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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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Yahoo Finance: Playing a little loose with quotes

So when does butting two quotes together -- even with the attribution in the middle -- become misleading?

I generally tell students to avoid it unless there is all but the shortest of breaks between them.

Yahoo Finance took some serious liberties with this one, however, in this story about T-Mobile taking on Verizon.

Here is the quote in the story:

"There is huge price competition going on among the carriers and it's very good for consumers," he says. "If T-Mobile is willing to eat my contract I'm definitely going to give them consideration, whereas in the past I might not have."

Now take a look at the video. The first quote begins at 1:50. Then there is a big gap, until the second quote begins at 1:13. I contend this is too much to imply these quotes were said back to back or nearly so. Your thoughts?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

John Means, "The Village Wordsmith" author, dies at 87

Got a sad note this morning from the nephew of John Means, who produced the widely read "The Village Wordsmith" newsletter for the staff of the San Antonio Express-News, that his uncle had died at 87.

The Wordsmith was also emailed around to those of us who were part of the editing fraternity. It was always a good read, with great information and examples. I still refer to some of them in my editing class. John was especially good with the dos and don'ts of military usage (which, given the concentration of bases around San Antonio, you'd need to be).

From his nephew, Sean P. Means, movie critic, reporter and columnist at The Salt Lake Tribune:

It is my sad duty to report that John, my uncle, passed away on Saturday in his home in Schertz, Texas, outside of San Antonio. He was 87. 

 John was a lifelong newspaperman, from his days as a cub reporter at age 17 at the Nashville Banner. He worked most of the 1960s at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, reporting on the Tennessee Legislature, among other things. After working as a congressional press aide for six years, he landed at the Washington Post copy desk for nearly two decades, until he retired to San Antonio in 1995. Even then, he couldn’t keep out of the newsroom, and worked part-time at the Express-News from 1995 to 2009 — when, at the age of 80, he took the buyout. 

John was an inspiration to me, to be sure, as he made working at a newspaper look both fun and important — both of which have proven to be true. Thank you for being a fan of “The Village Wordsmith.” I know he got a kick out of writing it, and knowing people were reading it.

My condolences go to John's family, and I'm saddened once again by the loss of one of the stalwarts of the editing trade.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Journalism ethics question -- when a picture is only an illusion

So here's today's journalism ethics question.

The latest edition of USC's Garnet and Black Magazine​ has a big story on a woman who was a teenage mom, but has worked hard to be a college student while caring for her 3-year-old daughter. Very nice story and very inspirational stuff.

And very nice "awwwwww" photos of mom and daughter.

 Except ... At the very end of the story there is this: "*Models portrayed in this spread are not Bourne and her daughter, or an actual mother-daughter pair." (The online version I'm linking to has only one photo -- the print version has several, including a full-page one with reverse type over it that starts the story.)

So what do you think? A couple of people -- not journalists -- I've shown it to have reacted rather strongly and negative.

They feel "taken in." "I'm reading it, enjoying the pictures -- and then it's not them." Would it have made a difference had the mag headed the story with the disclaimer?

 (I've still yet to figure out what the asterisk refers to.)

This is from Chris Rosa, the editor in chief, after I asked him for his thoughts:
"We should have written a disclaimer at the beginning of the post instead of the end. The original photos of the real mother were extremely poor quality and we didn't have time to reschedule with her, so we had to improvise."

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What does "Big Silicon" mean for journalism and j-schools?

There's been a lot written lately about "robots" (i.e., computers) writing news stories, be it routine earnings report at the AP or routine sports stories. The latest reflection on this, in the N.Y. Times, prompted a colleague to pose the question on a Facebook group: "What does robojournalism mean for j-schools and the people that love them?"

If we cut through the somewhat visceral reactions these stories tend to invoke, what is happening can actually provide the sort of clarity we need to examine the state of affairs by making us truly assess what journalism is versus "news" and what has been the reality of the industrial process in which it has operated.

Here are two responses I posted:

It means we have to stop doing the rote stuff and actually think -- constantly -- about how what we're teaching fits into the constantly developing ecosystem. Unfortunately, that is difficult in institutions that on one hand say they value innovation and change -- when it comes to research -- but value stasis more in the curriculum.

One other thought on this. This does not mean the death of journalism. At its heart, journalism will always be a cottage industry -- it relies on one journalist having a relationship with individual sources to extract useful information, detect patterns, supply context and advance knowledge. Much as the financial folks would like it to -- and much to their consternation -- that heart won't change. But that does leave the question of what is "journalism" and what is "news." "News" is largely processing, taking what is in the open already and processing it for presentation over whatever form. That's an industrial process. Every industrial process strives to replace labor with capital. That is what is happening here.

So as we look at the "journalism" landscape, it's good to keep that distinction in mind. No computer is going to duplicate Sy Hersh's work on My Lai, for just one example. Or Jim Risen's on national security.

What it means, however, is that journalism has become a creative business, much like art or acting. And our students have to understand that. Going out and covering a news conference, processing it and putting it on the air, online or in the paper, is a job that will be automated as much as possible. Covering a game and writing rote ledes (such as the second example in the Times' story), will be automated as much as possible.

This also means our students have to understand they will be treated as actors are -- responsible for their own training and continued preparation. (Ever known someone to go to an audition and the director to say: "Hey, we'll hire you. Now let us send you to acting school."?) And they are much more likely to be part of the "gig economy," not salary men (or women).

