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David Leonhardt Explains How the NYT Will Replace Nate Silver

Neilson Barnard/GettyImagesEntertinament/Getty Images

“You pulled a Dick Cheney,” New York Times graphics editor Steve Duenes has teased Washington, D.C. bureau chief David Leonhardt. Leonhardt will take over a new Times website located “at the nexus of data and news [that] will produce clear analytical reporting and writing on opinion polls, economic indicators, politics, policy, education, and sports,” as executive editor Jill Abramson said in a memo (first reported by Politico). Another way of putting this? It’s a website to replace FiveThirtyEight, the Nate Silver outlet that, with Silver, decamped for ESPN in July. (In August, when I wrote about the Times’ future, making Leonhardt the new Silver was already in the air.)

Like Cheney, who headed the running-mate search committee that selected himself, Leonhardt served on a Times newsroom committee overseen by assistant managing editor Janet Elder that placed him in-charge of the result. “I cannot credibly plead innocent to that. But it didn’t start that way,” Leonhardt told me Wednesday afternoon. “Only once we got to the point that we agreed on the breadth of this, that it should really involve resources, did I think, ‘Wow, this is a really perfect fit,’ and evidently other people agreed.”

As part of a reshuffling, politics editor Carolyn Ryan will take over as D.C. bureau chief and Washington editor Carl Hulse will become Chief Washington Correspondent (with the current occupant, David Sanger, focusing his national-security beat more finely) and head up a morning tipsheet to rival Politico’s Playbook. Ryan did not return a request for comment.

The new site, which will work closely with assistant managing editor for new initiatives Larry Ingrassia, also made four hires: presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Times graphics designer Amanda Cox, economist Justin Wolfers, and The New Republic’s Nate Cohn. “In addition to our core team, we’re excited to work closely with the Times’s supremely talented staff in economics, politics and so many other areas,” wrote Leonhardt, a Pulitzer Prize winner, in a staff-wide memo (which was made available to me and is printed at the bottom of this post). “Stay tuned for more announcements in coming weeks.” Translation: They’re not done hiring.

Leonhardt’s memo begins with Cox, and he made it clear to me that he sees the Times’ graphics department as his nascent, as-yet-nameless site’s biggest advantage over obvious rivals like FiveThirtyEight and The Washington Post’s Wonkblog (he declined to comment on whom the site would be competing with). “I don’t think there’s any debate that we have the finest graphics department in the country. They already do a huge amount of work, but they can do a lot more if we give them some more resources,” he said.

As an example, he cited articles he wrote over the summer about inequality in the United States. They—here’s one—might be described as Snowfall-lite: The graphics are robust but not dominant, and exist less to set a mood (or, if you’re a “Snowfall” hater, to overwhelm) and more to complement the words.

Of the four hires, Cox is the only woman. This was an echo of yesterday’s news, in which Silver announced several additions and the only woman was a visual designer. “It’s really important to me that we have a diverse group of people working on this,” Leonhardt said. “Some of these areas have been traditionally male, but I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been involved in building, from a gender perspective, the most diverse team of economics writers anywhere.” He cited staffers Shaila Dewan, Annie Lowrey, Catherine Rampell, and Motoko Rich, and added, “It’s true that some of these areas have historically been quite male, but it’s possible to change that, and it’s already changing. It’s also true that some areas—education policy and health-care policy and legal journalism—look a little better than, say, political journalism.” He also praised Cox, calling her “one of the most important journalists at the Times,” and pledged that we will be seeing more of her byline on the new site.

The website itself, to begin with, will focus on politics and policy, but Leonhardt, who will also write a weekly print column, said he hoped that the staff could look for enterprise work farther afield. “There’s a huge opportunity for this kind of journalism in sports,” he reported. “We’re already talking in some detail with the sports department, and we will be doing things in sports.” The website will be under the primary purview of Larry Ingrassia, the assistant managing editor for new initiatives.

