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More math

“Driven by FiveThirtyEight’s steadiness in the 2012 presidential election headwinds, today we seem to ask more questions about finding the best algorithm, model, or statistic.”

Demystifying geeky news

I’m deliberately starting with a forecaster’s defensive tactic in predicting that the revelations from Edward Snowden’s document trove will continue well into 2014. Perhaps to the point of numbed response, we will learn more about government security and spying versus citizen rights and privacy. There are more documents with painful PowerPoint design choices to come.

tiff-fehr,jpgOngoing legal pressure by various governments on press freedoms regarding the leaked material will only add to the angles we’ll follow in 2014. Efforts like secure dropboxes for whistleblowers tied to news organizations may bring in their own stories, if public confidence is there. And don’t forget there is a new, conspicuously funded news venture around Glenn Greenwald, also tied to Snowden’s document trove.

Newsroom geeks have been instrumental in decoding the NSA story thus far. So too for corporate hacking and industrial espionage stories, as well as Bitcoin, cyberwarfare issues, and dark-web technologies. Mounting privacy and security concerns have journalists adopting encrypted communications and storage, often with guidance from the newsroom geeks because the barrier to entry is fairly high. Where does this all lead? Functional paranoia.

People’s interest in the workings of common web technologies continues to grow as we all learn more about consumer privacy violations (governmental or criminal). Non-programming web citizens are increasingly curious and concerned about the technologies under the hood of their browsers. Pairing that curiosity — and a genuine need to know — with relevant news exposés (like Snowden’s documents) and scandals (like is a notable opportunity for geeky journalism to truly improve tech literacy on a number of fronts.

Another way in which news geeks can play a direct role in 2014’s important stories is in application design. Not our own apps, though of course we’ll build those as well. I see the upcoming midterm elections as a scrimmage for voter-targeting technologies expected in 2016’s campaigning. Building on reporting about the mismatched battle of Orca and Narwhal — the 2012 campaign names for their get-out-the-vote apps, if you recall — technology success and failure resonates with readers, speaking to web literacy and sophistication (or sophistry, depending on your viewpoint).

Campaign technology may be seen as a very small intersection of geek and wonk. Yet I’m sure 2014 will see many tightly targeted messages elude our spam filters and ad-blindness. 2012 campaign fundraising emails triggered quite a lot of curiosity (amid the irritation) about the how-to of their niche targeting. Hopefully your newsroom’s politics/campaign-finance nerds are chomping at the bit like my own colleagues.

A mobile World Cup

This is also cop-out of oracular effort: Mobile will be massive and the World Cup in Rio will be an international mobile high-water mark. Whatever your personal degree of interest in fútbol, I enjoy the quadrennial reminder that the world can set aside everything but trash-talking to focus on the World Cup. South Africa’s 2010 World Cup was big enough in America to surprise those who track mobile usage numbers. Expect Rio to have Rio-style gigantic charts. And with decent overlap between Rio and America’s daylight hours, U.S. mobile and online statistics should be fascinating.

We’ll have a warmup to Rio in the form of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Thankfully there’s no calendar overlap between it and World Cup to make the Internet strive for regrettable portmanteaus as we did for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

More math for everybody

I look forward to seeing and learning a lot more math and stats in the coming year. 2012-13 marked a heightened interest in statistical literacy across the news industry as a whole. Driven by FiveThirtyEight’s steadiness in the 2012 presidential election headwinds, today we seem to ask more questions about finding the best algorithm, model, or statistic. This extends to how we track and analyze news-reading audiences. Although sabermetric-style models could end up being the far side of the pendulum’s path compared to well-trod metrics like pageviews, I believe the complexity fits better. 2014 will see us discussing smarter subscriber vs. cost modeling when measuring the year’s new products and tweaks to industry paywalls.

Looking at the industry overall for 2014, we now have reflexive habits from Wall Street for judging every move of Facebook, Twitter, and their audiences. Stock price fluctuations operate as a very visible (often volatile) metric for those companies’ efforts to keep and increase their audience’s attention. You may find it myopic or disconnected. Or both. However, market reactions attributed as public sentiment is a thing. (I’d love to predict 2014 is the year we elect to not cite Facebook’s stock price as a verdict on each design tweak — but that’s not going to happen.)

Predicting 2014 business prospects for Twitter and Facebook requires actual chops in business forecasting that I do not have. However, I do believe we’ll see enhancements and experiments in showing more news in both platforms, with each company hoping to holding audience attention and “mature” with their consumption habits. (The “maturing” audience angle may be the most interesting of all.)

Tiff Fehr is a web developer in the Interactive News group at The New York Times.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20