Thursday, January 14, 2016

Headlines and prepositions

My friend and very talented designer, Ed Henniger, has a rant up complaining about seeing headlines ending their first lines with prepositions and articles.

This is one of those things that, while once considered a sign of good craft, has become largely a non-issue on most publications.

My note back to Ed:

Sorry, Ed, but it's long ago been declared a nonissue on most desks and at ACES. And readers' panels at ACES through which we tested headlines made clear it was not an issue to them. As one woman pointedly said when questioned rather severely from an audience member: "You really lose sleep over that?"

I remind folks of it as craft the first couple of times, but I don't push it anymore.

Time to declare it a shibboleth and move on.
It's especially true in an era when headlines often have to do double duty in print and online -- where how it is displayed is a function of many things, including window size.

 I know this will be a hard one to swallow in some quarters, but there are far more important things to worry about these days. Nothing we have indicates any reduction in comprehension.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Breaking news -- making sure you do it together

There's nothing like having a caption like this atop your 6-hour-old story.

Does anyone down on Shop Road talk to each other?

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Monday, October 05, 2015

With S.C. flooding, some dam resources

 (Updated with story from The State)

Another dam has been breached after the torrential rains in South Carolina, this one in Forest Acres, A close-in Columbia suburb, prompting a mandatory evacuation.

As I noted on Twitter and Facebook,  I wonder if this gets state officials to finally effectively address and fund the issue of hundreds of small, marginal dams.

It's not a new thing:
("Even more troubling, six states reported all of their state-regulated, high-hazard dams as “not rated” for structural soundness in 2010. These states are Texas, South Carolina, Hawaii, Florida, South Dakota, and Alaska. Not having a state dam-safety program, Alabama also did not report condition information on their high-hazard dams in 2010."

From NY Times: 4,400 dams nationwide "susceptible to failure."

S.C.'s dam safety details
(Update: The State newspaper followed up on Tuesday, reporting, as others have, that the state spends about $200,000 a year on its safety program.)

And the Army Corps dam database

S.C. has 2,439 dams in the Army Corps database, 671, or almost 28%, high or significant hazard.

This interactive map will let you search by state and county or by ZIP code.
(Make sure under "Layers" you expand "Corps of Engineers Data" and click "ALL NID Dams."

Here is part of Richland County near Columbia. All those little squares are dams, many of them less than 25 feet or lower, privately owned and earthen. (I can't give you a direct link to the map - drill down through the database above.)

Here is Lexington County:

To get details on an individual dam, click on the address option on the tool bar (highlighted in red) and then on the dam's square.

Here are a few selected screenshots of the data that gives you a sense of the issue

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Saturday, October 03, 2015

Should the correction be proportionate to the original article?

This debate still continues.

Newspapers tend to bury their corrections. (Of course, broadcasters just tend to ignore most of them -- there's always the next newscast to get it right.)

 The argument, at least one of them, goes that putting the correction in that small box on the same page every day means people will know where they are and can find them.

The counter is that people tend to look where they look every day, not necessarily at that page with the corrections box.

I can buy the same-place argument for your run of the mill brief or below-the-fold copy.

But when you banner something across the top of your business page and the central fact of your lede is wrong

Should the correction be done like this?

And when you make a strategic change in wording on your website, shouldn't the correction be noted, even to helpfully (assuming you caught it quickly online) to say it was wrong in some printed editions? (I don't see any note at all on this page giving readers any hint.)

And we wonder why the latest Gallup Poll shows a record low of trust in the media?

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Columbia, S.C.'s daily newspaper is bleeding ...

If you want the stark reality of what is happening in the newspaper business, the decline -- in hard numbers -- of  The State of Columbia, S.C., will help.

The state capital newspaper, for all the times I poke it for kind of dumb things, does good work.

And while papers like the Post and Courier in Charleston do some great work -- as evidenced by this year's Pulitzer Prize and this week's deep dive into how S.C. legislators stretch the limits on their spending accounts, There still is no substitute for a strong newsroom in the same town looking over the pols' shoulders.

So take a look at these figures.

Here is The State's circulation from 2008 as found in an archive on McClatchy's website. It was close to 100,000.


This next archive is from February 2013. the date of the page on The State's own site, though I can't be sure if those are 2009 or 2013 figures. There was a drop of about 10,000 (which would be pretty darn alarming if it were year over year).

Now, the numbers have fallen off the table to about half what they were in 2008 - about 53,000. That's down more than 2,400 from a year earlier or 4.4 percent


Interestingly, you won't find those circulation figures in the "about us" part of the current website, nor how many counties the paper circulates in. This was a paper whose owner, McClatchy, used to boast that it circulated in 23 of the state's 46 counties and was the state's largest paper.

 ( McClatchy's site does have circulation figures, but none of the other bling. You can read between the lines on that.)

Sunday circulation does seem to be holding its own and even growing. But I can also say from years of taking the paper, the ads appear to be down. (And there is some question whether those circulation numbers include people who don't take the paper but are delivered the inserts anyhow. It's allowed by the industry's circulation auditor, but is sketchy at best when talking about true circulation.)

