Recently, FiveThirtyEight founder and data whizz Nate Silver visited the University of Washington’s Communications Department to chat with Communications Chair David Domke about journalism in the data age, the science of prediction, online poker as a career choice, and much more. An inquisitive audience of graduate students and faculty were in attendance. Who in the communications profession would give up a chance to converse with the man who is very likely the first editor to lead a team that includes a “burrito correspondent?” (For the record, that person is Miami photojournalist Anna Maria Barry-Jester.)
David Domke led off with the first questions. Below are a few highlights from the conversation.
David Domke (DD): Give us a sense of some of the key influences that have played a part in your career.
Nate Silver (NS): (His first job after college was in the consulting field) Leaving consulting to go bet on baseball and play poker in my pyjamas – that was an interesting experience about how probability works, in a really visceral way – about how big a factor luck can be, and about how people deceive themselves. Also, the election in 2012 – becoming a part of that story where there was all this controversy, and we were at the heart of it. We predicted all the states correctly; basically, we were forecasting.
DD: You’ve had a great experience with FiveThirtyEight. Could you give us a little sense of what the motivations and the key techniques you used that have contributed to that success?
NS: As a society, we’ve become very specialized. But we (at FiveThirtyEight) do a little bit of everything. I think that my own strength is in being more empirical and statistical. When the contract with the New York Times ended last year, it was time to move on. I got this feeling from them that was sort of “We invited you to our lunch table, and you should be glad to be here.” ESPN offered a lot of interesting stuff, and the New York Times doesn’t always play to our strengths; they have a product that’s sort of like ours, sort of not. A lot of their stories are things that we don’t necessarily add to.
DD: What is your definition of success at FiveThirtyEight?
NS: To be where we can keep hiring people and sustain that level; we know who we are, and we’re not the next BuzzFeed. We’d like to have several interactive journalists – to do podcasts, perhaps apps. And I have to say – ESPN is a Disney corporation – they are good at respecting and sustaining the creative process.
Questions from the audience included these:
What industry do you think might have the next “moneyball moment”?
NS: Most people expect big data to solve everything, but progress in most fields – the sum total of much science and research – is incremental. The fields that are more amenable to that sort of analysis are the fields that see repetition – sports, weather, retail. There’s been a lot of progress with weather forecasting, but the big, catastrophic moments are still hard to predict.
How do you find the sweet spot between academics and presenting information to the populist culture?
NS: Experience! It’s tricky; it’s a fussy kind of epistemology. We explain our takeaways; in telling the story, we also share how we look at the data. The best writers who we have on staff give a lot of detail. Good visual presentation helps to get the message across. And footnotes! We use a lot of footnotes. Overall, it’s a challenging thing.
Can you talk about the nuts and bolts of FiveThirtyEight? How long does it take to get a story out the door?
NS: There are twenty to twenty-five of us, and almost all of us come in to the office in New York. I think that sort of collaboration is really important. That’s how stories come together. Sometimes someone says something stupid on the internet – sometimes we do! I don’t necessarily believe in looking at traffic for individual stories, and timeliness is not the same thing as newsworthiness. For example, we find that stories on the ends of the time-sensitivity scale do well. Those in the middle may do fine in terms of traffic, but not in terms of ping-backs. Also, the pressure to publish kills a lot of stuff. Readers hold us to a high standard. A lot of internet publishers say that there’s no cost to publishing everything, but to us, there is… A bad story will be seen and remembered.
Are there any topics that you’re going to avoid on FiveThirtyEight? What makes a good topic for your type of journalism?
NS: Good stories for us are stories with lots of data! Airlines have lots of data, making travel stories a possibility. Things like income inequality are also good. Some science subjects are difficult; it’s hard to just bite off a digestible piece of the story when there’s so much to explain. And then – do we need a peer review process when we present these stories? Sports are always there – on slow news days, we’re inclined to run some overwrought sports analysis. A lot of good ideas come from good research. Some writers, though, confuse writing with typing – they start writing too soon, without doing the research or the deep thought that come first.
What’s your position on unpaid internships?
NS: Not in favor. They kind of favor wealthy students – people who can afford not to make a salary. And it’s not worth paying someone to do something, is it worth doing? Also, I consider the salary of the supervising manager and the time he or she will spend in supervising that intern. And of course, there’s the effect having an unpaid person in the office has on morale.
The audience questions could obviously have continued for much longer. But Domke had a provocative question for Silver about some of the sharper pieces of rhetoric to be found on FiveThirtyEight. “What’s the energy behind some of the controversies you engage in? Is it strategic?” he asked.
“We don’t start these things,” insisted Silver, adding “But… we do retaliate with disproportionate force, sometimes, it’s true. We’re not part of the club, as it were. But I respect most journalists; I certainly respect the journalist at the New York Times. I will say that political journalists sometimes abide by the less good traits than do journalists in other fields of coverage.”
Finally, Domke had to know: how much does Silver suppress his reactions to controversial sallies? Silver responded that he especially detests oversimplification of facts and misleading headlines.
“I usually say [what I’m thinking],” answered Silver. “People who try to spin things – I have a visceral reaction against that.”