The Reporter as Researcher: The Time Is Now

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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

research tool.

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

news librarians.

Blurring lines

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

Web Resources.

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


Library trends

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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Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the online news/interactive news

media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve

Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and

feedback can be sent to Steve at

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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