Nate Silver on Managing Journalists: “There Are Three Strategies”

Nate Silver, who runs the FiveThirtyEight website at ESPN, talks with economist Tyler Cowen about how to manage journalists:

COWEN: You run the website, FiveThirtyEight. It’s your vision, you founded it, you developed it. You took it to ESPN. Over those years, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned about managing?

SILVER: Basically there are three strategies, three fundamental strategies of management when you have a disagreement with something that one of your employees is doing.

One of which is you can give up. Right? You can say, “Well, I’m not going to pick this battle to fight, because there’s a consequence to lowering this person’s morale, or I’m tired, I have other issues.” So you can capitulate.

Number two, you can fiat. You can say, “Well, sorry, but I’m ultimately the one who signs your checks,” or my boss signs their checks, but, “This is the line of authority, and we are not going to publish that article. I’ll explain my mind later on.”

Number three is you can try and persuade instead. Which sounds perfect except persuasion is really, really time consuming.

Figuring out which ones of those three tactics to use and in what ratio is important. I actually found though, overall, that there’s like a little bit more value in micromanagement than I thought. Not about everything, but strategically saying, “I’m going to spend a lot of time going into detail on this one.” Or, I guess it’s just mentoring, I guess, is a way to put it.

COWEN: Which sports coach or manager are you most like? Vince Lombardi, Gregg Popovich? Who do you draw inspiration from? Do you think about it in these terms?

SILVER: I’m not arrogant enough to compare myself to Popovich. But I’m like, I’m laissez-faire, but when I weigh in on something, I’ll weigh in pretty directly. I think you do have to pick your battles a little bit. You have to hire really well.

But it’s a culture of creatives and a culture of journalists, and journalists are strange and wonderful people, and data journalists are still journalists too, but you have to kind of trust people to make their own decision.

A big thing, too, is kind of figuring out which one of my deputies, the other managers and editors on the staff, what’s my agreement ratio with them. It’s incredibly valuable to have someone who, without your intervention, agrees with you 80 percent of the time. Then the 20 percent of the time that they don’t agree with you, that they’re right as often as not.

If it goes to 95 percent, then they’re a sycophant, and it’s probably bad. If it goes to 60 percent, well, then, you might as well do the work yourself. Figure out the people who will listen to you, but also challenge you at the right times.

From Jack Limpert:

In 50 years as an editor, I managed a lot of journalists and Nate Silver’s most important point is “You have to hire really well.” Easier said than done since journalists are, as Silver points out, “strange and wonderful people.”

There’s also a big difference between hiring writers and hiring editors.

With writers, I wanted to see what they had written. Does the first 300 words make you want to keep going? One of the sins of writers in Washington, a city that attracts a lot of well-educated people, is what I thought of as very sophisticated writing—I went to Harvard, see how smart I am. The best writing has simple language and sophisticated ideas, not the reverse.

And is the writer a good reporter? Again, I’m much more interested in your reporting than in what you think. Good reporting is hard, think pieces are easy. And they’re a dime a dozen.

Does the writer know something—about health or education or food or fashion—that will lead to good stories?

How much you pay a writer, and how often you use a writer, depended on how good the stories were. An editor doesn’t have to like a writer—we don’t have to be pals. One of the weaknesses of some editors I worked with was wanting to work with people they like—with writers, it shouldn’t matter.

Hiring and managing editors is harder. When hiring a senior editor, I liked people who had been the number one editor at a smaller operation—they understood what’s needed to do good journalism.

With young editors, there’s a lot of mentoring and the challenge is figuring out what’s the upside: How good can this editor be?

By far the biggest headache with young editors and writers was hoping, after six months, that he or she was going to improve so let’s not end the relationship just yet. Then sometimes after another six months or year you realize that no, they’re not getting better and you should have acted sooner and now what’s the decent thing to do. In the golden age of print, there were plenty of jobs out there and you could help someone find something elsewhere. Now it’s harder and the longer you wait the bigger the headache.

Silver’s agreement ratio is a wonderful insight into what to look for in editors. Someone who always agrees with you is useless, something who enjoys disagreeing too much is a problem. Eighty percent sounds right.

Great journalism, as shown in the movie Spotlight, is often a collaborative effort with room for 20 percent disagreement to go with all the hard work. Won’t it be something if more than 40 years after All the President’s Men won best picture, another movie about doing good journalism is the year’s best picture? Someone who knew Ben Bradlee and knows Marty Baron should do a good piece on how alike and different two great editors can be.
Here’s a link to Marty Baron’s reflections on watching himself on film and going to the Oscars.


  1. Donald Smith says

    When I worked at the WaPo magazine, Ben Bradlee once tried to explain to me how managing their hyper-competitive newsroom reporters, who would walk over their granny’s grave to beat a fellow reporter to a story, required the skills of a lion-tamer.

  2. “Someone who knew Ben Bradlee and knows Marty Baron should do a good piece on how alike and different two great editors can be.”. Excellent. Please post or link if you come across such a piece. Bradlee’s autobiography A GOOD LIFE is one of those books I’d want to have on a desert island.

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