Surprise Move

07.22.13

Nate Silver Keeps Us Guessing About Why He Dumped the Times for ESPN

The statistics star gave no clear answers about his sudden move from The New York Times to ESPN on Monday, though he said he didn’t want to ‘speak ill’ of the paper and batted away reports of a culture clash.

In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, Nate Silver skirted around questions about why he made the surprise move to ditch The New York Times and take his statistical skills to ESPN.

“This is not a case where you have one good option and a number of bad options,” he said. “We were lucky to be blessed with a lot of choices, and this was a 9.5 out of 10, or a 9.8 out of 10, or a 10 out of 10. So I don’t want to speak ill of any alternatives.”

Silver’s decision to leave the august Times for ESPN sent shockwaves through the media world when it was first reported Friday afternoon. Not only is the Times perhaps the most revered institution in media, the newspaper, which he joined in 2010, helped turn Silver into a star during the 2012 election cycle. His FiveThirtyEight blog consistently predicted that Barack Obama would win reelection. On Election Night, Silver accurately predicted the winner in all 50 states and was willing to call out pundits and journalists for making statements not based on data.

Retaining Silver was reported to be a major priority for top brass at the Times. He had been a huge driver of traffic to the site during the election season.

On Monday, however, Silver praised ESPN and its parent company, Disney, for being “really good at figuring out how to build products. For some other suitors, we had just a little bit less confidence there.”

After Silver made the decision to jump, there were some reports that parts of the Times newsroom were unhappy with his presence there. Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the Times, wrote on Monday that Silver never “really fit into the Times culture” and said she had heard from “three high-profile Times political journalists” who criticized both Silver and his work.

Silver dismissed such concerns.

“There is no doubt that it might be easier for me to stay at the Times, but I am someone who every four years has shifted my career in subtle and different ways, and that motivates me."

“I was interested in running a website and building out a business here, and having the opportunity to weigh in on different topics,” he said. “I am not interested in who I am getting a beer with. I have plenty of people in my social circle for that, so I think these cultural issues are getting a little bit more play than is appropriate.”

Silver said the new FiveThirtyEight will be based in part around Grantland, a quasi-independent website that focuses on long-form storytelling but has its own editorial staff. Silver’s site will feature data-driven reporting on sports, politics, economics, and pop culture. He also will appear occasionally on ABC, although no specific decisions have been made. Silver said his current focus would be on building out the website, which ESPN bought for an undisclosed sum.

Silver also said there were other potential places for him to land besides the Times and ESPN, though he declined to name the other suitors. ESPN would not say how much it cost to land Silver, but the stat wizard did acknowledge that money was a factor.

“When I thought about this decision, there were about six different categories I looked at,” he said. “Financial was one of them. We live in a capitalistic society, but who can execute the site, prestige, where I would have more editorial freedom, where it is going to be more fun and more challenging. There is no doubt that it might be easier for me to stay at the Times, but I am someone who every four years has shifted my career in subtle and different ways, and that motivates me.”