I’m not an expert on numbers or people, let alone how the two interact with each other so I look to the wisdom of others. One of the first sources that I started looking at is the website FiveThirtyEight.com. And one of the first people that I followed on Twitter (journalists love Twitter, in case you didn’t know) was Nate Silver, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief.
Silver started the site in 2008 in an attempt to add substantial quantitative analysis to the media’s coverage of the presidential election. Over the past eight years, FiveThirtyEight (also called 538, in reference to the number of votes there are in the Electoral College) has grown to include coverage of politics, sports, science & health, economics, and culture. These are the categories as listed on the site’s main navigation bar at the top of the homepage.
In 2013, FiveThirtyEight.com and its brand were bought by ESPN and Nate Silver was officially positioned as the site’s editor-in-chief. According to Wikipedia, the expansion of coverage beyond politics occurred when ESPN became the owner, and this seems to be correct. On the homepage, you’ll see the latest stories and feature stories up top, then more stories below and some videos. In the sidebar, there is a section for the interactive graphics for the presidential election forecast and predictions for the NFL and MLB.
FiveThirtyEight was created in order to give better and more accurate polling numbers to readers in the 2008 presidential election, so it makes sense that the site has a prominent page dedicated to illustrating this election’s forecasts. I would hazard a guess that the predictions for which teams will win the playoffs in their given league were created for the benefit of ESPN, but the graphics are nevertheless interesting for readers following those sports.
Making money is not the main goal of the website, though there are some display ads, namely one header ad at the top of the page and one small one in the sidebar. As managing editor David Firestone put it, “We’re committed to making money, but our real goal is to help ESPN expand its audience and to become a new, long-lasting part of ESPN’s brands.” More information about how the website is making money and how it plans to increase revenue can be found here.
The topics and content of the reporting at 538 is driven by data analysis, it strives to explain the numbers and does so beautifully. They produce articles such as this one on the effect that the oil and gas industry is having on Oklahoma’s fault lines, as well as longer features such as this piece about an experiment on mosquitos in Florida that scientists hope will lead to eradicating the Zika virus.
In September, the site had 50.7 million visits which climbed from just 20.6 million in June of this year. Vox, arguably one of FiveThirtyEight’s biggest competitors, had more site visits earlier in the year but dropped down around August. Site visits to these two sites seem to be inversely related, when FiveThirtyEight saw an increase in site visits, Vox’s traffic was declining. While Vox sees a lot of traffic coming from social media, FiveThirtyEight gets almost 75% of its traffic solely from direct web traffic and search traffic, meaning that most of its readers are already familiar with the site.
I think that, overall, FiveThirtyEight readers are loyal to the site and go to it directly for its content just like I do. I enjoy the insights that they draw from real-world data and how they present it to their readers. I think that FiveThirtyEight has a lot of good substance to offer and I hope that they will continue to do what they do best, report on the numbers.