FiveThirtyEight And The Death Of Mediocrity

March 18, 2014

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or just aren’t a fan of data-driven journalism, you know that yesterday marked the long awaited launch of “Stat Nerd King” Nate Silver’s new venture

It comes to life fully formed, with features, charts, design, data, data and more data. It’s pretty and fascinating.

Yet while the site itself is certainly going much farther than just Silver’s much lauded presidential election predictions and March Madness brackets, it also heralds something more important: the death of mediocrity.

No, it’s not SO good that it instantly renders everything else subpar. It’s just the latest in a long line of nouveau-journalism popping up from the ashes of the dying print media behemoths.

FiveThirtyEightFoxAs Silver himself might say, the data has become too overwhelming to ignore. When traditional newspapers folded en-masse, journalists were left to asses the wreckage, look into the future, and ponder what’s next. What many saw was an opportunity to do high-quality, niche reporting, with a lean, tech-startup mindset. Sites like Bill Simmons’ Grantland for sports and pop culture, Ezra Klien’s Vox for investigative journalism, Walt Mossberg’s Recode for tech news, Bill Keller’s The Marshall Project for the criminal justice system, Propublica, Politico, and the list goes on.

All of these are filling the vacuum that was left when traditional print news imploded and they surely wont be the last as the papers continue to die. All are experiments in revenue streams, structure, breadth vs. depth, audience, content, etc. and some of them will surely fail miserably. Some will grow into new media empires. One thing is for sure though, what all of these bleeding edge news ventures have in common, is they are all betting on, above all, that quality wins.

In fact, you can really boil down their bets and philosophies, including Nate Silver’s opening day manifesto, to the idea that quality is the ONLY thing that matters. And they’d be right. Newspapers took the lowest common denominator approach to get as many subscribers in order to get their sinking ship afloat, but the only traditional news publications still above water were the ones who were “beyond reproach”, like The New York Times. But in today’s 24-hour news cycle and social media glut, there is SO much fighting for attention that the only way to cut through the clutter is with content that is really, really, really good.

What news organizations are fighting for is a slice of any consumers attention. They are screaming out to be clicked on in someone’s Twitter feed or be one of the five go-to links in someone’s morning coffee routine. There is a finite amount of space and there is so much good content out there, that OK is not good enough.

But tech news sites are not just competing with other tech news sites. Data driven journalism is not competing with other data driven journalism sites. In fact, if that wasn’t the case, FiveThirtyEight would win the day by virtue of being unique in its approach, being first to market so to say. However, the modern day internet and social media has taken content that used to be siloed and made it so it all has to compete on an equal battlefield. Where there once was a land of 10,000 lakes, now there is only a vast digital ocean of undifferentiated content.

That’s why it’s not even fair to call FiveThirtyEight or any of these new sites “news”. Afterall most of them are creating documentaries, feature articles, infographics, books, podcasts, movies, and more. Would you call Grantland’s 30 for 30, feature length documentaries “news?” Or what about the books they publish? The podcasts?

And that’s the sandbox everyone is playing in now. News, movies, media, journalism, photos, novels, podcasts, TV shows, and other designations are no longer valid. When each is going toe-to-toe for such limited attention spans, all has to be judged against the other. That’s why FiveThiryEight IS competing with the New York Times in a very real way. But it’s also competing with Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “HBO’s “True Detective,” coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and everything else. All of it is simply content. And the only way to win against competition that may be more established or have vastly more resources? Be better. Easy. Only quality can differentiate, standout, and sustain. So if you make anything, from a humble Tumblr to a tech start-up to a richly funded news organization, you better be really damn good.

If not, you’re dead.