FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average

Just a few minutes ago, Nate Silver’s new FiveThirtyEight site launched. While it’s not known how much ESPN is paying Silver, it’s certainly a substantial amount, especially when you consider 20% of visitors to the New York Times stopped by Silver’s blog.

Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is one of a growing number of personality-driven sites and blogs, including Ezra Klein and Vox, Andrew Sullivan and his eponymous blog, and Silver’s colleague at ESPN, Bill Simmons of Grantland. All three are successful because of the Internet, their readers (including myself) love them, what’s not to like?

The ongoing death of the newspaper is, particularly among newspaper folks, attributed mostly to the loss of advertising dollars. For example, writing in response to Marc Andreesen’s bullish tweets about the future of news, Ryan Chittum wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review:

The existential problem for the news is that the Internet has unbundled advertising from content creation. The new digital monopolies all have hundreds of millions of people creating free content for them. That’s where the big profits are. Oh, sure, there are major differences between the old newspaper monopoly distribution model and the digital one. But the similarities are greater.

The equivalent of Google, Facebook, and Twitter in the pre-Internet days would be a newspaper that shut down its newsroom, kept the ad department (though replacing much of it with robots), and printed stuff other people wrote. Today, Facebook’s got your weddings, baby announcements, and soccer pictures. Twitter’s got your breaking news. And Google’s got your stock listings, sports scores, news, recipes, etc. Oh yeah, and Craigslist has your classifieds.

The problem with Chittum’s analysis – and why I think he missed Andreesen’s point – is, ironically, his choice of words. “News” does not mean “newspapers,” and while the latter is surely dead, the former is, for readers anyway, entering a golden age.

My father has always subscribed to the paper; The Wisconsin State Journal, specifically, which makes sense, given that I grew up in Madison. As far as newspapers go, the Wisconsin State Journal that I grew up with was probably about average, right in the middle of the bell curve:

Pre-Internet, some papers were great, some were terrible, most were average.
Pre-Internet, some papers were great, some were terrible, most were average.

Long a news hound, I read that paper cover-to-cover throughout high school, and, when I headed off to college, marked the occasion with a subscription to the New York Times. I was moving up in the world.

Today, though, I don’t subscribe to the Times, and I only read an article in the Wisconsin State Journal when I’m visiting my parents and forget to bring my phone into the bathroom. Instead I get most of my news via Twitter, and it’s amazing. Take, for example, this piece I read yesterday about “anonymous” apps like Secret and Twitter: it was posted on Medium, a site built on the idea that nothing matters beyond the content of an individual post, and it was probably the best thing you’ll read on the subject. Over the last 24 hours I’ve also enjoyed this tech piece at Daring Fireball, this basketball piece by Zach Lowe at Grantland, this literary piece from the Guardian, and this culture piece in the New York Times.

The net result is that my news consumption looks a lot more like a power curve than a bell curve:

Today I can afford to read only the best, regardless of where it is published
Today I can afford to read only the best, regardless of where it is published

Most of what I read is the best there is to read on any given subject. The trash is few and far between, and the average equally rare.

This, of course, is made possible by the Internet. No longer are my reading choices constrained by time and especially place. Why should I pick up the Wisconsin State Journal – or the Taipei Times – when I can read Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Bill Simmons, and the myriad other links served up by Twitter? I, and everyone else interested in news, politics, or sports, can read the best with less effort – and cost – than it ever took to read the merely average just a few short years ago.

Nate Silver’s manifesto for his new site is 3500 words long, meaning it would take the average adult just under 12 minutes to read. That 12 minutes is then gone forever, a bit of attention taken from whatever other activity said reader would have otherwise consumed, and instead gave to Nate Silver. That is why Nate Silver is so valuable.

The implication of my news consumption being dominated by the tall skinny part of the power curve is that those who can regularly appear there – the best of the best – are going to win the zero sum game for my attention. And, for that, they will be justly rewarded.

What then, though, of the tens of thousands of journalists who formerly filled the middle of the bell curve? More broadly – and this is the central challenge to society presented by the Internet – what then of the millions of others in all the other industries touched by the Internet who are perfectly average and thus, in an age where the best is only a click away, are simply not needed?

This is the angst that fills those in the news business, and society broadly. The reality of the Internet is that there is no more bell curve; power laws dominate, and the challenge of our time is figuring out what to do with a population distribution that is fundamentally misaligned with Internet economics.