June 21, 2008

Copy editors going the way of the dodo

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:00 am

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has a hilarious piece making the case for copy editors, who are rapidly becoming an endangered species in newsrooms across the country.

Here’s how newsrooms have typically worked:

  • A reporter writes a story. Presumably, they read it, too. (In my experience as a copy editor, that’s not always the case.)
  • An assigning editor reads it, looking primarily for major holes in content or structure.
  • A copy editor reads the story also looking for the same errors as the assigning editor. The copy editor also looks for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
  • A second, more senior, copy editor (called a “slot”) reads it again.
  • Front page or controversial stories get an additional read or two.

A large chunk of Post copy editors have left in recent weeks. The Post is testing eliminating one of these layers of review.

Weingarten makes the point that a lack of copy editors will mean more errors in stories. That’s undoubtedly true. His deliberately exaggerated column has 60 errors in it. But his column proves that the work of copy editors adds little value.

Here is the unedited list of errors in the first paragraph:

  • Opening line should begin “if you are like me,” not “like I.”
  • No hyphen in “financially troubled.”
  • “Downsizing” should be lower case.
  • “Budget-cutting” should have a hyphen.
  • Syntax requires moving “desperation” after “budget-cutting.”
  • “200-decibel” should have a hyphen.

These errors don’t detract from a reader’s understanding of the story. Most readers don’t care about such nits or even know that they’re errors. Some of the errors that copy editors correct are so widely accepted that the fixes can come across as elitist or errors themselves. In college, a friend came up to me with a copy of The Daily Northwestern, complaining that the paper had left the “n” out of restaurateur.

Sure, there are professional scolds who will write, call or email about these errors. But I’m surprised that those people haven’t keeled over from heart attacks watching what text messaging is doing to our language.

It’s not the job of a newspaper to be the guardian of the English language. Newspapers are correct to focus their increasingly dwindling resources on areas that add value. They should spend more time on the big picture and less time picking nits.

Wiengarten writes “it doesn’t make sense for us to weep for copyeditors anymore than it makes sense for us to lament the replacement of bank tellers with automated ATM machines.” I’ve talked to a bank teller maybe twice in the last 10 years. And both times they added very little value.

See also:

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June 18, 2008

Take my picture, please

Filed under: facebook, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:07 pm

I’ve been testing out a couple of relatively new social networking sites lately — FriendFeed and brightkite. Both reminded me of a pet peeve I have about social networking sites: they all want your picture, but they don’t make it easy for you.

They want you to upload a jpg from your computer. I’m not so vain that I keep a jpg of my mug on my desktop ready for easy uploading. And I’m too lazy to go digging around for it every time I want to test out a site. A good chunk — 40% of my friends on FriendFeed — are lazy, too. As a result, they all get the same icon, decreasing the usability of the site.

My profile pictureHere’s a simple idea: steal my Facebook picture, or my flickr picture, or my twitter picture. (I’m in blue, for those who are wondering.) Easy enough to do. FriendFeed already synchronizes my friends list with Facebook.

Yes, I know not everyone uses twitter or flickr. But their primary audience right now is the Great Silicon Valley Echo Chamber. They do. And Facebook only has a 100 million or so users.

An alternative, which WordPress uses for commenters, is to generate a custom icon for each user. It won’t remind people what I look like, but it will help distinguish one user from another.

Occasional reader – Gas prices, trashing hotels, brain chemistry, hunger cafes

Filed under: reader, travel, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:53 pm

Some interesting reads from the past few weeks:

  • Top Car Dealer Says High Gas Prices Are Good for the U.S. Auto Industry (WSJ) — The CEO of AutoNation views high gas prices as just what we need to spur innovation on new technologies. After decades of convincing Americans that they should pay for size and power, he’s now trying to convince them that they should value fuel efficiency. That argument is made easier by $4 gas.
  • Hotels upgrade their ‘no-stay’ lists (MSNBC) — Every frequent business traveler has hotels they’d never stay at again. I hated the Hyatt Rickey’s (now gone) and likely won’t be back to Sheraton Gateway Suites O’Hare. But hotels are also keeping a list of people they don’t want to see again. They’re using chainwide databases to blacklist problem customers who trash hotel rooms or constantly complain about service and ask for comps. I hope my complaint about $80 in erroneous minibar charges from the Westin Bellevue doesn’t land me on the list. It’s a great hotel otherwise.
  • Exploring the neurochemistry of fairness (Ars Technica) — “It’s not fair!” is a common refrain from childhood. Apparently, as a species we have an innate sense of fairness. We do things against our own interests for a “fair” outcome. Participants were asked to play the Ultimatum Game, in which they were offered a percentage of a pool of money by another participant. If they agreed to take it, they’d get that percentage. If they didn’t agree, neither party got anything. The economically rational thing to do is take any percentage offered. Even 1% is better than nothing. That’s not how it played out. And the results could be changed by manipulating serotonin levels.
  • In a Restaurant Row, Drive-Through Charity (New York Times) — One of the toughest things about visiting India is seeing the staggering amount of poverty throughout the country. The Times reports on “restaurants” where homeless sit in rows outside waiting for people to drive by and offer some money that can be used to purchase food. If someone comes the group goes inside and eats. via Chamath Palihapitiya
  • $5+ premium gas in San Francisco

June 15, 2008

The first first draft of history

Filed under: flickr, journalism, media, newspapers, television, twitter, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:47 pm

In journalism school, you’re taught that newspapers are the first draft of history. Today it’s common for news outlets to scoop themselves on their Web sites. But even that may not be fast enough when news breaks. Lost Remote reports that news of Tim Russert’s death broke not on NBC or by a news site, but on Wikipedia.

