Nate Silver, Bill Simmons, Skip Bayless: WE ARE LEGION

by Vincent Kwan

Nate Silver is taking his talents to Bristol. Internet contrarianess will debate over the significance of Silver’s move, but I think it’s relatively safe to say that Silver and his new home are an interesting fit. As much an exercise for myself to try to wrap my head around things as it is a primer for you, the reader, some summations/observations/speculations on Silver’s new gig over at the World Wide Leader:

1. What will ESPNate look like?

Silver and his staff will be operating under the domain http://www.fivethirtyeight.com which is now a permanent property of ESPN (unlike the three year “partnership” Silver had with the New York Times). I imagine FiveThirtyEight struck the same autonomy bargain that was offered to Bill Simmons’s Grantland: largely unimpeded creative freedom with an implicit understanding to not bite the hand that feeds them. Much like Simmons, Silver will be given the funding to assemble a dream team to staff a revitalized FiveThirtyEight that will produce content along the same areas as it did before, though, as you might guess, with a greater emphasis on sports (EDIT: “Simmons-like” was certainly a selling point to Silver. His ESPN team duties will involve becoming a regular correspondent on human Livestrong bracelet Keith Olbermann’s upcoming ESPN2 show, “interfacing” with traditional ESPN properties, and becoming a feature on ABC’s mainstream political and Oscar (!?!) coverage. It’s anyone’s guess if Silver will enjoy his “interfacing” or think of it as a chore, but all in all, it doesn’t sound like a terrible compromise for the independence he’ll be granted with FiveThirtyEight and the Brinks truck that’s pulling up into his New York apartment as we speak.

2. What does this mean for the New York Times and “Traditional” News Media?

This is the meta question journalists have been asking themselves. NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s post on her former colleague’s defection described Silver as “disruptive,” never really “[fitting] into the Times Culture,” and even stating that “a number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” When you make statements like “punditry is fundamentally useless” while working for one of the world’s foremost employer of pundits, water cooler discussions can tend to get a bit awkward.

I think Sullivan’s comments about Nate’s “fit” is key, but not necessarily about his fit in a traditional newsroom. By itself, a distaste for talking heads is a peculiar reason to join ESPN. First Take’s “Embrace Debate” mantra seems to be antithesis of everything SIlver stands for and as unsavory as sharing debate with, say, Thomas Friedman might be,  having to professionally consider Skip Bayless as an equal debate partner is just cause for self-induced head trauma. The “fit” question really is one about content. The simplest explanation for all of this is that Nate just loves sports and wants to write about it more than he did/was able to over at The Times. You can be as jaded and cynical as you want over that assessment but if you were to ask me what the primary driver behind The DecisioNate was, I would guess it’s just that he wants to write about the shit he wants to write about and ESPN provided him with the best opportunity to do that. Additionally, unlike at The Times, Silver will be the unquestioned God-King of electoral coverage at ESPN (assuming Jalen Rose keeps his nuanced opinions about the methodological soundness of aggregating polling data to himself). I don’t think Silver leaving NYT really amounts to an all-out assault on traditional news media or anything like that, ESPN is too “kettle black” for that argument to work. The move, at least in my baseless, unfounded opinion, seems to be driven by more basic, personal reasons. Silver wanted to write more about his first love, sports, and wanted to produce electoral analysis without  the threat of in-house sniping from his colleagues. And, oh yeah, the assload of money he’ll be getting from ESPN. To me, these factors seem to suggest the DecisioNate is just one guy looking out for number one rather than any indictment of the current state of traditional news media.

3. So ESPN is a full house nowadays, huh?

With Nate Silver and his TBD staff coming into town, ESPN could make a strong argument for amassing the most culturally influential collection of blogging talent in American news media. Simmons/Grantland’s ability to pull in ace sportswriters like Bill Barnwell, Chris Brown, and Kirk Goldsberry was expected, but it was its ability to lure an amazing team of culture writers (Chuck Klosterman, Jay Caspian Kang, Wesley Morris, Mark Lisanti, Colson Whitehead, even the HIPSTER RUNOFF Dude) that I found shocking. If Simmons had that pull and resources, I can only imagine what sort of murderers’ row Nate Silver will be able to compile for the new FiveThirtyEight.

Thoughts of a Nate Silver-penned 30 for 30 documentary are currently swirling around in my head, causing faint dizziness and definite arousal. ESPN essentially has all the pieces in place to create a sort of blogging think tank: jam some of the smartest and most influential people in a variety of disciplines together, and watch as their collaboration becomes the genesis for some of the best and most unique work that’s been seen in the blogosphere. Sadly, I don’t know if ESPN or its contributors have any desire to do that. ESPN is a such a tough entity to get a feel for because it is simultaneously smarter than it has to be while still finding time to drag conversation far below the lowest common denominator. The company is really nihilistic on the idea of sports journalism: it makes no judgments regarding quality and simply offers a wide base of writing to appeal to any and all sports fans. People who are really invested in abstract moral concepts like grittiness and Tim Tebow can read their Rick Reilly articles alongside the stat heads and culture junkies who tune in for articles by Chris Brown or Wesley Morris. In amassing the Monstars of the blog world, ESPN has not only purchased additional production, but also, protection. ESPN’s traditional media has been rightfully criticized for being vapid and sensationalistic, a result of stupidly believing that sports need a 24-hr news cycle. In comparison to the irreverent, agile Gawker-esque sites that routinely criticize it (e.g. Deadspin, Fire Joe Morgan RIP, Every Day Should Be Saturday), the flagship looks clunky and outdated and on the verge of descending into a vicious cycle of unconscious self-parody. But, by purchasing some of the blogospheres hottest names, they not only up their legitimacy cred by producing better content, but they put on payroll the very writers that might criticize them were they writing for another outlet.

You shouldn’t be able to purchase taste and credibility. These qualities that are usually brought out in arguments as things that serve as a counter to wealth. ESPN is making a strong case against that sentiment. As sports fans, we’re basically being offered a Xerxes moment: kiss the ring and enjoy twenty articles on Bayesian decision making in the 2014 NFL Draft. The ring is already so far down my throat that I’ve almost forgotten the guilt of bowing down to it.

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