The Cyberspace Advantage
Many Web sites are loaded with valuable information for reporters on deadline. Here's a roadmap to some of the best.
By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.
DO YOU STILL THINK "HYPERTEXT" is what you write when you've had too much caffeine, and that "spam" is just really bad lunch meat? Does it feel like the whole world secretly got together one night and magically became Internet wizards while you were asleep?
Perhaps you're ready to get on board the online world, but just don't know where to start.
Or maybe your editor has banned the Net in the newsroom, thinking you'll become a glassy-eyed online addict, frittering away hours surfing aimlessly for useless trivia.
Perhaps you've already given the Web a whirl, only to give up in frustration after never finding what you need when you need it.
Or maybe you consider this whole Internet thing just another twentysomething, Generation X annoyance--like body piercing, backwards baseball caps, $4 coffees and Calvin Klein ads--that you really don't quite get and really don't quite want to.
Well, it's time to take the plunge.
No, despite the-sky-is-falling cries and whines from all those pasty-faced cyberweenies, you will not become a journalistic anachronism if you don't get online. Many of the best and brightest still haven't ventured into the cyberworld, and great journalists will continue to be great journalists without knowing a search engine from a lawn mower engine.
But the fact is, the Internet--when used efficiently--can be an important tool in your reporting arsenal, giving you instant access to the richest mine of information in the world. In short, it'll make good reporters even better.
The problem is, the helter-skelter nature of the Internet poses serious obstacles for reporters on deadline. You can spend hours searching for something and never find it, and never really know if it's on the Net or not. After becoming more familiar with the idiosyncracies of cyberspace, you will be able to find information with relative ease, and feel comfortable relying on it for deadline. But it takes both time and patience--commodities often in short supply for reporters up against tight time constraints.
That's why I suggest, before diving headfirst into the cyberpool, just dip in a toe or two at first. Instead of immediately hunting around for information that may or may not be out there somewhere (and becoming quickly frustrated in the process), concentrate on sites that you know have the information you need.
Here are a handful of Internet sites that you can immediately incorporate into your daily journalism. Just type the address into your World Wide Web browser, and you're in business.
NAMES & NUMBERS
Looking for someone, but don't know their address, or even what city they live in? Electronic directories on the Internet allow you to search for the person within a given city or state, or even nationwide. Two popular directories are Yahoo! People Finder (www.yahoo.com/search/people) and Switchboard (www.switchboard.com). The ease of the search depends on how common the last name is and on whether you can narrow the search geographically. Another directory, Database America (www.databaseamerica.com/html/gpfind.htm) also works as a modified reverse directory, allowing you to type in a phone number to learn the name and address of the person. This can be useful when investigating politicians' phone records or trying to verify the legitimacy of a source who contacts you via telephone.
GETTING TO THE SOURCE
You hear over the police scanner word of a hostage situation in a rural section of your circulation area. You only have the address, no cross streets or landmarks. Several databases on the Internet will allow you to immediately access a detailed map, with the specific address marked off and the nearby streets labeled. You also can modify the map to zoom in on a closer area, or zoom out to get a bigger picture of where the action is happening. An Internet-enabled reporter can access programs such as Mapblast (www.mapblast.com, then click on the Mapblast! icon) and Yahoo! Maps (maps.yahoo.com/yahoo), type in an address, print out a customized map and be racing out the door in minutes.
Many government Internet sites are close to useless for journalists, filled with PR puffery about the agency and its bureaucrats. The Census Bureau site (www.census.gov) is quite different. It's chock full of data that can provide reporters with everything from a piece of background for a spot story to ideas for large-scale trend pieces. Reporters can tailor their own demographic reports for specific towns, cities, counties or states with hundreds of variables from the 1990 census. The site also includes a wide array of economic indicators, population projections, industry data and even an up-to-the-second population clock for the U.S. and the world.
