I'm sure you've heard that Nate Silver's leaving The New York Times to join ESPN, under the general auspices of Keith Olbermann's new show. You've probably heard, too, that Silver was one of the better reasons to pay for The New York Times. Monday, their public editor addressed the reasons for Silver's departure. See if this reminds you of anything:
* 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.”
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.
As a few people have pointed out already, this is exactly the sort of response that some baseball writers have gotten over the years. Generally speaking, baseball writers and well-respected Times journalists are politically liberal. You probably know that. But they're also -- again, generally speaking -- highly resistant to new ideas, in part because they find those new ideas threatening to their livelihood. If your livelihood is punditry and one of your colleagues says punditry is useless ... well, yeah, you're probably going to dislike his work.
Which doesn't make it right. It just makes it natural. And apparently the Times was smart enough to ignore those natural well-respected ridiculous Times journalists and try to keep Silver. My guess -- and this really is a guess, since Nate's way too busy these days to talk to little old me -- is that the Times couldn't compete with ESPN's checkbook, and also that Silver found the constant nature of sports appealing. Because while he's been doing good work for the Times all along, he's been a real part of the public consciousness only during the run-up to the big elections, and who wants to wait four years between going on The Daily Show?
I'll bet he's got the freedom to jump back into the electoral fray when the time is right, whether with ESPN and Olbermann or someone else. Silver's a smart guy, and I'll bet he's figured out how to have it all.