How ESPN Hired Nate Silver Away From the NYT

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 22 2013 7:57 AM

Nate Silver's Move to ESPN Comes With the Keys to His Own "Digital Empire"

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Nate Silver attends the 16th Annual Webby Awards at Hammerstein Ballroom on May 21, 2012 in New York City

Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

As we learned Friday night, all-star statistician and one-man traffic machine Nate Silver is taking his talents to ESPN and (to a lesser extent) ABC News, where the soon-to-be-former New York Times polling blogger and psephologist is expected to take on a wide-ranging portfolio centered on sports and politics. According to Politico's Mike Allen's sources, however, the early reports about Silver's new gig paint only part of the picture of what is shaping up to be Silver's new "digital empire," something that sounds a whole lot like a cross between Ezra Klein's Wonkblog at the Washington Post and Bill Simmons' Grantland at ESPN [emphasis mine]:

[Silver] was promised extensive air time, a role in the Oscars (airing on ABC through at least 2020), and a digital empire that may include websites devoted to weather, education, economics and other topics. ... Silver’s youth and credibility were hugely attractive. The model they proposed to Silver was Bill Simmons, “The Sports Guy,” who has a personal megabrand within the ESPN brand .... ESPN kept Simmons in part by making him editor-in-chief of a new ESPN website, Grantland.com, devoted to long-form journalism. In the quest for Silver, ESPN enlisted ABC News, which could provide a high-profile platform during elections and conventions. And Silver clicked with ABC’s political personalities: George Stephanopoulos, Jonathan Karl, Jeff Zeleny and Rick Klein. ...
Under the deal, to be announced soon, [Silver's] flagship will return to FiveThirtyEight.com, which currently clicks through to NYTimes.com. The business model mirrors Grantland’s: a strong, independent brand that ladders up to the bigger brand of ESPN (and, in this case, ABC News). Nate will appear on the air on ESPN and ABC, and will get “verticals,” or web hubs, devoted to a variety of new topics. He’s very interested in education, so there’s been a lot of conversation about that. And, of course, weather and economics. His Oscars predictions did well for The Times, and now he’ll work for the TV home of the Oscars.
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Allen's unnamed sources make no mention of the initial report from the Time's Brian Stelter that Silver could also be used as a regular contributor to ex-MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann's new sports show on ESPN, which is set to begin airing later this summer. (There were initial reports that Olbermman's contract bars him from talking politics on his new show. The outspoken liberal, however, has disputed he's contractually barred from doing so, but nonetheless suggested he'll avoid the topic unless there's a clear sports hook.)

Regardless, the promise of regular TV hits sounds as though they went a long way in sealing the deal for ESPN. The Times was reportedly willing to offer Silver the world to stay put—including a staff of as many as a dozen under-bloggers—but ultimately the Gray Lady doesn't have the television presence to match what the Disney-owned networks can offer in terms of cross-platform promotion. [Elsewhere in Slate, Matthew Yglesias explains why Silver's hire is "a very elegant solution" to the major media business problem caused by the ebb and flow of most Americans' interest in politics.]

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

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