Why Nate Silver is Such a Hot Commodity

By Gail Shister 

Nate Silver’s migration from the New York Times to ESPN represents more than a new URL – it augurs a sea change in the news business itself, experts say.

Silver’s acclaimed political blog, fivethirtyeight, will expand to sports, weather and entertainment, among other areas, as part of its analytics-driven venue at espn.com, he told reporters yesterday in a conference call.

Though the focus at this point is the blog, expect to see Silver on ESPN and ABC News, especially at election season. Regardless, the blog itself has the muscle to alter the paradigm in news reportage, says Jane Hall, an associate professor in American University’s School of Communication.

“The new buzzwords in the future of journalism are ‘data driven’ and ‘visualization of data,’” Hall says. “Silver brought tremendous credibility and proved himself with his political blog. To branch out to other areas could be very exciting.

“You can do a lot of analysis of data that is credible, if you do it right. A new paradigm could be a very good thing, but I still believe in shoe-leather reporting. You still need to talk to people, face to face, to see what’s on their minds.”

Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy – and a loyal Timesman – says Silver’s methodology will become a trend because “he’s not the only genius in the world. There will be a lot of people trying to out-Nate Nate.”

Using metrics for weather is a great thing, Jones says, but applying it to sports would be “depressing. If you knew, at the beginning of the season, that the Yankees would lose, it takes away the mystery, the uncertainty.”

Moreover, if Silver, a former baseball numbers wonk, is as accurate with sports prognosticating as he is with politics, “he’ll make it impossible for bookies to make a living,” Jones warns. “People will be less likely to make stupid bets.”

Bryant Gumbel, host of HBO’s “Real Sports,” isn’t convinced that Silver, whom he labels as “a smart guy with a lot of talent,” will be an actual handicapper.

“After all, ESPN has contractual partnerships with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA, PGA, etc.,” he says.

To Hall-of-Fame CBS sportscaster Lesley Visser, “there’s a 78 percent chance that this could be a sea change. Bill James changed the Red Sox through analytics. This gives it a more public face. It becomes more about the question, not the answer. It adds another element to the discussion.”

Sounding a note of caution, Visser quotes Vin Scully’s famous line: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost. For support, not illumination.”

Contrary to Harvard’s Jones, Jonathan Wald, executive producer of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live,” says analytics won’t become a trend because, simply put, there is only one Nate Silver. (ESPN’s LZ Granderson calls him “an intellectual rock star.”)

“He’s a singular and unique talent, which is why his services are in demand by so many people,” Wald says. “It’s not like he’s Jimmy the Greek. He’s using facts and algorithms to predict possible outcomes.

“Only Nate Silver himself could tell you how many babies are born each year with the potential to become the next Nate Silver.”

As for the possibility that Silver’s data-based projections could put gasbag-fueled pundits on the street, Wald doesn’t buy it.

“Nothing can kill the pundit business,” says Wald. “Look at Washington and cable news.”