Lessons from FiveThirtyEight: How One Wonky Guy Kept Me Up At Night

November 24th, 2009

(Guest post by travel writer Sheila Scarborough.)

Chicago-based Nate Silver, a baseball statistician and analyst with Baseball Prospectus, was ticked off about politics.

As a data-driven guy who appreciated precision, the sloppy use of political polling information drove him crazy. From his perspective, there didn’t seem to be a site that really dove into poll data analysis in a relatively balanced and knowledgeable fashion.

What do you do when you’re one smart person with a vision and enthusiasm? You launch your own butt-kicking Web site. Let’s talk about the power of his FiveThirtyEight.com site and the lessons that both old and new media can draw from its success in the 2008 elections (538 is the number of votes in the Electoral College.)

I’m not a political journalist, only a news junkie citizen, but FiveThirtyEight kept me enthralled during the election. I would stay up past one o’clock in the morning, repeatedly hitting Refresh on my laptop screen so that I wouldn’t miss a single thing that Nate and his team posted.

What was so compelling?

  • Quality and depth of Nate’s information. Almost all of the mainstream media US maps predicted individual state election outcomes simply by coloring the state red or blue. Only FiveThirtyEight had minute color gradations (light pink to dark red, for example, indicating how much a state was predicted to go for Senator McCain.) Only FiveThirtyEight maps accurately portrayed the two states that split their electoral votes: Maine and Nebraska. Silver even showed a blue box around Omaha (the Second Congressional District) surrounded by red-tinted Nebraska, because the Obama campaign worked that area very hard to try to win its one Electoral College vote (and they did win it.) I loved this sort of detail. Lesson: Don’t dumb down your information. We’d prefer the full story.
  • Human interest narratives that also predicted election outcomes. Only on FiveThirtyEight did a tiny team of guys travel to multiple states to interview and accompany ground workers in both the Obama and McCain headquarters. Over and over, from Troy, Ohio to Grand Junction, Colorado to a damning photo in Florida’s Panhandle, it was obvious from their digging and persistent reporting that the Big Mo was in the Obama camp and not with McCain. I never saw this sort of detailed ground campaign storytelling anywhere else. Lesson: Show us what’s going on by telling gripping stories, even when those stories are buried in relatively obscure towns that no one else is talking about. We want to know.
  • A lively, engaged community makes a Web site even more powerful. I rarely saw such interesting readers and commenters as I did on FiveThirtyEight. Sure, there were the usual trolls and yellers, but there were a lot more people who were thoughtful and impassioned about the unfolding political process. Some got pushy, wanting to know why the latest daily Rasmussen poll analysis wasn’t up by a certain time. Others were concerned that Nate was still posting information at 3 am as the election neared its end. I began to recognize certain commenter names and would smile or groan based on what I knew to expect from them.Lesson: It’s not only about detailed data, or interesting stories – it’s also about the people who come to the site, hang out and chat.

One baseball stats nut who loved well-presented polling data. One bare-bones Web site. A couple more people running around in a car doing interviews across the country. Insanely detailed analytical posts about voters with dense explanatory graphics (my math teacher husband told me that they were “rectangular coordinate system scatter plots.”) That was it…that’s all that FiveThirtyEight had going for it, but they kept me up nights with “just” that.

What can your media organization do to keep readers up at night, hitting “Refresh” and trying to figure out how to read a scatter plot? Which reporters have that kind of passion and drive, and what can the organization do to help fuel their fire?
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Sheila Scarborough is a writer specializing in travel, the social Web and NHRA drag racing. She’s also the co-founder of Tourism Currents: social media training for tourism professionals.

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Entry Filed under: blogging,case study,Guest Post

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