Nate Silver and The New York Times: The Origin Story


It all began on an Amtrak platform.

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Nate Silver has proven to be -- along with Ann Romney, moon bases, and Trapper Keepers -- one of the breakout stars of the 2012 presidential campaign. Not only has the stats wizard become a Media Figure, with the controversy and "what does he say about us" anxieties that come with the distinction; he has also become a celebrity. The FiveThirtyEight blog, The New Republic reported this afternoon, accounted for a whopping 71 percent of all politics visits to The New York Times last week. And it's accounted for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of politics visits in the weeks leading up to the current electoral finale. Yesterday, in the T-minus-one-day furor, 20 percent of all visits to all of -- the sixth-most-trafficked news site in the United States -- went to Silver's blog.

So how did Silver and FiveThirtyEight come to be associated with the Times in the first place? The FiveThirtyEight blog, after all, spent the 2008 campaign season as just that: a blog. It wasn't until 2010 that the paper licensed it -- for a period, according to the contract, of three years.

What you might not know, though, is that FiveThirtyEight is part of The New York Times because of a chance encounter on an Amtrak platform in Boston.

It was the spring of 2010. Silver, having made a name for himself during the 2008 campaign, had a rising star. He had a book deal. And then he had a run-in -- with Gerry Marzorati, who at the time was the editor of the New York Times Magazine. Marzorati, like so many other journalists, was a fan of Silver and of his algorithm-inflected approach to political analysis. He asked the popular wundernerd about writing some pieces for the magazine. Silver agreed.

Soon, though, the idea of a NYT-FTE collaboration expanded. Within the course of a couple of days, Jim Roberts, the Times's assistant managing editor and at the time the paper's digital news editor, told me of the deal, "we were thinking much bigger." They arranged a non-train-station-based get-together. And "when we met him," Roberts said, "and saw that there were just some natural fits, it felt really good."

Which isn't to say that the deal was easy to strike. "It really took a lot of time to hammer this out," Silver told me at the time. The Times, unsurprisingly, wasn't his only suitor; he had other incorporation offers from other outlets. And those offers were very different from the one being proferred by the Times -- "not just in a quantitative sense, but a qualitative one." And "it was a competitive situation up until the very end." 

Ultimately, of course, the paper of record was able too woo the statistician of record. And it helped that Silver had been a longtime fan of the Times. As the blogger told me back in 2008: "I actually buy the paper version of The New York Times maybe once or twice a week." 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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