Sullivan’s no-betting admonishment can be read as a way of trying to redraw the line around the institution. It’s not a question of better or worse, but it’s about being different. News organizations have to change radically, adopt new mores and styles, and conform in ways large and small to a new news culture. But on the other hand, they shouldn’t dissolve into the new culture altogether.

I make the case for journalism institutions here. But even apart from big-picture arguments, different is good, right? Even if the line may look increasingly arbitrary, in fact it’s not. So inside this line there will be certain rules, even if others have no use for them. The rules have to be smart, of course, but rules emphasize the differentness, the integrity, if you will, of The New York Times from the vastness of the Internet that is not The New York Times.

I think it’s a good exercise, even if the betting issue might not have been the cleanest one. Columnists, which is what Silver is, get a lot more latitude than news reporters in expressing themselves; and newspapers haven’t always been the prim, mineral-water-drinking institutions they are today. Still, a rough consensus formed: Most agree that whether or not the bet was appropriate, it’s probably not a good idea for columnists to make a habit of it. The process wasn’t pretty, but that’s engagement for you.

The real lesson of the episode is that despite all the heat the clash of institutional/digital cultures wasn’t much of a clash at all. Views were exchanged. Life goes on.

What was surprising about the episode wasn’t that it showed the incompatibility of digital and institutional cultures, but the opposite.


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.