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HLG Notebook | October 2013


1. Wikipedia’s Getting Worse

An unflinching takedown of Wikipedia by the MIT Technology Review . According to the article, Wikipedia not only suffers from unwieldy growth and a lack of capable editors, but also a “crushing bureaucracy” of a management system that creates “an abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers” from participating and helping the site grow. What’s worse is that the site no longer serves as an encyclopedia:

Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokeman and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-ranking quality scores.



2. Who Will Act on Your Letter or Email?

Long ago, everyone in the direct mail business understood that it matters how you write a letter. Alas, in the age of email, many of these lessons have been forgotten. British economist Tim Hartford offers this corrective , summarizing recent research that finds that small changes in format yield significant results. One experiment he discusses, for example, found that one version of a letter yielded seven times as many responses as another, despite no changes in content. The reasons why are instructive:

Printing “important: please read and act quickly” on the envelope induced a minuscule extra response; adding the regulator’s logo achieved nothing; using the company CEO’s name and signature instead of “customer services team” actually dissuaded people from responding.

There are a handful of other useful pointers throughout Hartford’s piece. A worthwhile read for all writers of email.



3. Are Leaks the Only Future for Journalism?

Just as journalism seemed to be reaching the brink of obsolescence – with near-certain relegation at the hands of Twitter and YouTube clips of Jon Stewart – this lively, high-profile fight breaks out. Arguing over journalism’s future and function, Bill Keller of the New York Times and Glen Greenwald of The Guardian jumpstart an unexpectedly dynamic discussion. Greenwald, who served as Edward Snowden’s journalistic outlet, claims that institutions like the Times have “long-served the interest of elite and powerful factions.” Yet Keller appears to get the upper-hand through responses like this:

The overwhelming preponderance of investigative reporting still comes for reporters who cultivate trusted sources over months or years, not from insiders who suddenly decide to entrust someone they’ve never met with a thumb drive full of secrets.

Amid the global excitement over NSA and Wikileaks, Keller asks a sober, but profound question: “Do you really think Snowden and Manning represent the future of investigative journalism?”



4. Why the Shutdown Really Happened

Of the millions of articles written about the government shut down, Jack Welch makes the best point in his commentary on the importance of engaging your foes:

The Washington blame game goes on and the government stays shuttered. Meanwhile, the people watching the story play out – and, we would say, especially leaders in business – might be missing the most important lesson of all. You have to schmooze…Not the standard, ho-ho-ho kind of social schmoozing you do with your customers and your team and your boss. That’s easy…Leaders have to do something harder and more essential…You have to schmooze with your known adversaries.



5. The US Doesn’t Depend on Mideast Oil

Excellent revisionist history of the 1970s oil embargo and the birth of OPEC. According to Foreign Affairs, “Americans have been led to believe that the vulnerabilities associated with oil dependence would be alleviated if only oil imports decreased.” However, these “assertions were wrong 40 years ago and they are even further off the mark today.” This thorough, level-headed article upsets much of the prevailing wisdom about the global energy supply:

The United States has never really been dependent on the Middle East for its supply of oil – today only nine percent of the U.S. oil supply comes from the region. At no point in history did that figure surpass 15 percent…Nonetheless, for the last four decades, Washington’s energy policy has been based on the faulty conclusion that the country could solve all its energy woes by reducing its reliance on Middle Eastern oil…But what Americans import from the Persian Gulf is not so much the black liquid as its price.



6. The Birth of Consulting

Highly readable excerpt of The Firm, a new book on the early formation and growth of consulting giant McKinsey & Co. A good portrait of the firm’s foundation, with plenty of detail on how “management science” became a science. Also, some fascinating snippets on McKinsey himself:

[He] was blunt, but he was also a quick and agile thinker. He once diagnosed a client’s problems just by looking at the company’s letterhead. A Midwestern maker of air conditioners had stationery that announced “Industrial Air Conditioning Installations-Coast to Coast from Canada to Mexico.” In an era before salespeople traveled by airline, McKinsey observed that travel expenses were probably eating up the majority of the company’s profits and that employees should confine themselves to a radius of five hundred miles around Chicago. He was right.