Poll Wonkery Goes Big Time

The New York Times announced today that it would begin hosting FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s stat-wonkery site that shot to fame dissecting poll data during the 2008 election. Henry Farrell comments:

Newspapers have traditionally been highly allergic to statistics, charts and the like, in the belief that they turned readers off. FiveThirtyEight has demonstrated that there is a sort-of-mass readership for this kind of material, if it is presented in the right way. That the New York Times has bought the site — and is seeking to integrate Silver into its broader operations — suggests that it wants to tap into that market.

Hmmm. I guess “sort-of-mass” covers a lot of territory, but I have my doubts that the readership for heavy duty number crunching is any bigger than it’s ever been. Instead, I’d guess that “presented in the right way” is really the operative phrase here. And that doesn’t so much refer to the way Nate displays his results (though he does a very good job of it), but the fact that he’s pretty clearly a liberal partisan. I don’t mean that in the sense that he distorts his results to favor a liberal point of view — as far as I can tell, he doesn’t — just that he’s very good at addressing the topics that liberal readers are most interested in hearing about.

To a certain extent I think this is the future of political journalism. Readers of political reporting pretty clearly prefer a point of view, but in its more rarefied precincts that doesn’t mean they want the obvious agit-prop of a Fox News or conservative talk radio. They want their facts more or less straight, which is what Nate provides, but they don’t want to wade through thousands of words of junk to find the bits and pieces they’re interested in. Rather, they want a guide who already knows what’s important to them and puts it front and center. That’s what FiveThirty-Eight.com provides. The fact that it’s all number-centric is secondary.

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