Deck Chairs on the Titanic

How statistics lost their power; help decide the future of the Voting Information Project; and more.


  • “Cable could be a little bit of a scapegoat because the problems were a little more pervasive…[but] the substance of the horse-race coverage was pretty bad at a lot of very prestigious papers,” Nate Silver said at a Knight Foundation and Civic Hall event yesterday, as quoted by Business Insider’s Maxwell Tani. The conversation was about the media’s failures during the 2016 election.

  • During that same panel, executive editor of the Associated Press Sally Buzbee vehemently wished that every journalist student was taught statistics. On a related note, William Davies writes at length on the subject of “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next” for The Guardian. Davies concludes, “the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”

    This is also related to a concern voiced by Brian Stelter, who appeared on a different panel at the event yesterday, that Trump’s willingness to dismiss low approval ratings as rigged seriously undermines an important check on presidential power.

  • The Knight Foundation has also published a study by Eytan Oren, a brand consultant specializing in chat apps, on how campaigns and Get Out The Vote efforts used new tools, like Snapchat and chat bots, to reach the American voter.

  • Definitely not civic tech: “This is the story of a dramatic failure of imagination and vision at the state level…a slow-rolling tragedy that will blight Western MA for generations,” Susan Crawford writes in Backchannel. Crawford eviscerates Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s insistence that last-mile internet access infrastructure should be built in private-public partnerships of enormous benefit to the private part of public-private (cough Comcast cough), and at enormous cost and extremely little benefit to small towns in Western Massachusetts.

  • This is civic tech: “I’m not sure how many people understand how close we were to failure for the first six years,” Anthea Watson Strong writes of the Voting Information Project, which she inherited from the people who start it and has led it ever since. Now Pew and Google are trying to figure out what comes next. They have assembled an advisory board but are also looking for input.

  • For Forbes, Steven Rosenbaum profiles two civic technology projects kicked into high gear by the election: Ben Yee’s Shiftspark and Matt Casey’s Act On This.

  • During the Knight Foundation-Civic Hall event yesterday, Civicist contributor Dave Karpf tweeted, “If you work in civic tech and your 2017 plans would be identical whether Trump or Clinton had won…then that tells me you don’t see Trump’s presidency as a unique threat to our civic norms, institutions, and practices…I know civic tech likes/needs to keep an apolitical veneer, but if you solely work on evergreen problems, then…you’re effectively rearranging deckchairs on the titanic.” He expands on that thought here.

  • The American press corps has sent an open letter to the president elect outlining how the next four years are going to go. “But while you have every right to decide your ground rules for engaging with the press,” they write, “we have some, too. It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence. We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers. So think of what follows as a backgrounder on what to expect from us over the next four years.”

    The letter concludes, “We’re playing the long game. Best-case scenario, you’re going to be in this job for eight years. We’ve been around since the founding of the republic, and our role in this great democracy has been ratified and reinforced again and again and again. You have forced us to rethink the most fundamental questions about who we are and what we are here for. For that we are most grateful. / Enjoy your inauguration.”

  • Inside Philanthropy’s Rob McCarthy takes a look at who’s supporting (financially) journalists and the freedom of the press.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Writing for Bloomberg, Sandy Frier reports on the team behind Mark Zuckerberg’s carefully and exhaustively curated image: “Typically, a handful of Facebook employees manage communications just for him, helping write his posts and speeches, while an additional dozen or so delete harassing comments and spam on his page, say two people familiar with the matter. Facebook also has professional photographers snap Zuckerberg, say, taking a run in Beijing or reading to his daughter. Among them is Charles Ommanney, known most recently for his work covering the refugee crisis for the Washington Post.”