FiveThirtyEight vs. The Upshot: Who’s winning the data-journalism war

When data wonk heaven FiveThirtyEight decamped from The New York Times for ESPN in 2013, it left The New York Times in a bind. Roughly 20 percent of The Times’ traffic came from visits to data journalism wiz Nate Silver’s site, which accounted for 71 percent of visits to politics coverage. But the Times, barely skipping a beat, quickly filled the void with The Upshot, a similarly data-driven effort spearheaded by Pulitzer Prize-winning economics writer David Leonhardt.

Silver’s FiveThirtyEight relaunched last March, billing itself as “a data journalism organization.” Under Leonhardt, the Upshot put data-based reporting at the core of how reporters tell stories, which are increasingly going beyond text and towards visualizations and interactive features.

Here, then, is data on how the two data-focused outfits are faring against each other one year later.

Overall reach 
Traffic increases for both sites are a given, considering that they both started from zero a year ago. FiveThirtyEight’s monthly unique visitors have grown from 2.2 million last May to 3.6 million in February, according to comScore (internal numbers put it closer to 5.1 million). The Upshot’s traffic, in contrast, is harder to come by, but its output is making the rounds among New York Times readers. Ten of the 40 most-read New York Times stories in 2014 came from the Upshot.

Social traction
When it comes to social reach, the Upshot is coming out on top. Since its launch last year, The Upshot’s stories have been shared 921,682 times on Facebook, according to data from Newswhip. That’s nearly three times as many shares as FiveThirtyEight’s content has gotten in that same time period. The Upshot is also winning on Twitter, with 701,118 shares compared to FiveThirtyEight’s 492,702 Twitter shares, according to Newswhip.

“We don’t think about how to take a print story and make it work on social. We just start by thinking about what works on social,” said Upshot’s Leonhardt. “The question is: ‘If you were going to produce a piece of New York Times-quality journalism that was designed for social, how would you do it?’” The answer, he said, is to start with content that is conversational and driven by numbers and visuals.


Story forms
For both the Upshot and FiveThirtyEight, data-driven visualizations are central to the editorial mandate. The Upshot’s output, a mix of the serious and light, has used data and visuals to tell stories about the economic diversity of American universities, the decline of the American middle class and the relationship between birth years and political views. “Among readers, there’s really big appetite for smart stuff that isn’t words,” Leonhardt said. “It’s important to remember that.”

FiveThirtyEight has also upped the interactive nature of its output, with features about Madden player rankings and airline flight travel speeds. It has also pushed into new mediums: Since last October, it has produced four videos under its documentary-short series “Signals,” which examines where data and analytics intersect with sports, politics and the economy. Audio is also part of the equation: Last month, FiveThirtyEight launched “Hot Take Down,” its first podcast.

“We want to talk to the reader as a peer,” said FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver. “We don’t want to say, ‘here are five things you need to know about this topic’. I find that really annoying as a reader. That’s the opposite of our view.”

Staff growth
Both sites have sizable editorial footprints. The Upshot’s core editorial staff now numbers 15 people, in addition to another 15 contributors and New York Times staffers who chip in from time to time.

FiveThirtyEight is also growing. The site has increased its editorial staff to 25 people over the last year, capping it off with the addition of 21-year New York Times veteran David Firestone, who joined as managing editor in March.

Despite the social and traffic increases, observers say that the impact of both sites is still limited. “I’ve been impressed by volume and creativity of both sites, but I’m still waiting for something that really turns my head,” said Amanda Hickman, lecturer at CUNY Journalism School. “There are a lot of subtle improvements, but no standouts.” Hickman said that a part of the problem is that the two sites are structured around formats rather than subjects, which makes it hard to figure out what to go to them for.

There are also major limitations to data journalism itself, which observers say isn’t as objective as data journalists like to think. “Any time you use data, you’re making a lot of judgments, and if you’re not making judgments, you’re not using data properly,” said economist Allison Schrager. “It’s often another way of presenting commentary.”

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