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Column: Journalism's new Marquee Brothers

By Jack Shafer

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomena for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network's cousin, ABC News. "Sports might be a third of the content," he said about his site. "Politics might be a third."

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post's Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, including the aforementioned Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

The rise of the Marquee Brothers is, as best as I can determine, unprecedented in American journalism. Journalism has traditionally been a portable art: A reporter can move his boxes to a new publication and file that day. Star columnists—Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson in ancient times—regularly migrated to new papers or syndicates, or established broadcasting beachheads, as Walter Winchell famously did. Other syndicated columnists, such as Pearson and Jack Anderson ("Washington Merry-Go-Round") and Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, hired staffs and pursued their own editorial muses. Likewise, columnists and politicians have long been recruited to host cable news talk shows. But the semi-independent scribe working directly inside a news operation with a staff and brand of his own, and substantial autonomy from the remainder of the organization, appears to be a new thing.

"The Nate Silver analogue of the 1800s would have just started his own paper, because it was so cheap to start one," said Jonathan Ladd, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters.

The Marquee Brothers, like successful auteur film directors, can dictate terms to the people who would ordinarily be their bosses giving the orders. I imagine Klein has a special button on his custom keyboard to message "assignment decline" back to Post editors when they ask for his section to do a story he's not interested in. Like film directors, the Marquee Brothers have capitalized on the erosion of old, reliable brands and the unbundling of news caused by, among other things, the advent of the Internet.

When the Washington Post and CBS News played the starring roles, they could serve content to a pliant audience under the "sports," "business," "tech" and "politics and policy" rubrics. The authors and editors were valuable but easily replaceable cogs in the machine. But now, individual reporters and analysts possess new power to attract audiences and take audiences with them, as Silver recently demonstrated. Just as Stanley Kubrick devotees would watch any tracking-shot the master threw up on the screen, so too will some DealBook readers scarf down whatever the section has served today. Media consumption, if anything, is an habitual act.

The Marquee Brothers rake additional bucks via conferences, books, lectures, movies, TV, and more, signaling to the journalism profession that if you're a mere reporter or editor, you're doing it wrong. At Reuters, my bosses have been extending Felix Salmon's well-known brand with the Counterparties site, which he edits with Ryan McCarthy. A slew of other journalistic names could join the marquee tomorrow if only they were willing.

As Marc Tracy wrote this week in the New Republic, the New York Times could profit by giving David Carr (media) and Tara Parker-Pope (health) verticals and staffs of their own. If Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell (who has promised to write for Silver) weren't already wealthy from writing bestselling books, they could be persuaded to run, respectively, a business and social science vertical. Paul Krugman, Mark Bittman, James Surowiecki, Dave Weigel, Tom Ricks, Jeff Rosen, Brian Stelter, David Wessel, Steve Coll and others could easily carry verticals with their star power if they wanted to accept the burden of being the boss. So could Glenn Greenwald — though I'm afraid he'd savage his staff on Twitter before launch day.

The first black member of the brotherhood may be Jason Whitlock, who is returning to ESPN to start "something along the lines of a black Grantland," as he puts it. But so far, I spot no sisters in the ‘hood, unless Nikki Finke qualifies. Why exactly is that? Do not Jane Bryant Quinn, Xeni Jardin, Jane Mayer, Jackie MacMullan, Chrystia Freeland (my erstwhile Reuters boss), and other female journalists command sizable audiences that could go vertical? Am I missing something here? Is Oprah Winfrey the best example of a valuable and media talent who is also portable and female? And she's not even a journalist.

The brotherhood is thriving because the most enthusiastic consumers of news and analysis can't be satisfied with a generic product. They want the signature notes that journalists like Silver or Klein — and the journalists they hire — provide. They want gourmet meals from the master chef and his staff, not fast food from a fry cook. If you're a media executive and you crave this audience, here's the template: Identify an extraordinary but under-appreciated talent, one whose audience will make the trip to a new destination. Let that talent create a new site or new newspaper section for the audience. Let that talent (male or female) hire like-minded journalists to fill it. Let them do their best work.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions are his own)

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