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42. Because Even a 163-Year-Old Institution Can Learn New Tricks

The Upshot  

When Nate Silver, the ­statistics-­savvy ­presidential-campaign prognosticator, uprooted his data-driven FiveThirtyEight blog from the New York Times and moved it to ESPN and ABC News in July 2013, a chorus of media observers rushed to deliver dire predictions about what his departure meant for the Times’ online prospects. After all, in the days leading up to the 2012 election, FiveThirtyEight accounted for a stunning 20 percent of the Times’ online readership; among consumers of the Times’ political coverage, it accounted for about 70 percent.

But the company didn’t lick its wounds for long. By late summer, David Leonhardt had been tasked with figuring out a new data-journalism site. Leonhardt, who was considered something of a wunderkind in the newsroom (having earned a Pulitzer Prize for his economics column and been appointed D.C.-bureau chief when he was just 38), told Times executives he did not want to duplicate Silver’s formula. “Nate is not an easy guy to replace,” he says. Besides, he didn’t want to build a site that would be tethered to the political moment. The last two presidential elections produced record levels of interest, but there was no guarantee future elections would engage voters as obsessively. Instead, he proposed a data-crunching site with a mandate to cover just about anything. But what to call it? He commissioned a newsroom contest to name the thing, and graphics director Steve Duenes won the prize—a bottle of rosé Champagne—for coming up with “The Upshot.”

Since launching in April, the Upshot has established itself as an irresistible read and a significant source of traffic, generating four of the top-20 most-viewed stories on in 2014. In October, it was responsible for 5 percent of the Times’ total site visitors. Impressive numbers for a start-up—and the first real evidence that the seeds of a start-up culture at the Times are taking root.

The Upshot’s popularity comes from the high-low mix of rigorous policy analysis (income inequality and health care), addictive interactive service journalism (a 21-variable rent-or-buy real-estate calculator), and maps of pop-culture ephemera (the geography of college-football fandom)—not to mention a conversational voice that feels both webby and Times-ian. But the most revolutionary thing might be the fact that the Upshot has infiltrated the entire newspaper, with stories appearing everywhere from the front page to the Sunday Review. It’s like a floating newsroom within the New York Times, with its own approach, its own brand, its own way of looking at the world. “Upshotty,” Leonhardt calls it.