Why the NYT announced Obama’s win 49 minutes after Obama did

Last night, as the results of the 2012 election rolled in, millions of Americans were glued to their TVs, computers and smartphones. But depending on what they were watching and reading, some of them were either breaking out the champagne or drowning their sorrows a lot earlier than others.

That was the counterintuitive thing about last night: If you were watching a major news network or following Twitter, you were pretty sure that Barack Obama was your next president by 11:15. If you were instead relying on NYTimes.com (s NYT) and 538.com for the news, you might have gone to bed thinking the election was still up in the air.

The networks began projecting Obama had won a little before 11:15 p.m. as the votes from Ohio rolled in.

That was also Obama tweeted the following…

…and tweeted and Facebooked the photo that has now become the most-retweeted tweet ever.

Yet the New York Times — and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which accounted for a massive amount of traffic to the New York Times this week (with 71 percent of visits to NYTimes.com’s politics section also including a stop at Silver’s blog) — were silent, with the NYT’s homepage headline alternating between reporting Obama’s win in Pennsylvania and saying that the networks projected Obama had won the election. My husband was working late, and when I called him at 11:15 p.m. to discuss the Obama win, he said, “Are you sure? The Times doesn’t have anything.” At the same time, people outside on my street were cheering. The New York Times did not project that Obama had won the election until 12:03 a.m.

At that point, this was happening in Chicago, per the NYT’s own election blog:

Romney supporters were clearing out:

And the Empire State building had turned blue.

Nate Silver has built his reputation on accurately predicting elections, and it looks as if his model got all 50 states right last night, though votes in Florida and Virginia are still being counted. But if you were looking for commentary from him last night, particularly after the networks announced an Obama win and the Obama campaign started celebrating, he and the NYT were not the place to get it — even though readers were seeking him out.

Instead, a lot of discussion of the results was coming from Karl Rove, who was arguing on Fox News with the network’s own anchors that they’d called Ohio too early.

The delay makes some sense: Silver has to be cautious, and the New York Times has to protect its own reputation. It can’t call the election too early and it doesn’t want to risk a Dewey defeats Truman moment. But Nate Silver is the man of the hour, the NYT’s top brand and probably traffic driver yesterday, and he could have brought even more traffic to the site between 11:15 p.m. and 12:03 a.m. if he’d been saying, well, anything.

He, or another Times writer, could have written about why the Times hadn’t called the election yet and explained to readers what they were waiting for. But last night the paper was too slow to get in on the action, and readers who wanted a really good sense of how the election was unfolding had to turn to other sources.

Update, 4:19 p.m.: The NYT’s recently appointed public editor Margaret Sullivan commented on the NYT’s slowness on her blog. “Journalism history is full of cautionary tales about ill-fated instances of jumping the gun – whether the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in The Chicago Tribune or, much more recently, the many newspapers and cable networks who got the presidential results wrong in 2000,” she writes. And “unlike the television networks, which depend on their combined exit polls in calling elections, The Times prefers to look at real numbers in addition to exit polls, said Janet Elder, an associate managing editor who is part of The Times’s election ‘decision desk.'”