The protoblogger and software maker Dave Winer, a friend of mine, recently wrote, “Blogging needs your help. There’s cobwebs in the blogosphere.” His cri de coeur…
The mission of blogging is to empower all of us to go directly to each other with our expertise. So if you know something as well as anyone else, or you learn something or know something that should be shared, then you should share it on your blog.
This is my niche blog, PressThink: Current events in the way American journalism explains itself to itself. Nate Silver’s new site for ESPN, the re-born FiveThirtyEight, launched this week. That was a current event for my niche.
First the review:
Economics blogger Tyler Cowen (“so far I don’t think this is working”) was not impressed. Paul Krugman (“hoping that Nate Silver and company up their game, soon”) was underwhelmed. Kevin Drum (“its first day didn’t do much for me”) was skeptical that demand for Silver’s goods would ever prove out. Via Mathew Ingram’s assessment comes this tweet, summing up:
— Paul Kedrosky (@pkedrosky) March 17, 2014
Others were more than “mildly disappointed.”
In The Guardian, my colleague Emily Bell argued that sites like fivethirtyeight, Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, and Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media (alert: I am on their team, see this for disclosure purposes…) these brave new start-ups weren’t going to change much if they couldn’t manage a more diverse pool of initial hires. See: Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.
An interviewer for New York magazine asked Nate Silver about this.
…The idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.
Picking up from that remark, Zeynep Tufekci gave a brilliant explanation for how the self-conscious “outs” can become the less-conscious “ins,” drawing on her knowledge of nerdom (girl programmer) and sociology (Pierre Bourdieu fan.) Her piece: No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it.
“Building A Diverse Newsroom Is Work,” said Shani O. Hilton, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, in another good response to Emily Bell’s provocation.
Any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.
Getting to that level of diversity takes work. It’s something BuzzFeed is OK at — and we’re working on improving. The undercurrent to much of the criticism of Silver and Klein et al. is an assumption that it’s easy to hire a diverse staff if you try, but white dudes just aren’t trying. I’m not a white dude, so I can only speak to the first part of that sentence, as someone who’s done a fair amount of hiring in my year at BuzzFeed. So here goes: It actually isn’t easy to build a diverse newsroom.
One reason this matters even more for FiveThirtyEight: if the newsroom’s “cuts” on the data aren’t diverse enough, that’s a potential source of error… right?
Speaking of error:
People are trashing 538 using an embarrassingly small sample size. It’s been up for two days, right? Relax.
— Joseph Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) March 19, 2014
But two days was long enough for Leon Weiseltier, who runs the back of the book at the New Republic and always has, to figure out what FiveThirtyEight has wrong: The Emptiness of Data Journalism: Nate Silver could learn a lot from those op-ed columnists he maligns.
The new technology, which produces numbers the way plants produce oxygen, has inspired a new positivism, and he is one of its princes. He dignifies only facts. He honors only investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and data journalism. He does not take a side, except the side of no side. He does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization. He is the hedgehog who knows only one big thing. And his thing may not be as big as he thinks it is.
“He does not take a side, except the side of no side.” Ryan L. Cooper in The Week made a similar point: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, and the dangers of being ideologically neutral. “By claiming the mantle of pure analysis, Silver is falling into a familiar journalistic trap…” Cooper brings in my own writing to make this point: “Everyone, without exception, has some kind of ideological-theoretical perspective that informs the way they interpret the evidence they see.”
Silver has ripped into lazy columnists for consulting their “ideological priors” first, but he’s not saying he has no priors… is he? Cooper’s warning: failure to answer that leads directly to Slate-style contrarianism.
And that would be disappointing! My own view of FiveThirtyEight’s launch is different from these, but that’s because my “launch object” is different. I take it for granted that the product will be weak at first. What interests me — initially — is the argument for practical improvement on which the new service is launched. You start with some (poorly informed) hunches about what would be worth a try, based on some (firmly held) convictions about what’s presently done badly or not at all in the practices you are trying to make better.
