Nate Silver and the 'Miracle on 34th Street' philosophy

Thursday, November 8, 2012
In the movie "Miracle on 34th Street," Santa Claus, working at Macy's, gets into trouble when he dares to tell a mother shopping for skates that she'll find a better pair at the competition, Gimbels:
"The only important thing is to make the children happy. Whether Macy or somebody else sells the toy doesn't make any difference."
That puts Santa in hot water with his bosses, but it ultimately proves smart, because customers like this one wind up loving Macy's all the more.
"Imagine a big outfit like Macy's putting the spirit of Christmas ahead of the commercial. It's wonderful. I never done much shopping here before, but from now on, I'm going to be a regular Macy customer."
That approach makes sense for journalism: If someone else has a great story, don't deprive your audience just because you don't have it. Credit the competition and share it, and your readers, listeners and viewers will love you all the more for bringing them the best of the best.

In the online world, this approach is known as "aggregation," and I championed it in the Chicago Tribune's daily email newsletter Daywatch. One reader got the concept almost right in 2008 even though we hadn't expressed it publicly.
"I love the fact that you refer to other publications ... very classy ... reminds me of 'Miracle on 42nd Street'!"
In the world of polling, University of Chicago graduate Nate Silver is high priest of the "Miracle on 34th Street" philosophy. As a polling-biz outsider looking in, he's been able on his FiveThirtyEight blog to see beyond the silos of any one outfit, creating a mathematical mix of statistics that give the public "the best of the best" (in this case, statistically adjusted aggregations of all polling information) regardless of where it was built and its creators' biases.



"We think our perspective is the only one out there," Silver told Boston's Phoenix before the election. "That perspective is often wrong."

Silver's agnostic approach at times drew even more criticism than Santa's. But ultimately his wisdom's proven correct, as his predictions skated into reality.

Many organizations still haven't recognized that the "Miracle" approach is a key to driving customer loyalty. That's true for online content; ask Matt Drudge or Arianna Huffington. And Silver's proven it clearly by becoming The New York Times' biggest brand; The New Republic says one in five visitors to the Times' Web site visited his blog in the run-up to the election.

The "Miracle" approach is at the core of the success and loyalty engendered by Amazon.com. (Consider the "Available from these sellers" link, and its now widely imitated forum for customers to condemn products publicly.)

Now that every organization's Web site is -- or should be -- in the content business, it's a philosophy every organization should embrace: The way to own your area of expertise is to aggregate the best of the best information about it. Send 'em to Gimbels and they'll love you -- and your Web site, and your organization -- all the more.

Ask Nate Silver.

* Perception problem with the "popular vote" map Fox News has been showing:
-- Percentage of U.S. geography colored red but unoccupied by actual human beings: Huge.
-- Percentage of U.S. geography colored blue but unoccupied by actual human beings: Nowhere near as huge.
Here's a better take from the Tribune.

* Good to see the Tribune launch a new "countdown calendar," this one ticking off days to the "fiscal cliff." Guess who suggested the paper's first countdown calendar?

This post has been modified after its original publication; the quote from Nate Silver's interview with The Phoenix was added Sunday, Nov. 11.

2 comments:

Leonard Grossman said...

Is Silver our hero only because we liked his message when all else seemed doom and gloom?

Meyerson said...

"Hero" is your word, not mine, Len. But I'd admire him and his work regardless of the winner ... so long as he proved as commendably accurate as he did. It's like he's made Asimov's "Prime Radiant" a reality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_(fictional)