Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is taking a minor beating from critics during its launch week.
The stats whiz, famous for correctly predicting the 2012 election for President Obama, launched his new flagship website on Monday. In a mission statement, Silver explained the site was aimed at making data journalism accessible to the general public; many media critics have scrutinized how Silver’s vision will affect the new media landscape. (Silver left the New York Times last July after his contract expired and signed with ESPN.)
So far, the critical response has failed to live up to the hype. Econ-journalists and other techies expressed disappointment in the site’s launch.
Economist Tyler Cowen was perhaps the most scathing, saying that he felt like it suffered from a catch 22 of being too cerebral for the masses and too frivolous for data wonks. “I have long been a fan of Nate Silver, but so far I don’t think this is working,” he wrote.
Here is a piece on economic data. What it says is fine, but it won’t interest me. I wished this piece on hockey goalies had been longer and more analytic. The same is true for this piece on corporations hoarding cash, which also could use more context. Maybe it is I rather than they who is misjudging the market, but to me these are “tweener” pieces, too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also winced at the new site.
“Here’s hoping that Nate Silver and company up their game, soon,” Krugman said. “What worries me, based on what we’ve seen so far — which isn’t much, but shouldn’t the site have debuted with a bang? — is that it looks as if the Silverites have misunderstood their mission.”
The Wire’s Connor Simpson was equally bummed:
Depending on how you look at it, the new FiveThirtyEight lands like a dud. Maybe that is because expectations were so high — Silver is literally a wizard, so could he not conjure up a fresher look? Something that would revolutionize the Internet as we know it? Those expectations are unfair, of course, but the delivered product still underwhelms.
GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram questioned whether Silver had a deep enough audience “for the kind of number-oriented explanatory journalism he want(ed) to focus on.”
The Week’s Ryan Cooper wrote that the site’s mission to just do analysis without an ideological framework was doomed to fail. He urged Silver to review journalism professor Jay Rosen’s earlier thought piece on the drawbacks of journalism neutrality:
“If Nate Silver wants to patch up his stumbling enterprise, and not just make an extremely expensive Freakonomics knockoff, that’s where I would start,” Cooper said.
New York Magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells thought Silver’s efforts, while satisfactory, left his readers with a “very slight sense of letdown.”
“The articles, after all, are pretty good — lucid and nicely eclectic,” he observed. “But the theme running through many of those pieces — pieces, presumably, carefully chosen to put FiveThirtyEight’s best foot forward — was that the right data simply didn’t exist to answer the questions its own journalists had raised.”
Wallace-Wells’s feeling appeared to echo many other takes on social media:
- Paul Kedrosky (@pkedrosky) March 17, 2014
Sorry, the more I read of 538 the more disappointing it is. Like this infomercial for Bayesian numbers. http://t.co/pVs4MjRT0V
- Heidi N. Moore (@moorehn) March 17, 2014
Honestly, http://t.co/EYmzQurBPm‘s low quality (thus far; it’s early) makes me kinda sad. I want ventures like this to succeed.
- Gartenstein-Ross (@DaveedGR) March 18, 2014
http://t.co/zHvMgZxnPr is up today. Burritos? Sad but unavoidable. Bracketology? Fully expected. Climate change ‘skeptic’? Sucks.
- Matthew Hubbard (@ConfidenceOfVic) March 18, 2014
Hm, the fat friendly typeface on the new @FiveThirtyEight site looks like complete crap on lo-rez monitors.
- Tim Bray (@timbray) March 17, 2014