig races at a country fair, let alone write about politics for the most influential newspaper in the country.

Again, Silver and his team’s analysis of last fall’s presidential election, not to mention their work on other elections and topics, was spot on. Reading and watching other political coverage throughout the cycle, Americans might have had the idea that the Obama-Romney matchup was a highly volatile affair with voters switching sides constantly, with large numbers of undecided voters, and with totally unpredictable turnout. But while there were some mild surprises in the final numbers, it all went pretty much according to the script that Silver and his team laid out: Obama had a relatively solid lead many months ahead of the campaign, that lead shrank by a small amount after the first debate, and Obama won rather handily, as Silver’s model projected.

Nationwide, Obama ended up winning 51.07 percent to 47.21 percent for Romney. Silver’s model’s final projection was that Obama would win 50.8 percent to 48.3 percent.

I can’t say I’m sorry that Silver has left the Times — we can expect that he’ll continue to do his rigorous analysis wherever he is.

But the handling of Silver while he was with the NYT and Sullivan’s statements regarding his departure send up some big red flags about political coverage at the paper, not to mention raising real concerns about the Times’ adaptability as new media continues to put pressure on traditional journalism.