Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight site launches, but can his data-driven journalism find a market?

Former New York Times blogger Nate Silver took the wraps off his new FiveThirtyEight site on Monday, offering a series of explanatory and data-driven stories on everything from toilet-seat covers to why hockey great Wayne Gretzky had it easy. In an introductory essay, Silver said that the site — which he has been building since he left the Times for ESPN eight months ago — would be an improvement on much of the data journalism practised by traditional reporters, because FiveThirtyEight writers will “ask the right questions of the data.”

Silver said that he doesn’t want his site to replace or supersede traditional journalism, but to fill what he sees as a “need in the marketplace” for rigorous data-oriented journalism. The site’s logo, a stylized fox head, comes from what Silver says is an ancient Greek aphorism about how the hedgehog knows one large thing, while the fox “knows many small things.”

When asked by New York magazine recently who the hedgehogs are, Silver responded that the most hedgehog-like journalists would be the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal — because they “don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them.” This is exactly the kind of approach that the new FiveThirtyEight wants to guard against, he said.

FiveThirtyEight chart

Not just about numbers but how to use them

Silver said that the site isn’t just going to be about Excel spreadsheets and numbers, because data journalism “isn’t just about using numbers as opposed to words.” Many traditional journalists also cite numbers when they make arguments, the FiveThirtyEight founder said, but they do so in an unscientific way, one that detracts from their argument rather than supporting it (we’ll be talking about how to use data properly at our Structure Data conference in NYC later this week).

“The problem is not the failure to cite quantitative evidence. It’s doing so in a way that can be anecdotal and ad-hoc, rather than rigorous and empirical, and failing to ask the right questions of the data.”

When it comes to using data of any kind in the creation of journalism, Silver says that traditional journalists are quite good at the first two steps of the process — namely, the collection of data and the organization of it into a news story or other format. However, they often fail to do as good a job at the next two steps, he says, which include the explanation or analysis of the data and some kind of generalization about its future implications.

“Up through the first two steps, traditional journalists looked very good. The original reporting they do is tremendously valuable… by the third stage, however, traditional journalism has begun to produce uneven results — at least in my view.”

Can FiveThirtyEight find a market?


But while Silver says he perceives a “need in the marketplace” for the kind of data-driven and explanatory journalism he wants to create — a need similar to the one that former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein is pursuing at Vox Media with his new site (also called Vox) — is that need large enough for FiveThirtyEight to become an actual business? And if so, is the site focused on that market in the right way?

Not everyone is convinced. In a blog post about the launch, economist and author Tyler Cowen said that the pieces at FiveThirtyEight seemed to fall into a gap — somewhere between being truly explanatory pieces and more generalist or superficial approaches to their topics.

“Maybe it is I rather than they who is misjudging the market, but to me these are “tweener” pieces, too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.”

Financial analyst and venture investor Paul Kedrosky said he felt similarly about the site, seeing it as too broad and not focused enough on numerical or data-driven topics. What remains to be seen is whether Silver will be able to fine-tune his offerings enough to pull in dedicated number-crunchers like Cowen and Kedrosky, while still appealing to a broad enough market to make it a worthwhile business.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Zoonar