By: Steve Outing
If you work as a journalist at a large news organization, you probably
have the luxury of relying on a staff of librarians who assist your writing
and editing in many ways – from simple fact checking to performing as
researchers, finding and digging through public databases, and being
part of special editorial project teams.
News librarians are much better appreciated these days, and their roles
in the newsroom are expanding. The skills they possess are becoming
increasingly important in the Internet age. As journalists run the risk of
smothering in the information overload, librarians/news researchers help
make sense of it all.
Of course, many news organizations have small or no library staffs, so
reporters and editors often must acquire the skills of the news
librarian themselves. It’s a basic survival skill these days.
The experts speak
A new book is out that should be of some use to journalists who want to
be better skilled at using the Internet as an integral part of their
reporting. Super Searchers In The News (Information Today Inc.),
written by Paula Hane and edited by Reva Basch, takes the
approach of interviewing 10 experts in using the Internet as a news
I use the Internet as a reporting tool as much as any journalist, and I
learned a lot of new tips from reading this book. While Super
Searchers is useful to those interested in news research and library
science as a career, I’m going to focus first on its utility as a tool
for aiding journalists. (Later, I’ll discuss the trends in newsroom
libraries that the Internet has wrought.)
Indeed, the Internet today is as important a tool for most journalists
as is the telephone. It’s simply indispensible for anyone who calls
him/herself a journalist. Says investigative reporter Duff Wilson in
his interview for the book, “Researching subjects or using the Internet
to find information is like using the telephone or your feet to walk down
to the library. It’s no longer exotic. Everyone has to do it.” Not just
Because of the Internet, the line between what it takes to be a reporter
and what it takes to be a news researcher is blurring. Nora Paul,
news library scholar and director of the Institute for New Media Studies at
the University of Minnesota, says that the two types of news employees are
similar. “A good researcher is a good reporter and a good reporter is a
good researcher,” she says in her interview in the book.
Paul says that one of the great “shames” of many modern newsrooms is that
reporters are not adequately trained to use the fantastic research tool
that sits on everyone’s desks – the Internet. Training too often is
centered on the technology, when it should be focused on fostering
“critical thinking” about how to find what you need on the Internet.
When a reporter/researcher finds a Web site with relevant information,
he/she must make quick value judgments about the site’s credibility. Is
it a personal page, or from a government source? Does the site include a
person’s name who is responsible for the information, and a phone number?
(If not, then you’d probably best ignore that site as a source.) A good
resource for learning this skill is Evaluating
Many reporters who have not been trained on searching the Internet use the
general Web search engines and directory services (like Google, AltaVista,
Yahoo!, etc.), but that is seldom the best approach. Several of the
experts interviewed for Super Searchers suggested some better guidelines:
Go ahead and search first using a general Web search engine. Sometimes,
relevant stuff will turn up near the top of the results, so it’s worth a
try. The general search engines are most useful for finding stuff that you
don’t know is out there, from sources you have no idea exist. But often,
they’ll fail you.
The “meta” Web search services (which search across multiple Web search
engines) are occasionally useful for finding “needle in a haystack”
information, says Margot Williams, a Pulitzer-winning research
editor for the Washington Post. “If you have an unusual or unique
topic, a metasearch is an incredible way to try to find somebody,
somewhere – anywhere – who knows something about it,” she says.
Williams and her colleagues all seem to agree that the real value comes
in using subject sites and vertical search engines. The general Web search
engines miss much of what’s on the Internet, because the content is behind
firewalls or is password protected. The latest trend is that specialized
search services are being created – and these are incredible tools
for journalists, says Paul (who co-wrote the book Great Scouts!
CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web with Williams).
For instance, if you are looking for information about the insanity
plea, use something like LawCrawler,
which only indexes content from designated legal Web sites, instead of a
general search engine. You’ll get much better results. For government
information, use GovSearch from Northern Light, or UncleSam from Google.
Also, look for a directory on the topic you’re writing about. Often,
some expert (or enthusiast) will have compiled a Web directory of relevant
resources and news about the topic. “There’s always somebody who is an
expert, who knows exactly where all the good stuff is,” says Miami
Herald research editor Elisabeth Donovan in her
Super Searchers interview.
Understand that the search engines won’t give you current information
and new Web pages, because their indexes typically are several days (or
even weeks) old. The engines’ spiders don’t index content on a daily basis.
So journalists should subscribe to e-mail alert services that monitor
current-news sites and can deliver new, topical news to you daily. Such
services are a great help to reporters who wish to stay current on news
and developments in their fields.
It’s about people
Trained news researchers typically know how to track down people on the
Internet, a skill that more reporters should learn. As Williams writes
in the book, “Reporters tend to use the same experts over and over, just
because they’d spoken to them before. Now, with the Internet, we can seek
out people whom we don’t know. We can find people who are experts in a
professional field, or who have actually suffered from a disease, or
hobbyists who are experts in some way.”
C.B. Hayden, broadcast research leader for ABC News, says Internet
discussion lists and newsgroups are useful for finding information when the
search engines aren’t current enough. In the book, he cites as an example
monitoring newsgroups where people discussed the Columbine High School
shootings last year. His staff picked up from the discussion new Web
sites that had been set up in the days after the tragedy occurred – which
search engines wouldn’t have found.
“Newsgroups can provide an immediacy that search engines often cannot,” he
says, although newsgroups do tend to attract a younger user base. Mailing
lists can be more useful to reporters because they often attract an
older, more serious crowd.
Super Searchers contains a bunch more wonderful tips to turn a
journalist into a crafty Internet news searcher. You will have to slog
through all the interviews, however, which are presented in Q&A format.
The author asks some of the same questions to each of the interviewees,
which gets a bit tiresome toward the end when one’s answers aren’t much
different than the last’s. Fortunately, each interview chapter has
bulleted main points at the end, to accommodate those looking for quick
The book also gives a nice overview of news research trends, especially in
the interview chapter with Nora Paul, who most in this industry consider
a “news librarian icon” and the field’s leading guru. (Paul recently left
her post at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies to take the University
of Minnesota job.)
Paul says that information professionals have great opportunities available
to them and will be in even greater demand because of the growth of the
Internet. The news profession will come to require more of news
researchers’ skills, because the information environment is getting so
much larger and more complex.
Author Paula Hane says that there’s an increasing cross-media approach to
news research, as researchers for a newspaper also work for the paper’s
Web presence. Researchers at TV networks also are involved in Web sites,
webcasting, and sometimes beyond.
The trend also is for researchers to move out of the libraries and into the
newsrooms, where they work next to reporters and editors and take their
place in editorial project teams. “True partnerships are beginning to
emerge,” writes Hane – as evidenced by researchers like Margot
Williams and Elisabeth Donovan who have shared Pulitzer Prizes for their
contributions to special projects.
Super Searchers In The News will be available in November from
the publisher’s Web site and most major online booksellers.
Other recent columns
In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to
the last few columns:
Make New Money, Don’t Just Replace Old, Wednesday, September 27
Make New Money, Don’t Just Replace Old, Wednesday, September 20
Low-Cost Credit Card Content Sales, Wednesday, September 13
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This column is written by Steve
Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and
feedback can be sent to Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.