In the screenshot below, you can see the change made at 3:01 E.T., adding simply “died June 13, 2008″.

Wikipedia screenshot of Russert\'s entry

This was more than 30 minutes before Tom Brokaw announced the news. You can even see the incredulity, as a Wikipedia editor, fearing vandalism, reverts Russert’s page to bring him back to life. (Wikipedia also shows the uglier side of humanity with insertions such as “Liberal piece of crap finally died.”)

The 24-hour news networks delayed reporting the news to give NBC the opportunity to break it, according to CNN’s David Bohrman:

I sent a note out internally in CNN in Washington to hold off. This is a story we’re not going to report first. And at the same time, the Fox bureau chief in Washington, Brian Wilson, and I had a quick communication. And we both sort of quickly said we’re not going to go first on this story.

We’re going to wait for NBC to go on the air. We’re going to let Brian or Tom or whoever it was make the announcement, and then we would be ready to follow in.

Not all of the media played along; the New York Times Web site reported the death before NBC. In fact, the Wikipedia contributions may have come from a journalist looking to get the word out. The original edit originated from an IP address belonging to a company that hosts Web sites for local TV stations.

We’ll see more of this as publishing becomes easier and a wider audience becomes used to it. We’re just as likely to see news broken by a text message to twitter or a picture uploaded to flickr from a cell phone.

Whether we believe it, or we like what we see is another matter entirely.

See also:

June 13, 2008

More Americans get their news from… Facebook?

I found out about Tim Russert’s death today through Facebook. One of my friends had updated his status to say he was “shocked by Tim Russert’s death.” I glanced over at my Google Talk contacts and noticed that two other friends had updated their status to reflect Russert’s death.

It’s a little ironic that I found out about the death of a veteran television newsman through a social network. But it’s not unusual.

Increasingly, I’m finding out about things through social networks. I was alerted to last year’s 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota by a friend who IMed me.

Shortly after I updated my own Facebook status to indicate that I’d found about Russert through Facebook, another friend emailed to say that’s how he heard about it, too. It’s not that my friends are all geeks. The two friends who had updated their Google status are well outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber and aren’t highly political.

What does this mean?

  • I spend too much time on Facebook. Sure, yes. But Facebook is a destination site whereas news sites aren’t. I read a lot more news than I ever have and across a much wider range of sources. I usually find stories to read based on email and IM from friends and colleagues, as well as whatever catches my eye on feed readers. Checking out,, etc. isn’t on my daily to-do list. News has a way of finding me.
  • Everyone can have an immediate worldwide megaphone. While my status updates and IMs don’t have anywhere near the reach of CNN or The Washington Post, I can easily reach hundreds of people, who can each reach hundreds of people. News spreads faster than ever because we’re more connected than ever. The ease of such communication makes it much more prevalent; I wouldn’t have picked up the phone to tell some the news.
  • Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other user-generated sites are reflections of our collective conscience. Twitter search engine Summize shows on its home page that “Tim Russert” and “Russert” are the trending terms for today. There are more than 100 pages of tweets with “Tim Russert” in them. (Summize cuts off at 100 pages.) We’re getting unprecedented, unedited and immediate reaction to news in a way that letters to the editor and man-on-the-street interviews just can’t touch.
  • Major brands still matter. After seeing the Facebook status update, I went straight to I didn’t even think to go to Google to search for “tim russert”, I knew where to go and got what I was expecting: CNN offered a live feed discussing Russert’s death and a video of Tom Brokaw’s announcement.

June 3, 2008

Google offers fresh perspectives on travel photography

Filed under: flickr, fun, geotagging, google, microsoft, photography, travel, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:15 pm

Google’s Panoramio has launched one of the most exciting advances in online pictures since flickr added geotagging. A new “Look around” feature shows you when pictures are available from other angles.

In the screenshot below, you can see the dome of the Taj Mahal highlighted. Clicking on that takes you to a picture of the dome. (Shown in red on the right.)

The UI is a bit confusing. For example, in the screenshot there is a blank image in the middle. I assume that means something, but I haven’t been able to figure out what. The same goes for the overall arrangement of thumbnails. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun to play with.

The feature is only available for sites with lots of pictures. Try the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Tower of London and the Ponte Rialto. I had an easier time finding places to explore in Europe than in the United States. (This could reflect the fact that Panoramio is based in Spain.)

Microsoft’s Live Labs has been demoing similar technology called Photosynth for more than a year, using images of the Basilica di San Marco. Photosynth offers a spectacular 3D overview. I’d love to see it out of the labs.

Until then, I’ll be playing with Panoramio. Check out their take on the Basilica.

Read more on Panoramio’s blog.

Disclosure: I work for a Microsoft subsidiary.

Occasional reader – Saying no to Google, popcorn prices popping, economics and height, Pringles

Filed under: fun, google, maps, movies, privacy, random, reader, street view, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:09 am

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


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