Can Big Data Help Nate Silver Reinvent Journalism SXSW

Big data luminary Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of and special correspondent for ABC News, and Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland, led a new track at SXSW in Austin, Texas this year called SX sports. They talked about their experiences in a session titled  "Media and The Personal Brand."

Jon Skipper, president of ESPN, introduced them and articulated his vision for helping the two individuals create something bigger than themselves. He wants Silver and Simmons to help create new forms of journalism by partnering with ESPN.

Big Data Rock Star

For those who don’t know, Nate Silver is quite possibly the Andy Warhol that big data has been looking for. Silver emerged from obscurity when he created the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA), which is used for evaluating and forecasting the development of baseball players. He later sold it to Baseball Prospectus.

Not satisfied with a sports exclusive lens, Silver set his sights on politics and proceeded to rewrite the rules of the narrative driven political landscape, using quantitative conclusions grounded in better data modeling and statistical techniques. Silver stood alone in 2007 when he, under the pseudonym of “poblano,” contradicted exit polling numbers and correctly predicted the primary outcomes in both Indiana and North Carolina.

In the 2008 elections, Silver correctly predicted voter outcomes in 49 of 50 states as well as the winners of all 35 US senate races. Since then, while not writing the FiveThirtyEight political blog for the New York Times, Silver has been touring the country doing interviews with almost every major media outlet about his "Moneyball" like approach to politics and voter outcomes. In 2012, Silver scored a perfect 50 for 50 in his predictions of state outcomes in the presidential election and was 31 for 33 in senate races.

FiveThirtyEight is relaunching on March 17 and has big ambitions in terms of both journalistic presence and integrity. And with a new partnership with ESPN, Silver is in a good position to move beyond sports and politics and into science, lifestyle and economics. 

One Man Bands No More

This attempt to bring data centric journalism to an array of fields stands in contrast to his work at the New York Times, where Silver's writing was largely limited to politics. But Silver doesn’t want to do all the writing. Rather, he wants data journalists to learn from him so that he and his team can start digging into the quantitative data that captures the real stories behind world events and, of course, predicts future occurrences. 

Both Silver and Simmons spoke about many things, including the irony of such a large group of people showing up to see two nerds talk about data, journalism and how the power of their personal brands is being leveraged. Both Silver and Simmons expressed deep appreciation for ESPN and talked about how a relationship with an enterprise so adept at monetizing content has created opportunities for them to build dynamic organizations with large staffs of journalists.

For me, most interesting was seeing not only how wide a net Silver is planning to cast, but also how each of the two men are creating collaborative and diverse organizations that are intended to grow beyond their leadership and transcend their strong personal brands.

While Silver has focused on data and is just now foraying into cultural topics, Simmons has been there all along. Simmons’ reputation as an innovative sports writer has given him the opportunity to join the writing team for Jimmy Kimmel's late night talk show and has also lead to the launch of ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, which dives deep into under explored sports events from the last 30 years. 

Following Their Own Beat

Silver and Simmons surveyed extant newspapers and online news portals and were dissatisfied. They lamented the state of journalism, noting that as publishing gets easier people have begun to think that speed and volume, rather than a differentiated and unique voice, is the key to success. 

Each of the men spoke to their ambition of creating organizations with distinct voices, a deep commitment to quality journalism and of doing something meaningful for the world. Most striking was the idea that drove each of them to build something bigger than themselves: that creating something with a bunch of people is much more satisfying than doing anything alone.