Asked why the kind of analytical, data-driven journalism that his site hopes to practice has attained such great purchase over the past five to ten years, Leonhardt answered like, well, an economics writer. The Internet, he said, “has turned journalism into more of a market, in which good work can rise to the top. I think people have realized that judging presidential elections based not on crowd sizes but fundamentals like the economy and polls is a better way to do it. It took us too long to realize this, but judging house prices based on fundamentals like income and rent is a better way to do it than saying house prices have never gone down.”

He added, “This form of journalism—using facts, using reality to try to tell a story in a series of realms—has won a battle of ideas.”

Below: The memo sent to staff

To the Staff,

The first batch of appointments for our new politics-and-policy venture offers a good preview of where we’re going with it. They are mix of Times journalists and new hires, all of whom share an ability to cut through the clutter and illuminate the essence of important subjects. I’m thrilled to be their colleague in this project.

Amanda Cox – one of the smartest, most creative journalists at The Times or anywhere else – will anchor the graphics coverage for our new venture. If you have been lucky enough to work with Amanda, you know how talented and collaborative she is. Amanda uses her “natural skepticism, combined with a background in statistics and a sharp wit,” to quote Steve Duenes, “to demonstrate that data can come to life in ways that readers hadn't pictured.” She has been a creative force behind some of The Times’s most successful and surprising graphics in recent years. Expect to see a lot more.

In addition to Amanda, the entire graphics department – the envy of every other publication in the country – will play a central role in this project. As Steve puts it: “The Times's Graphics department has been looking for a vehicle like this for some time, and there is immense visual and interactive potential here. We’re going to regularly draw on our strongest members to see if we can create a new notion of daily graphical excellence. We’re a pretty diverse bunch of cartographers, designers, researchers and developers, and we’re going to put our weight into this. It’s going to be fun.”

The project will also include close collaboration with The Times’s stellar polling group: Marjorie Connelly, Megan Thee-Brenan, Allison Kopicki and Dalia Sussman. They will continue to do what they already do so well: running our polls and working with reporters and editors to translate other polls. They’ll also share their smart thoughts with our readers even more often than they now do, frequently writing for the new site.

As for our new colleagues:

Michael Beschloss, the eminent historian and Twitter sensation, joins us as a contributing columnist. Michael has created one of the most enjoyable and hottest feeds on Twitter – @BeschlossDC – by surfacing photographs from the past with a connection to the present. For us, he will write a daily column, typically related to a photograph. To his excitement and to ours, he will not be limited to 140 characters on our site, and will provide daily analysis, writing about the historical back stories to the major news events we are watching every day. Michael’s work will bring an added layer of visual appeal to the site. He will also underscore an important theme in much of our work: the past is often a guide to the future. When I was talking to Jill about our recruitment of Michael, she said how much she learned from every conversation she has had with him. Now our readers will benefit from his knowledge and insight.

Nate Cohn joins us as a correspondent from The New Republic, where he has established himself as one of the sharpest minds on politics, polling and demographics, among other subjects. Nate’s work during the 2012 campaign and his work in the recent elections demonstrated why he has become a must-read for so many people. He can write in-depth pieces explaining the root forces behind our politics, and he can live tweet election returns better than anyone. Prior to joining The New Republic, he worked on foreign affairs at the Henry L. Stimson Center. I can’t wait to see what Nate and our graphics department do when they start working together.

Justin Wolfers, one of the most consistently thought-provoking economists working today, joins us as a contributing columnist. A professor at the University of Michigan (among many other things), Justin has written about everything from prediction markets to labor markets, from election polling to racial discrimination in professional basketball. He has even been profiled in The New York Times. He is a savvy user of social media whose tweets have become among the smartest coverage anywhere of economic indicators. Justin will write a range of pieces for us and help us develop graphics and interactives.

In addition to our core team, we’re excited to work closely with The Times’s supremely talented staff in economics, politics and so many other areas. Stay tuned for more announcements in coming weeks.