behind the news

Error Prevention Made Easy

Three new applications every journalist should know about
January 22, 2010

I was reading about political iPhone apps on, a blog maintained by Canadian communications consultant Ian Capstick, when I noticed a strange little badge at the bottom of his post:

I clicked on it and a pop-up window invited me to “Correct grammar, spelling and other errors.” After highlighting text within the post, I was offered a menu from which to identify the type of error I wanted to fix. Then I was given a text box to make my correction.

This simple process had me sitting on the edge of my seat, as I was previously unaware anyone had built an application to help readers suggest corrections. I might be the only person to feel this way, but it was pretty exciting.

With that in mind, here are three quick profiles of error-prevention or correction technologies or services every journalist should keep on their radar. And if you’re aware of other projects that warrant watching, please e-mail me. I want to hear about them.

gooseGrade (

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It turns out the company behind the corrections widget and underlying service, gooseGrade, was profiled by TechCrunch earlier this year. So hopefully the word is getting out. I spoke with the company’s twenty-four-year-old founder and CEO, John Brooks Pounders, this week, and he told me the company plans to rebrand as in the next few weeks.

Simply put, they have created a way for Web sites to crowdsource edits and corrections. Web site owners can install the gooseGrade widget in order to have an easy, streamlined method for readers to submit proposed edits or corrections. Then gooseGrade collects and sorts these submissions so the publisher or author can accept or reject the changes. It simplifies the corrections process, which is a very good thing. The company also developed a WordPress plugin that makes the fixing process even faster.

“People are reluctant to fix errors, not because they don’t want to, but because it’s tedious,” Pounders told me.

This is a big issue for news organizations. After a correction is submitted, wires often get crossed inside a newsroom, and the error never gets fixed. On the other side of the equation, people hesitate to submit corrections because they don’t know whom to contact, or they don’t think the organization will follow up. A lot of the time, these fears are well founded. (Just read this report outlining how The Washington Post’s corrections process broke down.)

“People get discouraged if they send something and never hear back,” Pounders said.

He’s right. News organizations rely on the public to submit corrections, yet the process is often unclear or prone to delays and problems. The folks at gooseGrade—their system initially involved grading each page for accuracy—have created what appears to be an easy, workable system to facilitate the collection and application of edits and corrections. I think it could help a lot of news sites.

Right now, anyone can add the widget to their blog or Web site, and people can also sign up individually to suggest edits and corrections, which is made easier by the company’s bookmarklet.

Bite-Size Edits

Keeping with the theme of collaborative editing, Bite-Size Edits is a project currently in beta. Rather than pursuing a public form of collaborative post-publication editing, this project aims to help writers get their work edited before it reaches the world at large. People can sign up for an account and then upload their text for review by fellow users. The editing is “bite-sized” because the text is chopped into smaller chunks and fed into the system. Your fellow participants can then edit small sections of text. As of now, two people will read each section of text, and their edits are then fed to the author.

The project is led by Hugh McGuire, Janina Szkut, and Andy MacDonald, and it’s based in Montreal. I’ve known about the project for several months because McGuire and I are acquaintances. He is the founder of LibriVox, the Internet’s largest repository of free audio books, and I wrote about him for The New York Times a few years back.

“The idea behind it is that certain kinds of work can be done well by applying ‘idle time’ in discrete chunks to a problem,” McGuire said. “While Bite-Size Edits is not meant to replace a professional proofreader or copy editor, a text can still be significantly improved. What’s more, we’ll be building in social features which add to the—yes!—fun of proofreading, and connect writers with readers, and editors.”

I asked him if he thinks this model could potentially work in journalism.

“In a professional context, I think it’s a great tool for proofing your own work quickly and easily,” he said. “And it is a good tool for a small, trusted group to edit a longer document. But I think in both cases you’d probably want a final look at the whole document after Bite-Size was done, before sending it out.”

He said that he doesn’t see their system as a way to “replace a good contextual edit, or a good professional proofread, for that matter.” Rather, it’s “one tool in the editing process.”

Like gooseGrade, Bite-Size Edits has received angel funding.

Artificial Proofreader

As much as I warn people about the failings of spellcheckers, the reality is that newsrooms—average users, for that matter—would benefit from better spellcheck software. This is something Dimitri Asonov, a Moscow-based computer scientist, agrees with wholeheartedly.

Asonov began to research computerized spellcheckers after he noticed an alarming number of typos in books and newspapers.

“If you open up a pricey book or upscale magazine or newspaper, it’s strange to see typos,” he told me. “How is it possible that people still tolerate [typos] in upscale products? I was thinking about it quite a lot, and then I started asking people who work in publishing and they told me it is very costly to get rid of all the typos. I was thinking that something has to be done—we are living in the twenty-first century and getting rid of typos shouldn’t be costly.”

He began evaluating published research about computerized spellchecking. As it turns out, there’s been quite a lot of it. He found close to fifty research papers on the topic, going back roughly forty years. And yet the spellcheckers we use every day still manage to miss—and cause—so many typos.

Asonov, who has a Ph.D from Humboldt University in Berlin, previously worked for IBM’s Almaden Research Center in California, as well as a domestic Russian airline. At first, his interest in spellcheckers was just a hobby. Now it’s more than that. He’s developed what he believes is a superior error-detection technology, and he wants people to test it out.

“I developed a technology that helps detect real-word errors which are especially hard to catch for both computer spellcheckers and human proofreaders,” he said. “Based on the experiments, this technology outperforms Microsoft Word significantly both in quality of proofreading and in speed.”

Asonov created a very basic Web site where people can upload a text file and check it using his technology. He’s been testing and improving the system by plugging in RSS feeds from major publications.

“What I’m trying to do now is to gather feedback from people who work in the field,” he said. “I contacted several publishing houses in Moscow and they are figuring out how they can use it in the publishing process. “

Asonov is aware of the loss of copy editors and proofreaders, and hopes his technology can play a role in helping maintain quality standards.

“I hope it can improve or keep quality the same, even though copy editors are being forced [out of jobs] every day, and quality is going down very quickly,” he said. “I’ve had some hard times convincing newspapers to use it. But I explain that that’s [because] they are less sensitive to typos than book publishers are. In newspapers, the first criteria is who is first, not who is typo free.”

No need to check that last statement.

Correction of the Week

“A photograph published in the Toronto Sun Friday incorrectly identified a person who has the same name as a dead drug dealer. The photo showed Shawn James, winner of a Harry Jerome Award in 2005 and a social worker with UrbanPromise Toronto, a Christian-based community initiative working with children, youth and single mothers.

“He is very much alive and the error raised concern among the kids he works with at Thistletown Baptist Church.

“James ‘operates an after-school program for children at Kipling and Finch Aves. and he has no criminal background,’ wrote UrbanPromise executive director Brett McBride.

“The story, however, was about the trial for the accused killer of another man named Shawn ‘Juice’ James, slain in 2007. The Sun apologizes for the error.” — Toronto Sun

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.