I assume that a news start-up starting in a different place is probably going to suck at first and improve over time. What do you do, sir?
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) March 19, 2014
I agree with DougJ that if Silver fails, he will fail as a contrarian, and if Klein fails, he’ll fail as the next coming of David Broder. I agree with TimF that Pielke was a bad hire for Silver, and John is right that Ambrosino is a bad hire for Klein. And those two are not only bad hires but might be canaries in the contrarian/Slatepitch/sensible centrist coal mine.
That all said, these two ventures are, along with First Look Media, the only well-financed competition in our current media desert. They’ll exist in a market where the leading “liberal” newspaper felt it had to hire Ross Douthat to make sure the Times evenhandedly represented a viewpoint most recently seen at the Vatican Council of 1869. In their market, Richard Cohen still has a job, the Atlantic just hired David Frum, and even the Facebook-rich, supposedly liberal owner of the New Republic is unable to keep that publication from being what it’s always been. In that world, I’m willing to have a lot more than three days of patience with Silver’s new site while he figures out what he means by “data driven journalism”.
If what he means is that weak piece by Pielke, and this other even weaker piece about how the flight 370 will be found (apparently Bayesian statistics are involved, but I challenge you to figure out exactly how), then 538 won’t be long for this world. But maybe it means Harry Enten’s 15 tight paragraphs, backed by a wide-ranging look at polls and election history, about the political climate in Arizona. Or maybe it means a cogent, fact-based look at whether this winter really was that bad that doesn’t trot out a dozen hoary platitudes and is fairly free of anecdote. For some reason, our current media is incapable of reliably producing either of these types of stories, and if 538 can fill that void, they’ll probably do OK.
The problem that Silver and Klein face is that they’ve promised to do something extraordinary where just ordinary would probably be good enough. An independent 538 with a couple of other writers, and an independent Wonkbook free of the need to pretend that the Washington Post editorial board is anything but a bunch of loons, would have been a significant improvement in the current media landscape. My guess is that they couldn’t interest ESPN and Vox with such a ho-hum pitch. Still, in a world where the last “big” breakaway publication was Politico, which essentially promised to take the shittiest part of DC media culture, distill it down to the purest essence of fecal matter, smear it all over a webpage, and deliver every morning before the budding Penns and Shrums of Washington have had their Starbucks, I’m going to wait to pass judgment for a few months. Especially since almost any media outlet that focuses on data and close reading of public policy is a voice that will probably favor progressive policies on the whole.