Nate Silver, the New York Times, and the Challenge of Being Your Own Disruptor

Earlier this week I wrote about longtime public broadcaster KCET merging with the independent, nonprofit online and satellite news org, LinkTV. I believe a key benefit for KCET is bring a great, global web savvy team into their newsroom. More and more we are seeing longtime news organization bringing outside innovation in-house.

However, the tension between the New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, and one of their leading election year stars, statistician Nate Silver, shines a spotlight on the difficulties of bringing in innovation from the outside.

Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog is licensed by The New York Times. He also writes for the Times on occasion but is still considered a kind of contract or freelance employee. In August of 2010 when Silver announced that FiveThirtyEight was moving to NYTimes.com he called the relationship a partnership. The terms of the agreement were for three years, so time is almost up.

As many have noted, Silver’s method of analysis and prediction has disrupted and contradicted the long time pundits who peddle in horserace politics. This, and the fact that his predictions have been leaning in Obama’s favor, have made him a target for partisans and pundits alike. This debate has been covered extensively.

However, this controversy has now spilled over into his own host organization, and is raising questions for all news organizations who want to “disrupt themselves.”  This is a debate we need to be having, but it shouldn’t devolve into picking sides. Changing institutions from the inside out is incredibly challenging work, but incredibly important.

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