When Bloomberg View (the opinion section of Bloomberg News) launched in 2011, it didn’t launch behind an argument identifying defects in the opinion publishing system that Bloomberg View was just itching to address. It wasn’t like that. Rather, the editors thought they could have a strong entrant in an existing op-ed and editorial page competition. “Get the best people, pay them good money…” is all the strategy you need. Bloomberg had a successful brand, it had the money, and a boss, Mike Bloomberg, who wanted the influence. Great editors sign up the brilliant writers they know. Voilà! Bloomberg View is born. One of the “name” writers they signed, Ezra Klein, had already proven himself at the Washington Post.
So that’s one way of introducing a product: make it like the other products, but try to find better people.
Nate Silver and ESPN aren’t doing that. Neither is Ezra Klein with Vox, or Pierre Omidyar with First Look, or Jessica Lessin with The Information. These ventures may go nowhere. Their work will have to compete with what’s online already, a huge flow of blogging and journalism about politics, technology, sport, economy, world affairs. It is harder — way harder — to come out with something different than it is to describe the different thing you envision making. To illuminate a different starting point is easy. To practice differently by starting from that point: difficult.
As your guide to its pressthink I’m trying to understand the nature of the bet FiveThirtyEight is making. Nate Silver wrote a manifesto, What the Fox Knows, about that. It spells out his pressthink at launch. This is blogging: “If you learn something or know something that should be shared, then you should share it on your blog.” (Dave Winer.)
Why Do We Expect So Much From Nate Silver? by Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine— this should be shared, especially for its conclusion:
The hope invested in these projects is that as the industry shrank, perhaps, at the very least, what was left might become smarter. The profession has retreated, but maybe it has retreated to higher ground. Which explains, I think, some of the big talk that has accompanied their introduction. And it may explain too the very slight sense of letdown that accompanied the launch of FiveThirtyEight this week.
For a lot of people in journalism, “big talk” and launch manifestos are on their face ridiculous. What matters is the work you can publish and defend. No one needs to know about your grand intentions. Let the journalism carry the message. It will anyway! That view has a healthy constituency in newsland and after my first five months as a part-time adviser to Omidyar’s First Look, the wisdom in it is… a lot clearer. But Ben Wallace is right, too. There are thousands and thousands of journalists (and young people hungry to be journalists) who know that the news industry is going to be smaller in the years ahead, but it can be way, way smarter. And make better products.
For those people, I think it’s fair to say, the rise of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has been an important marker of… we can be way smarter. He’s not the most experienced editor, but he’s had an experience that almost no other editor has had. He has successfully said to a particular cohort in the U.S. press: “Your current practices could be better. These methods are better. I am going to show you that they work.”
The part of journalism in which he made this intervention — predicting what’s likely to happen in presidential elections — is an easier problem than you might think, a point that Silver frequently has to make in his public appearances. In What the Fox Knows he isolates three “your practices are weak, I have a better way” opportunities:
* what counts as explanation in advanced news writing today;
* the making of generalizations by journalists steeped in the particulars;
* the art of prediction, the science of likelihood, and products in between.
In these areas he thinks he can make improvements by bringing the discipline of data science to the topsy turvy of news. Whether that will make a big enough difference is the unknown. That’s why we run these experiments.
Finally: My colleague at NYU, Mitchell Stephens, author of a forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, thinks “explanation” may be a mistaken path to user satisfaction because it takes the fun out of following the news.
[Margaret] Sullivan sounds a bit condescending when she maintains that “the reasonable reader” requires a prominent news summary because that reader can’t be expected to have been keeping up with the news. Can’t that “reasonable reader” just check Google News, or one of a hundred other sites, if momentarily perplexed? There also strikes me as something potentially condescending in Klein’s infatuation with explanation. If readers remain a bit weak on what, say, the debt ceiling is, can’t they just click around the Web a bit and find out? (Siri, on my iPhone, comes up with a pretty good answer.) Do journalists have to spoon feed? Wasn’t an insistence upon aiming at the least common denominator—with a simplified vocabulary and three paragraphs of background in each story—part of what was wrong with traditional journalism? Aren’t the best television shows, the best films, now doing less not more explaining – in part because figuring stuff out on your own is fun?
Stephens is onto something. Past a certain point “explanation” can become a substitute for participation, a barrier to engagement. Another way to say it: The quest to understand is even more involving than a need to know. And mystery is the most engaging metric of all. Explanation that invites participation: what are the odds that with the new FiveThirtyEight we could wind up with something like that?