Nate Silver speaks about his political blog Five Thirty Eight at SXSW conference (Source: Randy Stewart, through a CC BY-SA 2.0 license)
Reports are coming in from various sources, including none other than the New York Times itself, that prominent Times blogger and statistician Nate Silver will be leaving the newspaper in August to join cable sports network ESPN this fall, in an announcement planned Monday. In addition to going over to the network, he will be taking with him his Five Thirty Eight blog. It is part of a plan which will have Nate Silver joining the staff at ESPN2's new late-night talk show, "Olbermann," run by veteran ESPN sportscaster and former MSNBC talk show host Keith Olbermann. During political elections, he will be serving as a consultant for ABC News, which is also owned by ESPN's parent company Disney. While this is certainly a coup for ABC and ESPN, and a boon for the long-beleaguered Olbermann, there is something meaningful to come out of this deal. Here are some reasons why we should expect nothing but good things to come from Silver's move:
1. Nate Silver is, and has always been, a sports statistician first
While Nate Silver entered the national discussion through his amazingly accurate predictions of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, his passion, bread, and butter have always been in the field of sports statistics. This is not an unusual relationship: After all, Scott Rasmussen of poll service the Rasmussen Reports started his career by launching ESPN itself in the late 1970s. Before politics, Nate Silver was a well-known figure among sports geeks for creating PECOTA, the statistics system Major League Baseball uses to assess player and prospect performance, and thus determine their usefulness. Going back to what is natural to him will be the right thing for him, and will certainly help him develop his skills in other fields over the long term.
2. Keith Olbermann could use an ally
Keith Olbermann was once considered a prominent voice in sports. His position as lead host of ESPN's SportsCenter cemented that, and his hosting of several sports shows over the years made him a major trustworthy source for sports, primarily in baseball. However, things took a turn when he abandoned sports to run his own news show, "Countdown With Keith Olbermann." His fall from grace at MSNBC as a firebrand commentator and talk show host following illicit political donations has been well-documented by the news media. His attempts to recover his image through Current.TV and his personal blog FOKNewsChannel.com have been abysmal failures, especialy given the former network's continued status as a joke network among the media. That his new show would debut on ESPN2 rather than the flagship network show how far down he's gone. In hiring Nate Silver to the staff, Olbermann gains a credible ally in someone who not only knows his sports in an intelligent manner, but also someone who at least partially shares his political views (Silver previously identified himself as liberal).
3. ABC News gets a major step up in election coverage
In the war of network news, election season and election years are cutthroat battles of which the winner earns a ton of ad revenue for their parent companies. ABC News, long being second fiddle to NBC News among the networks, has been seeking ways to overcome the dominance. This is especially the case in evening newscasts, where despite NBC's less-than-smooth switchover from legendary anchor Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams, ABC World News was only able to beat NBC Nightly News in ratings for a few weeks in the last decade. By bringing Silver into the equation during presidential and midterm elections, ABC has a strong, credible figure in poll predictions, which will without a doubt make them a real contender for ratings.
4. The Times can rebuild and assert themselves.
There is little doubt the Gray Lady will be the worst ones off in this announcement. They lose a prominent, reliable blogger to their web staff, and a good source of traffic and ad revenue on politics and elections. However, the relationship the New York Times has with Nate Silver always seemed to be temporary: The blogger maintained his independence, and even kept the Five Thirty Eight name to his blog, minimizing any assimilation with the paper. As TechCruch blogger Billy Gallagher noted, the timing of Silver's exit allows the newspaper plenty of time to rebuild their elections coverage. Midterms are more than a year away, which is more than enough time for the New York Times to hire and train reporters, statisticians, and analysts to serve as the foundation of their election coverage.
5. The news cycle MIGHT step back from the polls a little bit. MIGHT
Even though the midterms are more than a year away, the news cycle makes reference to it at least once every other day, it seems. The polls are already making a narrative, even though it is more than a year away before the election is due. The point is that it is far, far too soon to make any case about 2014 at all. The only people that seem to really care about the polls live in Washington, or are political junkies. Perhaps Nate Silver's move to ESPN will allow him to step back from politics, and in turn these junkies will step a little back. It's quite a bit of wishful thinking and a very high level of naïvete, but it is positive solid thinking nonetheless.