The clinker in all this for me is that the economics have been that the "news" part of the business has tended to subsidize the journalism part of it. It's also provided a lot of jobs. So as journalism is distilled in the new economic order, will we have the infrastructure (legal, distribution, economic) to support journalism? As other institutions (business, government) get stronger and the Fourth Estate atomizes, is it even possible to develop that kind of infrastructure in an atomized information society? Put another way, would the Pentagon Papers be published today, given the large actual cost and potentially enormous legal and other costs that could have been extracted? For all there is to criticize about them, the large journalism institutions had the reserves -- when they chose to use them. It's a useful litmus question to ask ourselves from time to time.

Jay Bender poses the question well in a different form (larger S.C. papers in the background helping smaller ones) in his oral history for the S.C. Press Association. I also recommend the Tow Center's report on post-industrial journalism.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

More evidence that social media has infiltrated our lives

Yes, Charlotte now has a Twitter Lane. Maybe it's referencing the bird calls .... and maybe not ...

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Monday, March 02, 2015

In memoriam: John Shurr, journalist and AP bureau chief

I had the opportunity to work with three great AP bureau chiefs who had my back in my 18 years with the wire service, the last being John Shurr, with whom I spent nine years in Columbia.

So I was saddened to hear of John's passing tonight.

It, unfortunately, was not a surprise; those of us who knew John knew he was in declining health, quite possibly from the Agent Orange he was exposed to during the Vietnam War.

John and I dealt with the craziness of Susan Smith, the madness of the James Jordan death investigation, women at The Citadel, numerous hurricanes, video poker, lowering the Confederate flag, the Republican wave that took over state government ...

Fun times, those.

And through it all, I knew I could always go to John for advice and support. It helped that we both had been in charge, at separate times, of the AP's Rhode Island office. In recent years, he and I would often exchange emails chortling at the continued parade of buffoonery by R.I. politicians and lamenting the slow, painful decline of the Providence Journal, at one time one of America's best local papers -- but sometimes overlooked as it was in the umbra of the major-major metros of the East Coast.

He's best known in South Carolina for his efforts on behalf of freedom of information, an indefatigable defender of the right of the public to know what its government is doing. And I would hope that in his honor, the Legislature this year would finally pass many of the needed changes to South Carolina's FOI law that include a quicker review process, more reasonable costs and a clear and certain window in which time records must be produced. (And, of course, there is the need to overturn the state Supreme Court's troubling decisions on meeting agendas and autopsy reports.)

And as a result of his dedication, in the late 1990s the AP coordinated the first statewide FOI audit in South Carolina that found, as we put it at the time, agencies would get no better than a D if graded on the public schools' grading scale. We found all sorts of obfuscation and harassment, including police demanding IDs from and running the license plates of those requesting records. Sadly, things have only gotten worse.

That was John's public face.

But in the bureau, he was about as good a CoB (AP lingo for chief of bureau) that you could get. He was no more than 15 feet away in his glass-walled office, complete with the picture of his sailboat, his pride and joy, tossed onshore by Hurricane Hugo. (John got a replacement -- "another hole in the water into which you throw money" -- and he tried several times to get me to crew with him. But I always managed to avoid that -- his reputation as Captain Bligh was not entirely undeserved {grin}.)

 But John always gave you enough room to do your job.

Oh, there was no mistake he was paying attention, as evidenced by those occasional "got a minute" calls from the inner sanctum. But you could always count on the fact that when you needed the resources, John would blow out the budget and ask permission (or forgiveness) from AP's headquarters later.

Then there were the years when the AP bureau was like Switzerland, caught in the middle of the Columbia-Spartanburg-Greenville-Charleston newspaper war. There were some strong personalities involved, and afterward he and I would often joke about the S.C. Press Association meeting where the editors started challenging each other -- one had a tight grip on a chair he looked as if he were about to throw -- and John and I just knew, in horror, we were going to have to break up a fight. John, in his way, was able to calm everyone down.

And when the folks in New York thought they knew their jobs better than you, John never hesitated to remind them that -- under the old AP -- a CoB ultimately held the stronger hand and to back down.

That went so far as the AP's managing editor. A former ME who shall remain unidentified here (but every ex-APer knows) used to write a weekly review, a sort of after-action report, called "Dialogue." It was pretty much a one-way conversation, however. It praised "good" work and took bureaus to task when the ME or the general desk felt they had fallen short (often, as my fellow news editors observed, without asking for explanations).

After one winter ice storm, we got blasted. Long story short, our "story" was on the coast, where we knew high winds were blowing salt spray inland, shorting out numerous electrical transformers and leaving thousands dark. We had ice and some snow in the Upstate, but not as many people were affected - the storm that was panicking New York, which was expecting a direct hit, gave us only a glance. We were shorthanded, and I decided it would be foolhardy to call someone in on overtime and make them drive into those conditions. So we concentrated efforts on the coast and used the phones to gather some great material from the Upstate, so good that New York used two of the quotes in its national story. But we got nailed for not enough effort.

I wrote a lengthy challenge. But John summed it up with a short, pointed note to the ME: "Please cancel my subscription to Diatribe."

That was the kind of person, boss and colleague John was. He will be sorely missed. Karen's and my thoughts and condolences go out to his wife, Debbie. And I'm proud to have worked with a journalist's journalist.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

At times of trauma, pay special attention to layout

The State in Columbia, S.C., did yeoman's work in covering last week's murder-suicide at the University of South Carolina.

But the front page the next day points out why in times of trauma, everyone has to be on high alert for issues in every part of the paper and website.

Might have wanted to rethink that lower hed:

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