Gallup hates the New York Times’ political polling analyst Nate Silver for the same reason the newspaper business hates Google. Both are aggregators that are undermining established business models. (It also might have something to do with Gallup’s lousy performance in the 2012 election cycle — more on that later.)
But let’s focus on aggregation, a word that’s frequently heard in the media business. Simply put, the Internet is full of people and websites that repurpose the original work of others.
A reporter for the Star Tribune or the New York Times spends many hours researching and writing a story. Then, as soon as it’s posted online, others snatch that original product and put their own spin on it to draw traffic — and ad dollars — to their own sites.
The aggregators get the benefit of the original work without having to pay for it. The Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, Gawker — these successful sites all got their start as aggregators, taking the work of others and adding their own (often snarky) spin to the original information. They collect an audience based on the work of others, and often profit handsomely from it.
Some of these sites have added original content and paid staff. But their operations are skeletal, compared with the news organizations that originate most of the content they feature.
Now comes Silver, who got his start as a baseball stats geek and parlayed it into a perch as the New York Times’ resident polling analyst. Silver looks at every publicly available poll and adds his own special sauce, adjusting for the varying methodologies of the individual pollsters.
For example, some pollsters use real people to ask the poll questions while some use robo-calling. Some call cell phones, some only call landlines. Silver considers these and numerous other factors, then comes up with his own predictions based on an aggregate of all the available polling data.
In case you haven’t heard, Silver called every state correctly in the presidential election and accurately predicted exactly how many electoral votes Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would each receive. He also called every Senate race correctly except for Heidi Heitkamp’s upset win in North Dakota.
The granddaddy of American pollsters, the Gallup organization, didn’t do as well. In fact, Silver ranked Gallup dead last — by a wide margin — among 23 polling organizations active in the 2012 election cycle. Now Gallup has fired back, ripping Silver (though not by name) for being — wait for it — an aggregator.
In a recent posting on the company’s website, Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport warned that Silver’s success could undermine the very polls that he relies on.
“It’s not easy nor cheap to conduct traditional random sample polls,” Newport wrote. “It’s much easier, cheaper, and mostly less risky to focus on aggregating and analyzing others’ polls.
“Organizations that traditionally go to the expense and effort to conduct individual polls could, in theory, decide to put their efforts into aggregation and statistical analyses of other people’s polls in the next election cycle and cut out their own polling. If many organizations make this seemingly rational decision, we could quickly be in a situation in which there are fewer and fewer polls left to aggregate and put into statistical models.”
It’s the same cri de coeur that has come from the traditional media in recent years: If we do the work, and others piggyback on it, eventually there won’t be anyone left to do the work in the first place.
The media business hasn’t figured out how to beat the aggregators. We’ll see if the pollsters can.