Who Knew Nerd Click Bait Was So Sexy?

A few weeks ago, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann released the follow-up to their 2009 best-seller Game Change, given the best title their publisher's Department of Inane Clichés could devise (though I'll grant that Double Down: Game Change 2012 was a bit better than Game Change 2: Game Changier would have been). The revelations weren't particularly revelatory, sales have been less than overwhelming, and an HBO film version seems unlikely. The behind-the-scenes campaign account as a journalistic genre is now half a century old, having been initiated by Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960, and it's showing its age. Is it interesting to know what Mitt Romney thought of the ads that were produced for his campaign, or whether one Obama strategist was feuding with another? Sure, if that's your thing. But it's hard to argue that learning the inside dope means you understand what happened in a truly meaningful way.

Dustin Wayne Harris/Patrick McMullan/Sipa USA

But we have seen a genuine leap in the explanatory power of political journalism in the last few years. Somewhat surprisingly, it's coming from newspapers, supposedly a pack of journalistic dinosaurs gazing up in horror as the meteor of the internet comes to wipe them off the face of the Earth. Some of the nation's leading papers are acting as though a multidisciplinary model—combining traditional reporting with detailed data analysis—could offer their readers something reporting on the doings of "newsmakers" can't on its own.

If you read the American Prospect, chances are you also read Wonkblog, The Washington Post site run by former Prospect writer Ezra Klein. You probably also know Nate Silver, who in the course of a couple of years went from being one of the thousands of diarists on dailykos.com to being as hot a media property as there is; after a stint at The New York Times, he took an offer from ESPN, where he'll oversee an entire team of writers and analysts using data to illuminate a wide variety of issues. Perhaps most revealing was that the Times reacted to Silver's departure by investing resources to make sure it continued the kind of data-driven work he was doing. With Silver's FiveThirtyEight brand departed, they created a new project helmed by former Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt and including respected economist Justin Wolfers, popular historian Michael Beschloss, graphic designer Amanda Cox, and Nate Cohn, who had been doing work similar to the better-known Nate for the New Republic.

When Klein titled his site "Wonkblog," it was a knowing nod to the idea that you might have to be some kind of think-tank fellow to be interested in deep dives into economic policy or posts with a dozen charts on health care outcomes. But Wonkblog turned out to be of the most popular destinations on the Post's web site. If the Times didn't think they could have the same success, they wouldn't have put their new version of 538 under Leonhardt, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the paper's biggest stars.

The common thread of these projects is the belief that 1) policy matters as much as politics, and 2) there are often empirical answers to the questions reporters ask. Among other things, that requires an engagement with the work of academics who think about the same issues as political reporters. For many years, those reporters thought there was nothing they could learn from political scientists. There was some basis for this belief—many political scientists ask absurdly narrow questions or spend too much time trying to find empirical support for self-evident propositions. But to reporters, a political scientist was nothing more than someone you could call for a quote to reinforce what you already knew to be true; you wouldn't care what he was researching. But a smart political reporter today understands that there are lots of political scientists doing work that bears directly on what's happening in campaigns and policy debates, and understanding their work can enrich your reporting.

It helps that many (not all by a long shot, but many) academics now engage the broader world with blogs and other contemporary means of disseminating their work. At the same time, data-driven journalism has been made possible by the instantaneous access that the internet provides. Had I wanted to write a piece like this one 15 years, ago, it would have required a trip to the library and a bunch of photocopying and data entry. Now I can just pull up the historical tables in the President's Budget, download the data I want as an Excel file, and I'm ready to make and interpret my charts. To (some) reporters of a certain age, that's a kind of voodoo.

That doesn't mean every reporter needs to have a degree in statistics, but it may mean that the best results come from combining the work of the people who know how to work a source with the people who know how to crunch numbers. Newspapers already have more of the former than anybody, and they're getting more of the latter. Some of the best work to be found anywhere in the last few years in the graphical representation of information comes from newspapers (this post explains what makes The New York Times' data visualizations so good).

Data can't tell you everything, but it can tell you a lot. The trick is knowing what kinds of questions it can answer and which parts of the story it leaves out. That isn't to say Game Change 3: Change Harder won't tell us some juicy stories about the 2016 presidential election, for those of us who find the behind-the-scenes machinations of politics interesting. But the mistake old-school political reporters sometimes made was thinking that there was only one way—their way—to understand politics. What's so valuable about the multi-disciplinary model (which, by the way, we've been doing here at the Prospect for most of its existence) is its understanding that all of it—the candidate's strategy, the impact of policy on individual people, and the broad outcomes on society that can only be grasped with detailed data—are key to understanding the political world.

You may also like