The Wired TV Journalist, Circa 1998

By: Steve Outing

In television newsrooms across the country, broadcast journalists are figuring out how to use the Internet as a reporting tool. While the newspaper industry has long sang the praises of computer-assisted reporting (CAR), broadcasters were slower to adopt the technology.

But in the last three years, TV news operations have been demonstrating how the Internet can come in handy as a reporting tool, according to Mike Wendland, a long-time newspaper and television investigative reporter and author of “Wired Journalist: Newsroom Guide to the Internet.” In this handbook, published by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation as part of its News In The Next Century series, Wendland offers tips for using the Internet as an investigative tool and gives examples of television reporters and editors using the Internet to do their jobs more efficiently.

The “Wired Journalist” handbook is a useful resource to all journalists who aren’t yet Internet research experts; its advice is as applicable to print and online journalists as it is to TV reporters. But it was written largely to encourage more broadcast journalists to understand how using the Internet can improve their reporting. And they need it, says Wendland.

Down the tube?

Use of the Internet as a reporting tool in TV newsrooms has become as common as pagers and cell phones, but Wendland says he’s starting to see broadcasters back off a bit — largely because many TV news executives are terrified of what the Internet is doing to their ratings. Early research on the effects of Internet usage on consumption of various media indicate that TV is by far the hardest hit medium. Some studies have shown that Internet users watch about 6 hours less TV per week than at pre-Internet levels.

Wendland says he’s distressed at what he’s seeing from many local TV news operations, which are reacting to the Internet-inspired ratings losses by dumbing down their news coverage. Local TV news executives are steering more toward “slash and sleaze” coverage, he says, and too many stations are producing what amounts to “bad infotainment” under the name of “news”; it has little resemblance to legitimate journalism.

This fear of the Internet by local television executives is even affecting use of the Internet as a reporting tool, exactly at the time when broadcast reporters need to utilize the wealth of information available to them online to do a more credible job of reporting on their communities. Local TV newsrooms typically don’t have research libraries available to assist reporters and editors, as is the case at most large newspapers, and broadcast newsrooms simply don’t have a tradition of research as do newspapers. That means it’s the assignment editors and reporters who must do the research.

Alas, says Wendland, in the day to day rush to meet ever-present deadlines, still too many broadcasters and newsroom managers don’t or can’t take the time to learn how to use the Internet as a reporting tool. And that’s a big mistake.

The Internet as tool

Wendland’s handbook for RTNDF offers up some nice examples of how the Internet can make journalists’ lives easier. The book (priced at $10) is a quick read at 91 pages, and many pages are simply listings of the resources on the Web that journalists will find useful. (This is the third edition of the book, but is a from-scratch rewrite of the last edition.)

Among the most useful Internet tools, he says, are the various directory and mapping services, which can come in very handy when you hear over the police scanner about an emergency situation at a certain address. Use the “reverse lookup” feature of Infospace, which will give you the name and phone number of the person living at the address (at least in theory). Of course, the people at that address may be too tied up with the emergency to answer a reporter’s call, but that same service can be used to find neighbors’ names and numbers; call them, and you might get an idea of what’s going on.

The Web also is handy for assignment editors when they are dispatching a reporting team. For a fire where you know the address, Wendland suggests using a map service like Yahoo!’s to quickly print out directions from the office to the news scene. That’s a real time-saver.

Another handy Web tool is the Internet Sleuth Web site, which provides access to more than 3,000 searchable online databases. This site is useful for events like a train wreck where a chemical spill has occurred, to learn about the chemical and its potential impact on humans who come in contact with it.

Wendland’s handbook features a number of television journalists’ examples of how they used the Web in their reporting. For example, a producer for E! Entertainment Television explains how for a series on home-schooled students’ transition to college life, she was able to find students to interview by hanging out in college online chat rooms. She also used search engines to find home schooling associations, then contacted them by phone and was able to get a few names of home-schooled students to talk to about their college experiences.

Many television editors use the Web to keep track of news stories on other sources, which often drives TV news coverage. Wendland suggests using Web sites like Editor & Publisher, AJR/Newslink and NewsIndex to find and track sites of other news organizations. Unfortunately, he says, this new ability has made it easier for some television assignment editors to merely copy what other media have done — exacerbating the stereotypical image of the local TV news assignment editor planning out the day by poring over the morning newspaper.

The Top 5

Wendland has collected a wealth of handy Internet sites useful for reporters, but he considers these to be the top five tools that every journalist should have bookmarked:

Anywho.com, a Web site that supports reverse address lookups and makes it fairly easy to profile a neighborhood. Type in a street name and get each resident’s address. Bookmark your state government’s central Web site. Typically, these sites contain or link to a wealth of civic information. American Journalism Review/Newslink, for finding media sites. Editor & Publisher Interactive, for easily accessing newspaper sites. NICAR, the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting, which is a great Web site to see what other Internet- and CAR-savvy journalists are doing. Wendland also highly recommends using e-mail effectively as a reporting tool. E-mail discussion lists are particularly useful for staying on top of trends in your area of coverage or beat, he suggests. Sometimes it’s useful to temporarily join a list on a topic that you’re covering in order to find experts you might want to interview.

Hope from the young

Wendland, who teaches journalists how to use the Internet in his own series of classes and for the Poynter Institute, says that one encouraging sign is that most good journalism schools these days offer online research courses as integral parts of their curricula. As new graduates come into the journalism profession, most of them are well schooled in using the Internet as a reporting tool.

As new blood arrives in local television newsrooms, using the Internet as a tool will become second nature. That’s so important, Wendland suggests, because the Internet is shifting the balance of power away from journalists and into the hands of the public. Information that used to be available only to journalists is now readily available to the public, “who in many cases are more skilled at using the Internet than are journalists,” he says. That must change.

Contact: Mike Wendland, mike@pcmike.com

You never know who’s reading you on the Web

Shortly after my last column appeared on the Web, I received a phone call from the CEO of Golfsmith, a large golf retail chain. I had made mention of his company in discussing how some Web retailers are undercutting traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and he simply wanted to chat about how the Web might impact his business and his own Web strategy.

As I write for an audience of publishers and news people, primarily, and I don’t write about golf or retailing, I was fascinated that my column had gotten into his hands. The explanation is simple enough. His marketing director uses one of the news search engines to alert him when an article appears on the Web that contains the word “Golfsmith.” I mention this not as anything particularly profound, but to reinforce that the Internet has forever changed how readers get information that’s relevant to them.

More on online stores

That online retailers column generated more reader mail than usual, most of it offering positive feedback on the article. But my recommendation that publishers assist local retailers in joining the world of e-commerce struck an advertising manager from a small West Coast newspaper as “irresponsible” and “naive.” She wrote: “You made every case for exactly why so many retailers and publishers do NOT want to make it easier for you to shop via e-commerce.”

That comments strikes me as burying your head in the sand and hoping e-commerce is just a fad that will go away and not have any impact on traditional retailing. Now that attitude seems naive. I would be interested in hearing other comments on this topic. My e-mail address is at the end of this column.

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Steve

Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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