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An update about me, FiveThirtyEight and the future after the Disney layoffs
Last Tuesday morning, April 25th, I woke up to a short text from my boss at ABC News asking if we could speak at 10. I immediately suspected it was bad news. She and I are usually pretty relaxed about scheduling — so the specificity of the timing was ominous. By the end of the day, about two-thirds of the FiveThirtyEight staff had been laid off as part of an ongoing series of job cuts at Disney.
It wasn’t that much of a surprise given the depth of the Disney layoffs. But it was still devastating news. I’ve been at Disney for almost 10 years and it’s sad that my time is coming to an end. ABC News and ESPN gave us the freedom to experiment with data journalism a decade ago and their support meant a lot. We were still building the plane while we flew it and there was an obstacle course of successes and failures.
Just a week before the layoffs, we’d done a live podcast taping — our first New York show since the COVID-19 pandemic — selling out The Bell House in Brooklyn. I’m glad that we had that opportunity; it was a reminder of the special thing we’d built, even if behind the scenes we were all very nervous about the future. My colleagues at FiveThirtyEight are extremely passionate about their work, and they’re extremely conscientious people. Mass layoffs are brutal things that send best-laid plans to the four winds. If you're looking to hire ex-FiveThirtyEight staff, I would highly recommend them. (Although, as I'll explain in a moment, there are scenarios where I'd love to work with them again myself.)
However, I’m still just in the middle part of what I hope will be a long and fulfilling life and career — so it’s been weird reading news coverage that’s been framed in the past tense. I want to use this space for a just-the-facts update on what plans are already in place for my next chapter and where I have some decisions to make.
Let’s start with the “easy” part. I’ve spent much of the past two years working on a book about gambling and risk for Penguin Press. I am very excited about the book.
It’s an ambitious book. Subtopics include: poker, sports betting, game theory, venture capital and entrepreneurship, effective altruism, rationality and utilitarianism, existential risk, artificial intelligence, the cryptocurrency boom and the collapse of FTX, the commercial gambling industry, the personality traits associated with risk-taking, and declining life expectancy and changing attitudes toward risk in American society.
That’s a lot to take on, and part of the challenge is in explaining why this nerdy set of topics makes for a coherent whole. But I’ve been putting in a lot of work. The book is research- and reporting-intensive. I’ve interviewed something like 160 or 170 people and had a lot of very cool first-hand experiences. The reporting is mostly done and I know more or less what I want to say. But I still have the bulk of the writing to go — I’m about 25,000 words in so far.
The other thing I know is that whatever comes next, I’ll want to have a broad portfolio of subjects to write about. Not just politics, in other words. And not necessarily even mostly politics. The cluster of topics around risk that I’m covering for the book really suit my unique life experiences, interests and skills. I know a lot about that world and the people in it. I’ll also want to continue to write about and analyze sports. I find I often have more to say about these subjects than the “political topic du jour”. But I do have a lot of value to add when it comes to polling and elections — and as you might have heard, there’s a big election coming up. So I’m not sure yet how to strike a balance between covering those other topics and 2024.
The hard part is what to do about everything FiveThirtyEight-related. I obviously care a lot about the legacy of FiveThirtyEight's journalism, including the ongoing viability of the statistical tools and models we’ve been publishing. It’s not just that I think these models have a lot of journalistic value — I’m also a big consumer of them myself. When the Denver Nuggets won Game 1 against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night, and then beat them again on Monday, I wanted to see how that affected the odds for the rest of the NBA playoffs. FiveThirtyEight was the first place I turned to. When I wanted to know how much further Ron DeSantis had fallen against Donald Trump in the latest GOP polling average, I looked first to FiveThirtyEight as well.
But how to preserve that legacy isn’t so clear. Here’s where I need to get more detailed.
Much of FiveThirtyEight’s vital intellectual property — such as the election forecast models — is merely licensed to Disney. The license term for these models expires with my contract this summer. I still own these models, and can license or sell them elsewhere. To be clear, Disney does own some stuff. They own the trade name “FiveThirtyEight”, for instance. There are also some complicated cases — for example, for some of the sports models, I own them, but Disney gets to keep a copy when I leave. But I own the core election forecasts and Disney doesn’t have any ongoing rights. The contract I signed with Disney/ESPN in 2013 and the renewal with Disney/ABC in 2018 were always designed to keep my options open if something like what happened last week came to pass.
So… I'm now exploring those options! If you want to get in touch, you can email me here (at NATE DOT SILVER DOT MEDIA AT GMAIL DOT COM). In the meantime, I'll continue to post occasional updates in this newsletter. Thank you for your support over the years. I take some pride in keeping my chin up amid uncertainty, I have a loving partner and a great support network, and I'm optimistic for what the future holds.
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