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Summary:

The departure of FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver from the New York Times — and the bidding war with ESPN that preceded it — are just more evidence of how the balance of power has shifted in favor of the individual media brand.

The New York Times got hit by a bombshell late last week, when the news broke that star blogger Nate Silver is leaving to join ESPN, and taking his popular FiveThirtyEight empire with him. According to a report from Politico, the Times tried hard to keep Silver — offering him a staff of writers and editors, as well as the ability to write for other sections — but the blogger decided to jump ship anyway. His decision reinforces how much the playing field has been levelled when it comes to the relative power of individual brands and media platforms.

Politico’s version of the negotiations describes how NYT executive editor Jill Abramson and Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt fought hard to keep Silver at the paper because they saw his “brand within a brand as a wave of the future,” and wanted to build a version of the DealBook model — a separate unit run by blogger Andrew Ross Sorkin — around him. The Times reportedly offered the blogger a staff of six to 12 who could help him write about a variety of topics other than just politics. As Politico put it:

“Abramson and Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt, another key player in the drive to keep Silver, saw his brand-within-a-brand as a wave of the future. They wanted Silver to bring his secret sauce to other areas of coverage. And they want to develop other Nate Silvers, in the mold of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s pioneering DealBook. So Silver’s role as the template increased his value to The Times.”

Individual brands have more power now

It’s not surprising that the Times would want to hang onto Silver, since at one point during the election his blog accounted for a staggering 20 percent of the traffic to the entire NYT site. Despite a difference of opinion with public editor Margaret Sullivan over a bet he wanted to make with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough about the outcome of the vote, Silver seems to have been able to write his own ticket with the paper. And it must have been tempting to be offered a chance to build a mini-empire like Sorkin’s within the Times (Sorkin talked at our paidContent conference in March about the benefits of working for the NYT).

So why did the FiveThirtyEight blogger decide to decamp for ESPN instead? It could be that the network just appealed to his love of sports-related statistics — which is where he got his start — and seemed to give him more opportunity to write about sporting topics than the NYT did (in its overview, Politico describes how Silver apparently “felt unwelcome in the Times sports section, and seemed to struggle to fit into its culture”).

Or it may have been the offer to use his expertise as a commentator on ABC News for election-related issues or even events like the Oscars, since ABC and ESPN are both owned by Disney. ESPN has also built its own version of the star-blogger empire model with Bill Simmons of Grantland, and reportedly offered Silver a similar deal for FiveThirtyEight.

Update: NYT public editor Sullivan has written a post about Silver leaving and says from her point of view part of the problem was that he never really “fit into the Times culture, and I think he was aware of that.” She also says that some NYT staffers disliked what he did in part because he “disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics.” As she put it:

“The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work.”

The balance of power has shifted

What the whole affair makes even more clear is that individual brands like Silver’s have more pull than they have probably ever had when it comes to negotiating with platforms like the Times and ESPN, because the balance of power has shifted in their favor. There have always been individual writers with star power, and media outlets have always fought to keep them or lost bidding wars over their services — but the ability for some writers like Andrew Sullivan to go solo and reach an audience directly has taken that whole phenomenon to a new level, even if Sullivan hasn’t reached his funding goal yet.

Obviously, not everyone is going to be Nate Silver or Andrew Ross Sorkin or Andrew Sullivan. But there is more opportunity and bargaining power in an individual brand than there has ever been, and that means outlets like the New York Times are going to have to try harder to come up with reasons why a blogger like Silver should stay with them instead of either seeking a better deal or going solo. They are no longer the only game in town.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / ollyy

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  1. This is absolutely on point. In a way, the “acquisition” of Nate Silver is similar to Twitter acquiring Vine early or Facebook buying Instagram. With Grantland as its case study, ESPN feels it has found its sweet spot in developing personalities that can then spin-off into their own platforms. It would even appear Sports Illustrated is stealing a page out of the playbook with the launch today of MMQB.SI.com spearheaded by Peter King.

    These personalities are the only thing that separate them from the SB Nations and Bleacher Reports of the world. This is why a guy like Skip Bayless will continue to have his own TV show despite having thrown any journalistic approach out the window years ago; he’s a personality and he takes the most polarizing position on everything.

    As media continues to become more and more fragmented, the power has shifted to the individual. For guys like Simmons and Silver, the media co. allows them to reach a wider audience and gives them greater access with out having to worry about overhead and page-views.

    – @catchTK

    1. Thanks, Tim — well said.

  2. Yes. This story is about the emerging power of the individual media brand. But paradoxically. it’s also about the heft of the multi-platform media conglomerate. ESPN/ABC/Disney can offer Nate Silver many more opportunities to extend his brand than the un-consolidated NY Times.

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