In the summer of 2010, the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.com, a statistics-based political blog operated by statistician Nate Silver, entered into a three-year partnership agreement. As part of the agreement, the New York Times would host FiveThirtyEight under its banner in the “Politics” section on its website for three years, and, in return, FiveThirtyEight would receive technical and editorial assistance from New York Times staff, while Nate Silver would also be able to post editorial columns in the print edition of the Times at least once a month. The deal is beneficial to both Silver and the Times: Silver and FiveThirtyEight are now able to tap into NYTimes.com’s enormous readership and utilize the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reputation to its marketing advantage, while the Times can tap into FiveThirtyEight’s younger audience and unique, quantitative analysis of political issues, while also adding a cool new blog to its user-friendly, one-stop-shopping online politics interface.
In many ways, I believe that this partnership between the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight has been beneficial to readers: after all, one-stop shopping for political news, quantitative analysis, video, and election archives makes such information easier for readers to access and arguably more interactive and enjoyable for politically-minded readers. Having more readers consuming Silver's unique, data-based commentary about political events is also likely a net plus for democratic discourse, at least in my opinion. But I also think there are potential drawbacks that can come from the increasingly-common trend of partnerships being formed between new media websites and legacy media institutions, which can definitely be seen by looking at the partnership between the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight over the past eight months.
For starters, it is important to keep in mind that the profit incentive nearly always reigns supreme with legacy news media organizations, much more so than with many new media sites such as FiveThirtyEight. This fact can, under many circumstances, can affect the accessibility of new media organizations' content when they choose to partner up with legacy organizations by licensing out their content to legacy news media sites. For example, the New York Times has decided to institute a paywall in an attempt to wrangle revenue out of its most frequent online readers, which will affect how readers of FiveThirtyEight, who are accustomed to accessing the blog for free whenever they want, are able to access Nate Silver's posts to that blog. The 20-article limit that the Times has imposed on its users' access to free content applies to FiveThirtyEight posts because of the partnership between FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times. This means that FiveThirtyEight readers must make do only with an occasional reading of Silver's material, or they must pay for his content. This will undoubtedly limit the amount of readers who will frequent Mr. Silver's blog, at least to some extent. It also means that access to his blog could become more limited to those who can afford to pay for it. And, while he has been generally understanding of the Times' decision to create a paywall, even Silver himself has, understandably, expressed some ambivalence about the Times' paywall, both to journalists and on his blog. Although, again, due to the agreement he entered into with the Times, he is more or less powerless in his ability to either change the Times' new paywall policy or exempt his blog from it.
Another major issue that can arise when new media organizations partner up with legacy media organizations under the banner of said organization is the potential for editor-driven changes in content. The New York Times, for instance, currently provides "editorial assistance" to Nate Silver and his blog, which has led to certain changes in the posts on FiveThirtyEight. As Silver himself admits, his blog's partnership with the New York Times has forced him to be more formal and less confrontational in his writing style. Though Silver claims the actual substance of his writing hasn't been significantly affected by editors, he admits that his rhetorical approach to political blogging has changed since partnering with the New York Times, which is something that critics of legacy media-new media alliances would point to as a negative consequence of such partnerships.
Finally, the number of guest contributors on the blog has also changed substantially since the partnership began: prior to the start of the agreement, approximately half of the posts on FiveThirtyEight came from guest contributors - political science professors, well-known political journalists, or other statisticians. In the eight months after the partnership began, an astounding 85% of FiveThirtyEight blog posts come from Nate Silver, and Silver admits that editors from the Times strongly discouraged him from bringing on certain guest contributors due to their style of writing or their perceived political biases. This represents a substantial loss of content diversity for FiveThirtyEight.com, the cause of which can be directly attributed to the partnership between FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times. Although this particular change might not constitute censorship in the more heavy-handed sense - at least in my opinion anyway - it certainly has the same net result in many ways, and can certainly be seen as a negative consequence of FiveThirtyEight's current partnership with the New York Times.
So, in the end, do you think that the partnership agreement between the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.com has had a net positive or a net impact on consumers of political journalism? Do such partnerships between new media and legacy media organizations represent a positive trend that promotes a healthy change toward easy-to-access, one-stop-shopping consumption of political journalism and news analysis? Or, on the contrary, do such partnerships represent a negative trend that adversely impacts the quality and consumption of online political journalism and news analysis? Though I ultimately believe the benefits outweigh the harms, especially in the case of this particular partnership, I am by no means completely convinced, and I look forward to reading any thoughts on the subject that anyone might have.