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Nate Silver as Journalistic Innovator

Ezra Klein:

What… [did Nate Silver get] right during the election[?] The typical answer to this is, well, “the election.” But getting the election right was no great feat. The betting markets got the election right. The pollsters got the election right. The polling aggregators, like Real Clear Politics, got the election right. The modelers--which included Silver, but also included Sam Wang and Drew Linzer, among others--got the election right. Wonkblog’s election model called the election right… in June….

2012 just wasn’t a very hard election to call… even if many pundits refused to believe…. So if all Silver did was build a polling-aggregation model that could call the election correctly on Nov. 1, that wouldn’t be much of a trick…. But Silver had two other innovations…. The first is that his model begins many, many months before the election… long before the polls become particularly predictive…. At that point, Silver’s model… uses ideology and incumbency and economic growth…. It gave Silver a way to cover the election at a time when everyone knows the polls aren’t worth much but people want to read about the election anyway….

Silver’s other, and most important, journalistic strength: narrativizing the data…. [N]othing important happens on any given day…. The way a lot of horserace coverage deals with this problem is by blowing up unimportant news… into stories that makes the readers feel like they’re learning urgent new facts….

What Silver figured out how to do is tell a story each day about what was on his spreadsheet. On any given day, you could head to FiveThirtyEight and get a new forecast and an engaging and clear explanation from Silver on what had changed in the forecast…. He made his data into a daily story, and he used it to tell the story of the presidential campaign…. Every day, the data told a new and interesting story. It often wasn’t a story about anything in the news that day, of course. It was just a story about the election, and the news peg, so far as there was one, was some bit of movement in Silver’s forecast….

Lots of people can run the numbers. But Silver can use those numbers to tell readers an engaging, fast-paced and constantly changing story about subjects they care about. That’s a rare talent.

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