The Top 10 Web Sites for Working Journalists

By: Charles Bowen

It has been a great joy to visit with you each week in this column over the past six years, to scour the Internet together for resources uniquely suited for the important work of writers and editors. When we started this Web-o-rized scavenger hunt in the winter of 1998, I had no idea it would be such a long and interesting journey. Now, 300 columns later, the time comes to wrap it up, but not without a backward glance.

With 70 months worth of work to choose from, it is hard to pick “favorites,” but here are 10 sites that I have found myself returning to regularly in my own work. In no particular order, the permanent fixtures in my online toolbelt are:

* YourDictionary.com. One of the first Web sites featured in this column was the work of Robert Beard at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University. His On-line Dictionaries linked to more than 400 searchable references in languages ranging from Afrikaans, Akkadian, Algerian and Albanian to Vietnamese, Welsh, Yemba and Yiddish. And now, as we start the Web’s second decade, Beard is back and better than ever. YourDictionary.com is the 21st century version of his original vision. It is probably the Web’s most comprehensive and authoritative portal for language, now with more than 1,800 dictionaries in more than 250 languages. No wonder more than 1.5 million people visit the site each month.

* The Internet Movie Database. You couldn’t ask for a better resource for film reviews and summaries of movies around the world. More than 100,000 films are covered, starting with a little-known 1898 British novelty called Express Train on a Railway Cutting. But because of flexible searching options, the database can do much more than simply look up movies. In the right hands, it also is a powerful tool for researching all kinds of entertainment stories, from movies and video to television, books and music, not to mention being a reservoir of facts on general pop culture.

* Thomas. Cyberspace is becoming a superhighway for congressional information, and all roads lead to Thomas, the Library of Congress’s slick collection of databases (named in honor of Thomas Jefferson). You can search the Congressional Record for the complete text of your senators’ latest remarks. A regular check with the site also gives you a rundown of all bills of local interest set to receive floor action, reports on motions, speeches and debates and committee reports as well as special, browsable in-depth coverage of major legislation.

* Gary Price’s List of Lists. Even before USA Today popularized statistical snapshots of America, we journalists have always been hungry for lists. The favorite soft drinks in the nation. The hottest video rentals. The richest people. The busiest airports. The most dangerous cities. The best-selling books and albums, the highest-rated television shows, and the biggest box-office movies. In 1998, Gary Price started his List of Lists, a phenomenal gateway to rankings of different people, organizations and companies. The material comes from various sources, such as magazines like Forbes and Fortune, technical publications and journals and original online resources. In addition, some of the lists have been designed to be interactive and/or searchable, providing greater utility than the printed versions. Several years ago, the resource was passed off to Trip Wyckoff of Specialissues.com, who maintains it today.

* Hoover’s Online. This is a directory of basic company data on more than 35,000 of the world’s top business enterprises, U.S. and foreign, including all publicly traded companies on the three major stock exchanges. It provides details on key people in the firms, how the businesses are doing financially and what newsworthy things have been happening there lately. It also offers stock market data on the firms and links to relevant articles and messages elsewhere on the Web.

* Project Vote Smart. This resource has been around more than a decade — two years longer than the Web itself, as a matter of fact — enabling citizens to track tens of thousands of candidates and elected offices. It offers information on voting histories, campaign contributions, public positions and performance evaluations by special interests, biographical data and contact information. Funded entirely by foundation grants and individual contributions and maintained by college students and by volunteers, Project Vote Smart is the logical starting point for anyone wanting to quickly boost his or her election-savvy.

* Medscape. Funded by major publishing interests, Medscape delivers clinical medical data in more than two dozen specialty areas, allowing visitors to access a customized home page geared to their areas of interest. The site is designed for doctors, but has data that is free to everyone, including journalists. Medscape offers the Net’s largest collection of freely available, peer-reviewed, full-text articles and is a first-rate resource for keeping tabs on breaking health news.

* FinanCenter. This Tucson, Ariz., company offers more than 200 specialized calculators. Intended for consumers — but just as useful for the working press — these tools cover everything from budgeting to bonds, as well as saving projects, the financing of homes and cars, planning for retirement and more.

* CIA World Factbook. Since even before the creation of the Web a decade ago, the CIA has made its World Factbook available on the Internet, and to an ever-growing number of students, it is the primary resource for sociological and geographic information about the countries of the world. It is a number-cruncher’s delight, with fresh information about Iraq, Malaysia and other potential hot spots on the planet.

* Map Machine. National Geographic has been Web worldly for a decade or so, but this venerated globe trotter hasn’t been content to stay put with those early efforts. Now its latest configuration includes one of the best mapping facilities you’ll find anywhere on the Internet. Its Map Machine lets you see the world in new ways, from the street maps of North America and Europe to historical maps of railroads and battles, as well as assorted physical, political, cultural and panoramic maps. Shoot, there’s even a terrain map of Mars.

Finally, here’s the bonus track, the best site that I never wrote about but should have: The Scout Report is published weekly by the Computer Sciences Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visit http://scout.wisc.edu, where you can read current issues and back issues and, best of all, sign up for its e-mail. It’s my all-time favorite resource for news of significant new developments on the Internet and will help you continue your Web research on your own.

You can read recent “Digital How-To” columns on our index page.

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