Compromising Values for Profit

If you want to stay true to your morals and values, stay small. That’s the lesson from Nate Silver’s successful FiveThirtyEight blog/platform for election predictions.

There may also be a second major issue with FiveThirtyEight, which we will describe as one of economy. We start this part of the discussion by noting that every one of us who is writing about politics this year benefits from a horse race. “Things are the same as they were yesterday” is not a story. “Clinton extends her lead” and “Trump makes up ground on Clinton” are. Similarly, we also benefit from finding things that are new and different to talk about. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his rallies tended to get relatively little media coverage; not because of any particular bias against him, but because they were all the same. You can only write, “10,000 young, mostly white people show up to cheer Sanders” so many times. Hillary Clinton, evenhanded and cautious as she is, also tends to give us relatively little to talk about much of the time. With Donald Trump, on the other hand, it’s several new and outrageous and previously unheard of things almost every day. Hence his dominance of the headlines.

Point is, all the political sites have a certain bias towards “dog bites man.” However, there is reason to believe the bias is unusually strong for Silver and his crew. Many political sites and prognosticators—NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, Bloomberg Politics—are part of organizations for whom political coverage is part of their core mission. Others—Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Harvard Political Review—are part of (and are supported by) universities. Still others—HuffPo, Breitbart, Politico, The Hill—are already stable, self-sustaining businesses. And a few—this site, Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium—are side projects of academics who already have day jobs. The point is that while we all like page views and clicks, none of these sites is—as far as we know—facing an immediate existential crisis. Page views could go up or down by 50%, and most or all of the above would keep on trucking.

In short, the article accuses Nate Silver of selling out for money rather than maintain purity of form with insightful and articulate wonky coverage of elections. This is why the most profitable ads that you see on sidebars of major sites are Outbrain specials with outrageous sounding taglines like: “The cameraman kept rolling when she did this” and a picture of a half naked woman. Or how about, “You won’t believe what Donald Trump’s daughter looks like now.” Unfortunately for humanity, insightful blogs like this one and Marginal Revolution can only hope to get half the number of clicks and views, because we cater to the intelligentsia rather than to the lowest common denominator.

Unfortunately, the business mantra of know your audience and know your customer apply to online as well. Just like in the real world, sex, celebrities, and controversy are what draw customers and eyeballs. Eventually, in order to make money, businesses have to bow to reality and cater to this crowd. The alternative to retain control is to remain small and niche (and by extension less profitable), without an overlord or owner to dictate content based on productivity.

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