Every sports department needs a Nate Silver


The big news in the media world this week is Nate Silver’s move from The New York Times to ESPN. Silver, whose 538 blog brought statistical modeling to the political world, will be in charge of his own mini media empire at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports.

I’ve been a big fan of Silver’s for a long time. His book, The Signal and the Noise, is one of the few non-school books I made time for this past year, and it’s excellent. I remember having a discussion with a professor of mine who in the few weeks leading up to the election was very skeptical of President Obama’s chances to beat Mitt Romney, and I expressed confidence because the models Silver ran showed Obama as the likely winner. The professor was amazed at the outcome after the election, I was not.

The news has been a big shock and big topic of discussion in media circles. There’s been a vein of "Why would anybody leave covering real news for sports?!?!? that both annoys and amuses me. Margaret Sullivan, The Times’ public editor, wrote that Silver never quite fit in to the newspaper’s culture.

Which says so much more about the culture of The Times, and of newspapers in general, than it does about Silver.

This is nothing new, as Silver’s work was widely critiqued around last year’s election because it went against the narrative that the race was too close to call. The criticism that Silver was a math nerd just crunching numbers but not doing the work of real journalists is nothing that hasn’t been around sports journalism for the past decade, since Moneyball hit. The work that Silver and other bloggers do does not fit into the traditional journalism paradigm - which is just a fancypants way of saying that it’s not considered “real journalism” by reporters and editors. The work may be interesting. It may be important. It may be accurate and informative. But it’s not journalism. Journalism involves talking to people, working your beat, doing shoe-leather reporting, using a notebook and all other manner of journalism cliches and practices.

But the question facing all of us who are interested in media is this: In a digital age, does the traditional journalism paradigm work? Or even better, should it?

Part of the complication here is that when you suggest this, traditionalists get defensive about their practices and routines. That’s probably why, as Sullivan wrote in her post, three journalists at The Times wrote to her criticizing Silver and his work. It’s even stronger in sports, when anytime any stat more advanced that RBIs gets brought up, there’s a backlash that “nerds are ruining sports.” (Seriously, listen to Mike Wilbon anytime an advanced stat is mentioned on PTI. It’s like a personal affront to him).

Here’s the thing, and it can’t be stressed enough: This is not an either/or situation. Traditional journalism and the work Nate Silver do can, and should, live side-by-side. I don’t know of any media scholar or observer who thinks that we should do away with on-the-ground, shoe-leather reporting. That will always be critical, whether it’s at city hall or the ballpark. But what’s wrong is the notion that that is the only way things are done. Nate Silver provided his readers with more important information that any political pundit, or any reporter recycling the same campaign stump speeches. By any standard that matters, that’s journalism.

That’s what we need more of.

That’s why I think every sports department needs a Nate Silver. I don’t mean that every sports department needs somebody who is fluent in advanced statistics. That’s not seeing the whole board. What sports departments (and newsrooms, but let’s keep the focus narrow here) need is the ability to think differently. To go beyond the traditional journalism paradigm and to make things that are cool, exciting, and informative.

How great would it be if every sports department had a dedicated advanced stats reporter producing reports that complimented - or maybe even contradicted - the traditional narrative.

Imagine a newspaper where reporters and columnists openly argued with each other in print. I'd read that.

— Chanders (@Chanders) July 22, 2013

I think that’d be cool. Or how great would it be if a sports department had someone watch every home game from the stands, and report from there rather than the press box? Or somebody who had the fan beat, monitoring just what fans were saying on blogs and social media?

The specifics are less important than the big picture. The big picture with Nate Silver isn’t that stats are better than “real journalism.” The big picture isn’t that reporters don’t matter. They do. The big picture is that we’re in a new media age here. The old methods are still important, but maybe they should live alongside new ones instead of looking down on them. The big picture is that to better serve our readers in 2013, we as an industry need to move beyond the way we’ve always done things.

The big picture is that in 2013, not fitting in to a newsroom’s culture may be a badge of honor.