Audit Notes: Stray on Silver, the new-old Black, ‘rocketing’ from a low base

Data-based journalism and its potential; an ex-mogul takes a flogging, etc.

The best thing about the faux-controversy between New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan and political stats whiz Nate Silver is that it brought attention to what Silver actually does and how it differs from traditional journalism, in this case, what passes for political reporting.

(If you missed it, Silver offered to bet MSNBC talking head Joe Scarborough on the outcome of the presidential race. Sullivan says the bet wasn’t appropriate. She’s actually probably right on the narrow point, but, again, it’s a tempest in a teapot).

And the best take on all of this comes from Jonathan Stray, a go-to source on digital data deployment (say that five times fast) and its potential to upend journalism for the better. He’s right that digital literacy separates fact-based analysis from the other kind, aka bloviating. And while there’s a place for gut-level political analysis, there’s also a good reason that a lot of traditional political reporters are feeling threatened by their data-wielding counterparts.
(Over at TPM, a reader makes a smart point that data-based analysts are harder to mau-mau than hunch-based ones.)

Stray points out the benefits of aggregation, in this case, aggregating many smaller data samples (i.e. individual polls) into one mega sample:

This situation is not unlike the battles over aggregation and linking in the news industry more generally. Aggregation disrupts business models and makes a hash of brands — but in the long run none of that matters if it also delivers a superior product for the user.

That’s a whole discussion, but certainly worth having.

Finally, Stray says the Silver case demonstrates the need for increased specialization in journalism and that more is needed particularly in financial journalism.

That’s another discussion worth having. But for now, I’ll offer the counterexample of Gillian Tett, the Financial Times writer (justly) credited with being one of the few to raise alarms about derivatives before the crash. In her book and elsewhere, she credits, explicitly, her status as a curious outsider with allowing her to see what insiders could not. Indeed, one of her main themes is the danger of the insular cultures bred by “technical silos.” And as we’ve seen so many times, journalists are not at all immune to insiderism.

Tett, by the way, has a PhD not in finance, but in anthropology. Her dissertation was on Tajik weddings. Just sayin’.

—Check out Eric Ellis, who strips the bark off of Conrad Black, ex-newspaper mogul/convicted fraudster who has been on a tour to promote a book and, implausibly, rehabilitate himself after his US convictions for looting the now-defunct Hollinger group.

Here’s a sample:

His schtick has been the same on each appearance. Everyone’s wrong except for Black and his fellow travellers; had his fraud case been heard anywhere but America he would never have been convicted, therefore he’s innocent globally. Like Armstrong, he’s guilty of nothing except choosing immoral business partners, unreliable directors and misjudging the zeal for corporate governance. He repeatedly claimed that he was never convicted for fraud, when the US Supreme Court — and his own book too — confirm he was. “I never cleaned the latrine,” he insists of his time in the lock-up. “It was a shower stall.” Which must be an important distinction for a convict.

Ellis also compares Black to, yes, Jimmy Savile, “another criminal who’s been all over the box recently.”


Black, for his part, pins his argument on the fact that most of his convictions have been overturned and that only two remain. Excellent point. And if he manages to get just one more overturned, he’ll only have infinity times more felony convictions than most people.

—I’m glad the market for paid cultural content, including newspaper subscriptions, is rising. Paywalls seem to be proving themselves as plausible business model for newspapers, at least for the medium term. Plus, they provide the right incentives for journalism quality, while free models provide the opposite.

Still, this Guardian story is a bit breathless when, relaying a research report’s findings, it says that paid-content sales globally will rise 65 percent to $8 billion by 2017, with consumer spending on digital news “rocketing 77 percent to almost £250m.”

The catch, as always, is the low base: £250m, or $400 million, is not a big number, given that the US print circulation revenue alone is about $10 billion.

The growth rate is just okay, considering, and “rocketing” is decidedly the wrong word.

—It figures that just when I got my new (ahem) iPhone 5 it would be time to break up with Apple.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: ,