538 AND COUNTING: By the end of the presidential election, you could be forgiven for being convinced the line between traditional media and online upstarts had irrevocably blurred.
Anchors live blogged, Politico.com cohosted a primary debate, and it was sometimes hard to tell which formerly ink-stained reporters rushing their scoops online were on the candidate’s plane and which never left their offices. And then there were the breakout stars of the Web, some already known to media and political junkies and some who emerged so quickly as authorities it took a while to remember how unlikely that rise would have been four years ago.
Forget that YouTube didn’t exist four years ago. FiveThirtyEight.com, which began as an anonymous venue for 30-year-old baseball statistician Nate Silver’s take on the Democratic primary polling and became essential reading in the days before the election, didn’t exist nine months ago. That didn’t stop Silver, and to a lesser extent co-writer Sean Quinn, from becoming authorities to mainstream news organizations, who invited them to write for them and to appear on their shows talking about polls (Silver) or, as the election approached, field operations (Quinn). A 37-year-old former attorney, comedy writer, and field organizer for Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s 2006 campaign, Quinn is hardly in the mold of a traditional journalist.
But the past eight weeks saw him engaged in a very old-fashioned journalistic activity: getting out there and getting the story. He and photographer Brett Marty traveled 14,000 miles and visited 14 states and too many field offices to count (Quinn estimates at least 100) during the campaign.
Their dispatches on the site provided a detailed window onto the ground game that would have been either too expensive or not sexy enough for a major news organization to pursue.
“I knew that if I went and reported on the ground game, I’d be able to walk into these offices and understand what was happening in the way that journalists who don’t have that background couldn’t,” Quinn recalled.
He and Marty bonded on their travel style: Quinn once walked across the country on foot; Marty drove from California to the tip of South America in a Buick. The two drove across the country and showed up unannounced to interview volunteers and organizers (the latter were able to talk only off the record) and a few local communications directors. The dozens of dispatches he filed to FiveThirtyEight (named after the total number of electoral votes) varied from detailed analysis of field strategy to portraits of volunteers to opinion essays, and they appeared with Marty’s photography.
As for style, Quinn said he finds himself unconsciously mimicking “the style you read in the newspaper.”
“If what I do can stand with other journalistic work, I don’t know that you need to label it citizen journalism; it’s just journalism,” said Quinn.
But there’s a key difference with most campaign reporting: on election night, Quinn planned to be in the pressroom in Chicago, near Barack Obama headquarters, but he would have just canvassed in Indiana for Obama and donated $100, all he could afford, to the campaign. Both Silver and Quinn are up-front about their support for Obama.
“If I’m making the decision to cover both sides, I’m going to do my level best to report what is actually happening. But I’m also not going to play a game where I just pretend that now I’m a reporter that I don’t have the human side of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t canvass for Barack Obama on Election Day.”
Quinn and Marty wanted to cover John McCain campaign’s efforts, too, but they found mostly empty offices and reluctant communications staff. “If McCain had had a great operation, Obama’s would have been many degrees better,”
Quinn said. The long, hard-fought primaries had left Obama organizers with an unusual amount of experience, a head start and a base of enthusiasm. As it turns out, based on what he found, “McCain had one of the worst.” During his visits, there were more people in an Obama Atlanta office than were in five McCain offices in Florida combined.
What Quinn sees as the limits of traditional journalism became clear on Oct. 31, when national press attention turned to the ground game. “We read the published comments from McCain spokespeople that argue the dialing canvasing numbers are ahead of where they were at the same time four years ago,” Quinn wrote on the site. “Well, either the Bush ground game of 2004 was the Big Myth, or those spokespeople are flat lying to reporters, who have no context to challenge those claims because they haven’t seen the empty offices the way we have.”
“I don’t like to be confrontational,” said Quinn recently, “but in some ways the facts are confrontational.”
The tough part in Quinn’s eyes is trying not to let his excitement about the scope of the campaign’s volunteer outreach overwhelm him.
“If I were pretending to be a neutral person that would be lying to the readers,” Quinn said. But he added, “We’re in unchartered territory….I think that’s one of the beauties of what we’re doing. We don’t have to fit into any categories. [The notion of objectivity] would apply in The New York Times’ pressroom. We don’t ride on the fancy plane. We’re not insiders in that sense. That’s OK. We do what we do.”
FiveThirtyEight remains independent, though Quinn said there have been “people throwing money at us.” The site had 3.63 million unique visitors in October and 32.18 million page views, and Silver has been ubiquitous. The team is busy planning a post-election life of number-crunching and reporting that could include sending Quinn to Washington to be the site’s White House correspondent. Ironically, if he gets the access, it could make Quinn closer to that Washington insider that is currently his polar opposite. “I think the fun thing would be to be in the briefing room,” he said.
That said, “I didn’t start doing this so I could get a traditional job in journalism. I did this because I loved doing it and I thought, ‘OK, if you do something that you love doing, let those other situations find you,’” Quinn said. — Irin Carmon