You can spin this anyway you want, and McClatchy certainly has been hyping its digital efforts lately, even if the company was about five years late to the game on some best practices (like putting summaries on top of stories). But I know The State's digital circulation has not made up for this drop -- and there always is the problem of exchanging digital dimes for print dollars.

I'm not so much in love with the actual paper as with the ethos of a "newspaper" newsroom to uncover and dig. This is one of our biggest challenges, I think -- will we be able to somehow preserve that ethos when there is serious question whether local news will "scale" in a digital age.

This is in the American Press Institute briefing today. 

Real-time bidding offers media companies opportunities for new sources of revenue, with projected growth to reach $20.8 billion by 2017. Premium content that attracts a specific audience will be important because programmatic buyers serve ads based on data about the individual visiting the page, according to Christian Hendricks, vice president/interactive media for The McClatchy Company. 
 It will be interesting to see how that plays out and what kind of tensions it presents between the traditional ideal of covering the community versus focusing coverage on niches. Nationally and internationally, a case may be made for niches. But if one proclaims oneself to be a community voice, what does "community" mean in the digital age?

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Refute/Rebut -- we should get it right

How difficult is it to remember the correct usage for refute versus rebut?

Very difficult, apparently, for The State newspaper, which consistently makes the wrong choice.

Rebut means simply to present a counterargument. Refute carries a much greater weight, the connotation that someone has proved the point.

Nothing could be further from the truth in this story, where the referee's story is being disputed even by the NFL's VP of officials. So the referee "rebuts" but hardly "refutes."

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Usage - amid/against a backdrop

First, I want to point you to an excellent investigation by the Post and Courier of Charleston and the Center for Public integrity into spending by S.C. legislators and candidates.

But I also wanted to point out a usage issue in this sentence because I increasingly hear and read it:

Amid this backdrop, The Post and Courier/Center for Public Integrity's investigation found questionable spending under the state's ethics laws to be pervasive and unrelated to party affiliation or geography.

The preferred phrase is "against this backdrop." That's the point, the backdrop is literally or figuratively in back of the thing projected against it. You're not in the middle of it.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

McClatchy earnings shows limits of automated stories

There's been a lot of ballyhoo about AP's use of computer algorithms to generate hundreds of earnings stories.

Among AP's reasons was that it could provide much wider coverage. Reporters would still handle the major stuff, the wire service said.

At some point, however, the question of quality vs. quantity was going to raise its head. And here's an example of where the automated system fall short. Here's the AP's auto-generated story on McClatchy's recent earnings.

Pretty bare bones stuff. But this isn't a plain-vanilla situation. In fact, there's some serious insight here. This is one of the old-line pure-play media companies and in many ways is a barometer of how midmarket newspapers are likely to fare. And there are, after all, about 62 million shares outstanding, with Yahoo Finance saying that as of the end of March, 119 institutions held shares. That means more than a few people have these shares in their retirement and other accounts (and may not realize it).

Here's another version that, I think, is more reporter generated:

Those second, third and fourth grafs contain some important context. It's not just that the company eked out a profit. It's that the stock's price has plunged about 60 percent since February as it became apparent those earnings -- any earnings -- were generated largely through throwing the ballast overboard on a very leaky ship. So if you read the AP story, you come away with "they made money -- a small bit, but still a profit." Read the other one from American City Business Journals and you'd come away with more understanding and, perhaps, many more questions.

There are, I think, going to be a lot of these kinds of stories in the midrange of companies not really big or sexy enough to draw the AP's resources, yet large or important enough in their own way that they deserve more contextual treatment. So, even more so, investor beware and understand the limitations of what AP is doing

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

This is why the health cost system is bullshit

Here is a good example of why the way health care is paid for in this country is total BS.

This week I am going in for some outpatient arthroscopic knee surgery.

So a simple question: What is it likely to cost me after insurance?

Just try to find that out.

My doctor provided me with a CPT code for the procedure and his estimated charges. But then there is the hospital facilities charge, and the anesthesiologist, etc. In other words, lots of hidden charges that would be nice to be able to budget for.

An afternoon of phone calls and online research produces nothing but frustration. The "financial counselor" at the hospital says she can only tell me the total billable cost is $18,000 -- but has no breakdown of codes, charges, etc. Blue Cross/Blue Shield says it can't help without codes. D'oh.

Its online procedure estimator doesn't let me put in the CPT code, so I'm left to use a general rough procedure -- for which the results bear no resemblance to any of the other figures.

So best guess from that is that I will owe somewhere between $1,800 and $2,400. Nothing like a 33% swing.

Dear politicians: If you want to control health care costs, cut the demagoguery  and start by insisting on transparency in the cost ahead of time. Many of us want to manage our care. But you don't give us the tools to do it.

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Monday, June 01, 2015

Why Intuit's Quicken is a bug-filled quagmire

I have used Intuit's flagship financial management software, Quicken, for more than a decade. It was a solid piece of software, if somewhat geeky in its earlier versions.

But it worked, and it worked well. And when there was a problem, which was rare, Intuit fixed it with some alacrity.

That was then. This is now. And it shows how software companies that concentrate more on layering on features and trying to continually get users to upgrade eventually end up in their own quagmire.

Quicken is now a bug-filled quagmire. Just check the user forums, which are peppered with issues, not just "how to" questions.

It began a few years ago, with Quicken 12, as I remember, when Intuit decided that you could not do cash flow accounting in your budget (in other words, enter negative and positive amounts to budget lines), but instead had to go to double-entry bookkeeping, with income and outflow lines for each applicable category.  It also complicated matters with a budget screen that, once you got past January, showed "January" of what appeared to be  the following year -- but what really wasn't; if you tried to change that amount you quickly discovered you'd changed the amount for January in the current year.

The forums went nuts. Well, users were told, that might be changed in the next edition, but no changes that year. (Some improvements have been made in later editions.)

Skip forward to Quicken 15. I've discovered at least three bugs, one of them serious and introduced with a recent update (R7), and a fourth that hasn't affected me but is so serious that it's locked people out of their password-protected data files. The bug is so bad that even the update to "fix" it (R8) can't necessarily unlock those corrupted files, according to Inuit's own posting.

NOTE: This patch cannot unlock files that are already locked. This could not be resolved with product update without adversely impacting the data quality any further.
Now, if you are introducing critical flaws with your updates, most of which are applied automatically, you've got a serious, serious issue as a software company.

The three bugs I have found fall into the category of one serious and two convenience.
  • With R7, the reconcile function on many registers has stopped working properly. It is failing to always decrement the account totals as you clear individual items. If you do not notice this and click "finish" after clearing all your items, you are likely to get an out of balance warning and Quicken's helpful suggestion to put the excess in a "Misc." category -- which would royally screw things up even more. (The "solution," for now at least, is to click on "finish later" and then go back to reconcile. Usually the amounts have then properly adjusted.) The R8 update did not fix this. And I am far from alone -- there are numerous threads on the customer forums (here's one), but no indication Intuit is paying attention.
  • From the beginning, two functions on the calendar have been screwy. These are more convenience issues, but they worked in previous versions and do save time:
    • Half the time, if you put in a calendar entry, it does not refresh and show up unless you click to the prior or previous month and then back to the month in which you put the entry.
    • If you right (or CTRL-) click on a calendar date and select Add Reminder, a bill reminder comes up automatically with no option to add transfer or income reminders. To get those, you have to go to the "Bill and Income Reminders" tab and then click "Add Reminder." Not a huge deal, but, again, extra clicks and loss of functionality in previous versions.
But my issue goes deeper -- it goes to the core of the way Intuit treats customers when they find these kinds of issues. Does Intuit have a simple bug report form? No.  You can go to the contact page and choose between calling support (I'm now 28 minutes into an estimated one-hour wait) or online chat (which was closed at 3:30 p.m.! -- and which still had a 45-minute wait earlier in the day). I've tried to report one of these through chat before, but what clearly came through was that the person was following a script and really had no clue what I was talking about (basically came down to install and reinstall, which I'd already done).

In other words, there's nothing "quick" about Quicken.

To Intuit's credit, it did respond to my plaintive tweets, initially by sending me to the infernal "contact us" form (that generally tries to shunt you off to the customer forums where the "superusers"  tend to tell you you don't know what you're talking about ). The options there? Phone or chat.

Later, it tweeted a link to an online survey where you have to vote for what feature you'd like to see improved just so you can dump all the issues into an "other" box. It's lame, but I'd encourage every Quicken user with issues to "flood the zone" so to speak till they take it down.

Good software organizations like Mozilla have an easy way to report issues. They get customer service -- and they don't even charge for their software.

One other thing reflects Intuit's "just don't get it" situation. Most times, Quicken will update automatically, if a patch is available, when you start it. (This can be both good and bad -- just ask the users for whom R6 thoroughly corrupted their files. Even the dreaded Microsoft gives you the option of being notified of  updates but not applying them till you say so.) But I've had times when the download does not complete. So just go and do it manually, right, by finding the "software update" button off the menus? Ha! There are updates, but you have to do a "one step update," which also involves updating accounts or portfolios, etc. (at least one of them) so you can get a message when that is complete that there is a software update you can download and apply. How screwy is that? (And god forbid that somehow it doesn't download correctly that time, either. Then it's back to "one step update.") How hard would it be to put a " check for updates" entry in the menu as most decent software companies do?

In short, there was a time I highly recommended Quicken. Not anymore.

Maybe Intuit will get its act back together someday.

Meanwhile, I'm in 47 minutes into holding with the repeated assurance that "your call will be answered shortly."
Update: One hour, 9 minutes and counting.

Update: 1 hour, 32 minutes later. It appears Intuit may have solved the issue with the Mondo patch (which is not noted in the related threads I've been following on the customer forums -- and as noted I already had updated to R8)
The calendar issues are not fully resolved. I'm seeing fewer needs to refresh but the add reminder issue still is unresolved.

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