The year 2012 was a year of victory for the digital press – i.e., Internet – over traditional news sources like newspapers, radio or television broadcasts. One person is primarily responsible for this transformation: Nate Silver, editor and author of the FiveThirtyEight blog on The New York Times website.
The 34-year-old Silver had specialized in statistical analysis of sports games and political polls, and during the past year his blog focused on assessing the prospects of American presidential candidates. (The blog, colloquially known as 538, is named for the number of electors in the U.S. Electoral College.) Silver consistently predicted Barack Obama’s election to a second term. His final forecast, which came out on the eve of Election Day, accurately predicted the outcome in all 50 states, and Obama and rival Mitt Romney’s tallies in the national count. (He also got the forecast right in 32 of the 33 Senate races.)
The classic press covered the presidential election campaigns via “the boys on the bus”: reporters who accompanied the candidates on the campaign trail and described their encounters with voters, and the work of the campaign staff. The father of this genre was Theodore H. White, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on John F. Kennedy’s race for the White House (“The Making of the President, 1960”), and accounts of the presidential campaigns of 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1980. The greatest American political commentators got their start accompanying the candidates on long journeys by plane, train and bus, through long, alcohol-soaked nights.
Silver rid the field of the romance and fraternity atmosphere, and introduced a new scientific approach to political coverage. He did not meet with Obama and Romney for background conversations, but wrote about voters’ positions as reflected in the polls. He compared the results of hundreds of surveys – nationwide and state-specific – and focused on the swing states that determine the outcome of the vote. A few days before the election, he summed up in a brief sentence why he thought the incumbent president would win: “Obama leads in Ohio.”
As election time grew near, Silver became the compass of the American media. The veteran commentators – and primarily writers on the right, who saw him as an agent for Obama – argued over his credibility, comparing his work to the old model of watching the candidates in the field and on television, and then exercising judgment. The readers voted for Silver. In the final days of the campaign, his blog broke online traffic records. Everyone wanted to know what the oracle was thinking. The assessments of experienced journalists seemed much less relevant.
Silver represents the new digital press: He edits himself, is not subject to a deadline for going to press or airing a news broadcast, is not limited to a word count, and reveals to his readers his statistical model and all the data on which he relied. Anyone can follow his links and get the full picture. Anyone can share Silver’s posts with their friends. And anyone can respond.
This complex experience was not possible in the one-directional world of print media and television. The readers and viewers of 2013 will no longer settle for less.