Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nate Silver didn't have a problem with old-style journalist values, but he may have had a problem with the new ones

New York Times pubic editor Margaret Sullivan speculates on the possible reasons for Nate Silver's decision to move 538 to Disney:
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. For me, both of these approaches have value and can live together just fine.

* 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.

Many others, of course, in The Times’s newsroom did appreciate his work and the innovation (not to mention the traffic) that he brought, and liked his humility.

* The Times tried very hard to give him a lot of editorial help and a great platform. It bent over backward to do so, and this, too, disturbed some staff members. It was about to devote a significant number of staff positions to beefing up his presence into its own mini-department.
Conventional wisdom holds that traditional print journalism is in trouble because it has failed to adequately change with times, but if the reasons given by Ms Sullivan did have something to do with Nate Silver leaving the New York Times, very much a point open to debate, then you can  argue that in this case print journalism is in trouble because it has changed, just in an unfortunate direction.

Look at the aspects of the NYT culture which Sullivan lists as potential sources of conflict:

Fixated on polling and the horse race;


Narrative obsessed;


Hostile to criticism.

These represents decades-long trends in journalism. Each has gotten more pronounced with every election cycle. Polls have proliferated. Horse race speculation continues to creep forward. More and more "news" consists of pundits confidently stating opinions. Narratives enforce increasingly pervasive groupthink on the media. Clannish social dynamics overpower journalistic ethics and propriety. Press criticism has become the the domain of apologists like Jack Shafer and David Carr.

What's amazing here is just how much Sullivan has internalized this Twenty-First Century NYT culture. She describes an institution dominated by infantile trivialists and it never seems to occur to her that the rest of us we see this as anything other than 'there are two sides to every story.'

No comments:

Post a Comment