Friday, March 21, 2014

538 problems and a fox ain't one

FiveThirtyEight has relaunched as the first of the New New Media wave, and the Old New Media has reacted with a range of emotions from disappointment, outrage, bemusement and exasperation. Jay Rosen reminds us that 538 is merely a startup, so of course it's going to be crap at first, but it deserves time to react to user feedback and iterate its way out of early missteps.

Like mistermix at Balloon Juice, I tend to think that while the trolly hires are bad and many of the launch articles are worse, Silver deserves a honeymoon period longer than one day. mistermix would be happy with a 538-minus-NYT and a Wonkbook-minus-WaPo in the case of Vox, but I disagree on that point because I think there is the potential there to actually accomplish extraordinary goals.

The now-infamous NYMag interview where Silver lays down the jazz about foxes and hedgehogs sounds to me like any other startup founder who has spent a lot of time inside his own head thinking about how things should be, and is about to find out from his target audience that the world works a lot differently. Battle plans never survive engagement with the enemy, as that old dog Sun Tzu used to say. This is a direct nut punch to the ego, but just about every startup founder goes through this sobering experience (and those who don't are insufferable arseholes!). I toiled through this rite of passage myself, and came out of it the other side as a much better entrepreneur, and a better person.

Data journalism itself is a sound concept at its root, if implemented intelligently. Like sabermetrics which sought to correct inefficiencies in baseball analysis, opinion journalism contains many inefficiencies based on prejudices, deliberate obfuscation and unseen power dynamics which data journalism should seek to counter. The fact checking model was an attempt to counter this, but it has run into an intractable problem that Silver himself is flirting with as well: the problem of being seen to be impartial, but also living within a media industry which is built in part on bullshit. Setting yourself up as the ultimate arbiter of truth means you have to attack the bullshit and reject it within your own organisation, which is a very difficult thing to do psychologically for a small team of people who presumably rub shoulders with those they are scything into. Undermining the basis of someone else's employment by pointing out the lack of clothes on their own private emperor is a lot harder than giving in to the temptation of "both sides do it" equivocation so that you have someone to talk to at parties.

If Silver wants to discover the correct solution to the dilemma of the moral high ground, he need look no further than the next stable over where Bill Simmons and his army of Sports Guys™ ply their trade at Grantland, free of the yoke of outdated striving for lilywhite objectivity. Simmons stands for his rooting interest without pretense of fairmindedness, and his audience knows that and consumes the products of him and his acolytes anyway. Simmons does a fair bit of data journalism himself so one wonders what Silver and Simmons talk about, seeing as Silver seems determined to do the opposite of Simmons.

Silver is a smart guy, he will work it out. Hopefully he has the emotional intelligence to sift out the useful feedback and incorporate it into a new business strategy/worldview which will lead to 538's success under the ESPN umbrella. Talk of foxes and hedgehogs is not helpful, but being a lone wolf is not good either. Embracing change in all aspects, particularly in your own mind, is the key to entrepreneurial nirvana.


  1. m0nty,

    i have you and Kruggers commenting on this in Around the Traps.
    Bet you never thought you would be along side the great man!

  2. Throw in his Thomo case in tatters and cant stop the boats posts while you are there :)