The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Nate Silver, NYT blogger, dumps $1,000-an-hour consulting gig

May 9, 2011 |  5:53 pm

NewYorkTimes Nate Silver offers everything from NCAA basketball tourney odds to presidential campaign analysis on his New York Times blog, Five Thirty Eight.

Because he’s a freelancer, Silver is free to take outside gigs. But the numbers guru quickly backed away from a plan to charge $1,000 an hour for private consulting after the plan became public Monday.

Silver said in an email that in the months he has considered taking consulting work hosted by the upstart firm,, he believed he would be able to weed out potential conflicts of interest. But he reconsidered Monday.

“After thinking things over this afternoon -- and seeing how the site was being marketed -- my bosses and I came to a unanimous decision that Expert Insight is just too blunt an instrument to allow us to vet potential conflicts of interest with the care that would be required,” Silver said. “I do think it's a pretty cool business model, however.”

Asked what he meant by "blunt instrument," Silver added: "Although Expert Insight would have provided me with some ability to know about the nature of an engagement before committing to it -- something I required before considering signing on with them -- my bosses and I nevertheless felt like it would wind up becoming too much for [sic] a free-for-all given the way it was being pitched."

The website was launched by a friend of Silver’s and offers experts, ranging from  Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, at $5,000 a hour, to various professional poker players, charging from $200 to $1,000 an hour for their advice. A portion of those fees would go to Expert Insight.

In a headline, Gawker called Silver’s potential employment by the site “spectacularly ill-considered.” The Times blogger told Gawker that his first priority was the New York Times and that he had decided “it just doesn't feel appropriate, on a number of levels” to take the side job.

The new media are increasingly populated by freelancers like Silver, who often string together more than one job to make a living. While moonlighting has become a way of life, it raises the possibility of more conflicts than in the single-employer days of yore.

A stink arose two years ago when the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman received $75,000 for a speech to the Bay Area’s clean air district. Friedman later returned the $75,000 taxpayer-supported payment. (He never responded to my calls seeking an explanation of why he took the big payout in the first place.)

A Times spokeswoman at the time said there had simply been a "a misunderstanding" and that the paper’s staff members could only take speaking fees from "educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus." It was unclear whether that same standard would have applied to consulting of the kind Silver contemplated.

Friedman’s whopping one-day pay out had to be sniffed out by a couple of fellow journalists. At least Silver’s would-be consulting deal, at a fraction the cost, was advertised openly on the Expert Insight site.

Transparency aside, though, the blogger said he was done with the consulting job before he got started. He said he expects his listing to be removed from the  website by Tuesday.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: New York Times headquarters building. Blogger Nate Silver said Monday that he would drop a plan to do consulting work for a new online outlet, Expert Insight, because of the potential of a conflict of interest. Silver writes about the odds facing everyone from presidential candidates to NCAA basketball contenders. Credit: Michael Nagle / Bloomberg