Another terrific federal government site is the Securities and Exchange Commission's database. The Edgar system (www.sec.gov) includes the full text of almost every document that publicly held companies are required to file with the SEC, and they're available within 24 hours of filing. Though dryly written, the 10Ks, 10Qs, 8Ks and other SEC-mandated filings can provide the type of information and insight into a local employer's financial stability, growth and future plans that you're not likely to find in a press release. The database also has a section that defines the various SEC forms and when they are due.
It's worthwhile to look at what your state government has on the Internet. Some states have rich databases, including legislation and other full-text documents, while others have sites that provide little. Global Computing has a site that links users to each state site (www.globalcomputing.com/states.html). Also, many states can be reached at www.state.??.us, with the question marks standing for the two-initial state abbreviation.
If time were no object, reporters could spend countless hours searching for Web sites that might be applicable for a big story they're working on. While few journalists have that luxury, all have access to the work product of experts who do just that. Each week the Poynter Institute's Hot News/Hot Research (www.poynter.org/hr/hr_intro.htm) publishes Internet sites of interest tied to that week's top news story. Hot News also provides one-stop shopping for recurring stories. For example, a page created in January in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to rule on the legality of physician-assisted suicide links reporters to lists of right-to-die groups around the country, organizations opposed to assisted suicide, the database that will include the court opinion when it is published and a bibliography of right-to-die literature from a small college library in Virginia.
The Federal Election Commission site (www.fec.gov) is adequate for overviews of campaign finance, but an Internet site created by a former FEC official is much more powerful for journalistic purposes. FECInfo (www.tray.com/fecinfo), the creation of Tony Raymond, allows reporters to track campaign dollars according to candidate, political action committee, contributors' employers, zip code and more.
The Internet allows reporters to cover the top appellate courts in the country without leaving the city, or even the city desk. The Emory University School of Law links to the full text of all opinions from the 11 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals (www.law.emory.edu/FEDCTS). These are probably the least covered courts in the country because they are typically out of the newspaper's geographic reach. A search of the Emory site will enable reporters to quickly find if any cases that day came from their state. A similar site at the Cornell University Law School makes full-text U.S. Supreme Court opinions available the day of release (supct.law.cornell.edu/supct). Most federal district court opinions are not on the Internet. On the state level, access to appellate court opinions varies depending on the jurisdiction. Robert Ambrogi of legal.online has put together an excellent site (www.legalonline.com/courts.htm) linking the various state courts.
The ProfNet service (www.vyne.com/profnet) allows reporters to find expert sources from 1,400 universities, colleges, research centers and think tanks around the world (see Free Press, December 1996). The free, for-journalists-only service is triggered by sending an electronic mail request to ProfNet outlining your story and the type of experts you are seeking. ProfNet distributes each request to the 2,700 participating public relations officers around the world, and the PR people search their institutions for the appropriate experts. The system works best when you craft your query narrowly. While useful for enterprise pieces, the e-mail system is not practical for most daily stories. For spot news, you can directly tap into ProfNet's database of 2,000-plus experts. The National Press Club (npc.press.org/dirnews.html) also has an extensive directory of experts.
Many smaller news outlets without a Washington presence have been forced to rely heavily on local members of Congress for news out of Capitol Hill affecting their readers and viewers. But Congress' Web site, Thomas, (thomas.loc.gov) provides instant access to full text of all bills, bill summaries and status, full text of committee reports, historical documents such as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and full text of each day's Congressional Record, searchable by keyword to allow reporters to easily track what their members are saying. Useful background reports also are available via Thomas' links to the Internet sites of the General Accounting Office, Government Printing Office and Congressional Budget Office.
The Washington Post published a lengthy feature on your local member of Congress, and you want to read the full-text version. The Boston Globe is running an investigative series on international trade, and you've heard a major employer in your community is featured. Keeping up with out-of-town papers has become much easier in recent years as more newspapers publish electronic versions. Almost every major metropolitan daily in the country today has an electronic counterpart, and many small- and mid-sized papers have their news on the Internet. One of the best places for finding online newspapers is AJR NewsLink (www.ajr.org).