The game has changed

As moves by Nate Silver and Pete King suggest, it's better to be cocooned inside Big Media than go it alone--even for stars

Over the weekend, the media world was shaken by the announcement that mathematical guru Nate Silver, the dude who buried Republican fantasies with arithmetic during the 2012 presidential election, was changing jobs. Silver packed up his New York Times-hosted FiveThirtyEight blog and decamped for ESPN/ABC/Disney.

Terms of the deal are still unknown, but it is presumed that Silver will have a similar set-up to what ESPN gave Bill Simmons with Grantland: a Web fiefdom of his own, staffed by whomever Silver fancies, and access to whatever other media outlets Silver cares to dip into. He’s not likely to crop up as a co-host of ESPN’s NBA pregame show, a la Mister Bill, but ABC News and Keith Olbermann, whom ESPN recently brought back home in a staggering rebuke to Thomas Wolfe, figure to use Silver’s algorithms liberally, especially in election years. And don’t be surprised if his new digs become home to a great deal of weather-related statistical models, as that is a Silver hobbyhorse.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Peter King, the lead NFL writer for Sports Illustrated for roughly a quarter century, took his vanity website, The MMQB, live. As with Simmons and Grantland, the site promises to deliver not only King’s writing but also that of others he deems worthy, along with the musings King is well-known (and occasionally mocked) for, all hosted under the SI banner, with plenty of clicks delivered by the mothership’s Internet firehose. Unlike Grantland, King’s site is limited by the seasonality of his preferred sport, and by (presumably) his disinterest in fanning out into pop culture, something Simmons enjoys. But the site is sure to be heavily trafficked during football season, which these days is nine months of the year anyway.

(Full disclosure: I have written for Grantland in the past, hope to again, and will be more than happy to write for The MMQB as well. Welcome to 2013, where whoredom is not only in fashion among the writing class, but is practically a requirement. It’s like the Five Points, circa 1860, for us out here.)

Whatever the differences, the gestalt behind Grantland, The MMQB, FiveThirtyEight, and others, like Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook at the Times and Nikki Finke’s, is the same. Boundary-breaking, creative shooting stars online are being given the opportunity to extend their brand via the personal website—albeit with a catch. Unlike Oprah, say, or Martha Stewart, the writer is still lowly enough in the big picture to require systemic support from a mega-corporation. While King and Simmons are hardly starving, they aren’t empire-builders like Oprah. Blame the male-tilting demographics of sports, I suppose.

Silver’s prognostications received outsized attention because he was making them under the imprimatur of the Times, which both legitimized and drove traffic to FiveThirtyEight. Eventually, Silver’s excellence began to flip the script, but even now, when his intellectual rep is that of Mister Spock and Will Hunting combined, a standalone website devoted to his every whim seems precarious. He’s much better off synergizing with the Disney goliath, where he will have a far larger potential audience than even in the fall of 2012, when the majority of visitors to his blog were frantic Democrats seeking a warm blanket in the face of any Romney uptick in the polls.

And he won’t have to spend all his time figuring out how to stay alive as an independent, as Selena Roberts, a former SI and Times columnist, is forced to do with her website, Roopstigo. Without the brand-behind-the-brand, Roberts has virtually disappeared from the sports-media consciousness, save the occasional j’accuse aimed at a dirty program or athlete (she apparently has her own, inherited safety net, so she probably doesn’t care).

The fervent hope is that we are at the forefront of a new type of creative epoch; much as the 1970s belonged to the cinematic auteur, and the 2000s to the television showrunner, perhaps the 2010s will be known as the Era of the Web Brandsmith. After all, both Robert Altman and David Chase operated freely, but within the corporate structure. While the anarchy of the individual blog era was fun for a while, inevitable it has become co-opted by Big Media. As Simmons, and hopefully King and Silver, prove, this new creative paradigm has legs. Perhaps other writers with a following and a point of view, like Jason Whitlock, will be next.

This particular prostitute is also available, if any of you deep-pocketed johns are reading.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , , ,