ESPN officially announced on a conference call this afternoon what the rest of the media world learned over the weekend: that Nate Silver, he of FiveThirtyEight fame, was moving his blog from the New York Times to ESPN. Silver, according to an afternoon press release, will run a new version of his old site at FiveThirtyEight.com, where he will serve as the editor-in-chief “and will build a team of journalists, editors, analysts and contributors in the coming months” that will cover sports and other topics, including economics, science and technology, and culture.
The new site is modeled off of Grantland, the all-purpose culture and sports site edited by former ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons. It will exist separately from ESPN but will augment its brand in new ways, and those who might be sad Silver is leaving politics shouldn’t fret: he’ll provide the same analysis he became known for at the Times at his new site and will also work with ABC News during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
Grantland is an important aspect to the story, since it provides the model for the new FiveThirtyEight. The site has been an unabashed success in the two years since it launched, so it’s no surprise ESPN wanted to duplicate it, and Silver’s site sounds like it will end up as Grantland with more numbers. Silver and Simmons are a lot alike, big names with devoted online followings who will bring traffic and readers and influence, and Silver repeatedly stressed the editorial independence ESPN has given Simmons as important to why he took the job. And while he guaranteed the new FiveThirtyEight would cover sports, politics, and economics, the rest is up in the air and dependent on who he hires, much like Grantland’s beats developed more through the voices that came aboard — think Wesley Morris’ movie reviews and cultural critiques or Jonah Keri’s baseball coverage — than through a specific plan to cover certain aspects of sports.
But as important as Grantland may be, it seems the fact that ABC and ESPN share Disney as a parent company may have been even more so. ESPN president John Skipper credited ABC for “stepping up” as a partner to give Silver a place to cover politics, and it points to a growing synergy between the companies that is giving all three companies new opportunities and allowing ESPN to branch out as a total media operation rather than one focused solely on sports. There have been other signs of that synergy before: ESPN and ABC work together on sports coverage, Disney uses ESPN programs to promote its movies, and Disney is hoping its new Marvel Comics-based show, “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” will help boost ABC’s lagging ratings. When all three work together, it gives them opportunities that other places don’t have, and Silver is evidence of that. “Politics remains at the core of what he does,” Skipper said of Silver, and it seems that without ABC’s existence as a perfectly-placed partner to offer Silver a place to reach a broader political audience than he could have through an ESPN-affiliated site, I’m not sure this would have happened. That ABC was there, though, allowed ESPN to offer the type of package, complete with all of the topics Silver wants to cover and the independence he wants to cover them his way, that other competitors couldn’t match.
The site won’t launch for several months — Silver’s contract with the Times ends in August and he wants to have a team in place before the full site goes live — and how Silver will integrate on ESPN and ABC television shows isn’t clear yet. All in all, this seems like a positive step for both Silver and ESPN, which bought the FiveThirtEight web site and brand for an undisclosed amount (Silver only gave license to the Times to use the site and the name). It’s also good news for fans of smart, analytical, and reasoned news coverage, both of sports and of other issues. If Grantland truly is the model, ESPN is going to give the Silver the budget he needs to assemble a talent-laden staff and contributor network that will bring a unique voice on a variety of topics. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine it not working out the same way Grantland has.