Nate Silver is on the cusp of launching his newly revamped, ESPN-housed FiveThirtyEight. In an interview with New York Magazine, Silver trashes opinion writers as “undisciplined” creators of “a lot of bullshit” that have no place in the future of journalism.
Silver, who was hired away from the New York Times to run his own site at ESPN last summer, says he is not completely ready to reveal his final product, but the Monday launch date is the closest the site will get to complete without having ever been live. That the Times gave him the launching pad necessary to lead him to his new venture did not stop him from viciously attacking the opinion writing model his former employer has provided readers for years.
“It’s ridiculous to me that they undermine every value that these organizations have in their newsrooms,” he said of opinion writers at “the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.” He admits he can see why they stick around–“it’s cheaper”–but he insists that their lack of “evaluating the data as it comes in” leads to unoriginal thinking and “a lot of bullshit, basically.” “They don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world,” he laments.
His disdain for the concept of political opinion literature will be on full display at the website, Silver says. “This is data journalism, capital-D,” he tells the magazine, “We think that’s a weakness of conventional journalism, that you have beautiful English language skills and fewer math skills, and we hope to rectify that balance a little bit.”
Silver insists that a focus on data will be prevalent throughout the website, which will cover sports and politics but will also have unconventional culture and lifestyle sections. What that means for the ideology of the website doesn’t concern Silver, he says, because the objective of the website is not to have opinions or persuade anyone. In this way, Silver’s approach to journalism is uncannily reminiscent to that of disgraced Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange, whose theory of “scientific journalism” would require journalists to release all raw data related to a news piece. “If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data… this is something that needs to be done in journalism,” Assange has said.
Echoing Julian Assange certainly raises questions of bias, which Silver addresses by telling New York that he and his team are “not sociopaths” and will “have opinions, but we’re not trying to do advocacy here.” He promises the site will not “do a ton of public-policy coverage.”
Silver’s biggest challenges in toppling the world of opinion journalism to replace it with a dry, data-based model are two-fold: to gain the trust of an audience and remain interesting. Trust comes naturally to those who read the opinion columnists Silver so despises, because their job is to expose their personal biases. None of their thoughts are ever hidden. Under a smokescreen of numbers and charts, it becomes more difficult to trust that all the numbers are there and that they are, in fact, the important ones. Returning to the Wikileaks example, the fact that Assange repeatedly published so-called human rights violations by the United States but never challenged Russia or North Korea spoke as loudly as if he had written an op-ed praising the governments of the latter.
Silver is smarter than that. He has built a career upon getting people to trust his numbers, however, and that leads to a second, obvious problem: Silver makes clear that he has no respect for colorful or entertaining writing, and seems not to understand that they are necessary tools to make difficult-to-parse raw data palatable. If you write content as if “beautiful English language skills” are the enemy, no one will want to read you.