Nate Silver's ESPN-owned FiveThirtyEight site is not going to be The Nate Silver Show + a few contributors. Silver's plan is to make it a Grantland II, of sorts.
"I'm actually out here kind of meeting with you and [Grantland publisher] David Cho and the Grantland folks because that really is a lot of the vision for what FiveThirtyEight is going to be like," Silver told Bill Simmons on the BS Report today. "We're going to be hopefully hiring a number of other smart people to write and edit and make beautiful visualizations and graphics."
Silver said he came to ESPN because he said he liked what they did with Grantland. We hadn't realized how seriously he meant that. This is not going to be MMQB, which, in addition to Peter King, has a staff of three. Silver's hiring—we heard he's looking for a staff of up to 15 people—and sports and politics won't necessarily drive the site.
"It's not gonna be just in sports," he told Simmons. "Sports might be a third of the content, politics might be a third."
Silver's not going to write about politics as much, either. Because it's boring.
"I'll probably be writing a little less about politics now—not so much the kind of daily grind or the play-by-play," he said. "It's also the case, by the way, that this is not a super interesting year in politics right now. You go back to Monica, and then the 2000 election, and 9/11 and 2004 was a close election and 2008 was historic, right? 2012 was another close election. A really good run of political events that, again, we look at things and assume it's kind of the new normal when it's really an outlier, right? Politics were pretty boring during the mid-90s and so forth when Clinton blew out Dole and not much to write about, really."
This is why, apparently, ESPN's FiveThirtyEight will be much broader. The things that made Silver a superstar—or made Politico, Politico—won't necessarily be in play for that much longer, he said.
"You look at where the news cycle is going and I'm kind of aware that 2016, I think, will be fascinating, but I'll be frank. I think 2014 midterm will be dull as compared to other most recent elections," he continued. "There's not much at stake where we know that GOP's gonna control one branch of Congress—almost for sure—and we know Obama's in the White House through 2016, so you don't have really control of all of DC at stake and that makes it less compelling."
At several points Silver hinted that there was some tension with him and the Times, the news outfit he rented his blog out to for the last three years (Silver wants people to stop calling 538 a blog, too). The tension might not be between him and newsroom directly, but between him and the paper's business side. Silver, curiously, hasn't written a word for the Times since his departure was announced, even though his contract is supposed to extend through the end of August.
"I probably won't be writing for them anymore," he said at one point. "Basically, I'm kind of moving on," he said, cryptically, at another point.
Silver compared ESPN to the Times, unfavorably.
"It's different than being in a kind of newsroom culture," he said. "I love the New York Times newsroom, the people who run it. But it's constrained a lot from its business strategy point of view whereas here if you can dream and justify it—you can't just say I'm going to do something whimsical that doesn't make any sense—but if you can make a good case for something then you have a lot of freedom here."
Hmm! What else does he have to say about the Times and its business side?
"I feel like this will get me in trouble, maybe. But I feel like with all the traffic the Times has right now it should be turning a much larger profit than it does right now. Right?" he said. "They get so many eyeballs and so much high quality traffic—the demographics are really good, people with a lot of disposable income—that it should be a goldmine for advertisers. If you're having trouble I don't think you should blame the environmental conditions so much as maybe your sales staff isn't that good."
And then Silver came thisclose to accusing the Times of sorta-bitterly leaking the news of his departure, which was reported first by The New York Times.
"The gap in between when we informed people we weren't going with and when it became a news story was conspicuously short. But we won't get into—"
Too bad. Anyway, what was he saying? Oh, right. That talk of him being a key contributor to the new Keith Olbermann show is overblown.
"It's not a TV play first and foremost. It's a web play." He called it "a digital-first brand by ESPN."
A sampling of what sports will look like at FiveThirtyEight:
"We're talking about what we're going to do in basketball, for instance, right? We're probably not going to invent like a super stat or projection system, at first. But I'm kind of obsessed with this idea of looking at the trade-offs when a guy takes a shot—the high volume scorers, how many of them really are in situations where the team is not surrounded by a good, efficient players and you're running up the shot clock and you have to launch something up versus guys who are kind of ball hogs basically. There are probably ways to measure that. And we hope to look at that. That's something which is a bite size chunk of something versus saying we're going to solve the entire game of basketball or the entire game of player valuation. Right? You kind of do little bits and pieces of it and specialize in those.
"It's narrative in a sense, right?" he continued. "Where you kind of are trying explain something in a narrow sphere that people can then think about and can apply to broader spheres. Like I said, it's almost more of a feature magazine, kind of glossy mentality where you blow certain things out in a really compelling way instead of trying to cover a little bit of everything."
In addition to hiring a staff, Silver said he wants to create a "strict style guide" for it. Malcolm Gladwell—also on the podcast—said he can't wait to write for it, so I guess he'll be writing for both Grantland and FiveThirtyEight in the near future. And, before the site is up and running, Silver will posting stories on Grantland.
"I feel like, look, 2016's a big year because of the fascinating election that we'll have but this is a really a three, four, five, multiyear play," he said. "And [ESPN is] buying the brand. And people ask, why did you sell the FiveThirtyEight brand? Well it's because you have someone who can be more invested in the long-term and not be worried that: Oh you put resources in and they come right back out when Nate's contract expires. To have that is a very luxurious situation in some ways."
Silver said the goal is to launch the site on Jan. 1. Simmons suggested a few times that might be too ambitious. They settled on the fact that'll launch somewhere between January and March.