The Web is an invaluable research tool... if you don't die of frustration first.
If you've come this far, you already know that the Internet is the most powerful tool ever to be put at the disposal of a journalist researching a subject. It's also one of the most dangerous. If you have enough journalistic experience to know not to trust anything you see in print, this applies tenfold to the information you find on the Web.
Trust nothing you see on the Web. The Web may be the world's largest repository of information, but it is also the largest repository of disinformation, misguidance, incorrect facts, outdated info, not to mention spelling mistakes.
One of the most frustrating experiences when researching a subject on the Internet is to spend hours trying to locate the topic you're interested in, then to strike gold only to find that the page you're looking at was last updated, say, in 1996, the online equivalent of the Jurassic Period.
Habeeb Salloum, a freelance based in Toronto, comments: "There is too much contradictory information on the Internet, and it is hard to sift the good from the bad. My suggestion is: if you cannot access the needed information quickly by searching the topic by name or the subject in various forms, give up and try my number one source for research - the library. Here, I often find the sought-after information in less time and without the frustration I often feel on the Internet."
HOW USEFUL IS IT?
Very useful, if you have the time and patience, though for some it is more useful than for others.
"I find the web indispensible in researching articles and wonder how I ever worked without it," says Benjamin Jones, who is based in Madrid. "For example, a year ago I was asked by a magazine in Washington to write about golf in Europe and was able to research golf courses from the Arctic Circle to Sotogrande on the web, as well as find a history of the game on a Scottish website."
"Overall, I find the Internet is great for information on a topic about which you know just a bit. You can find general information about a lot of topics," comments Robert O'Hoski, from Canada. "To really research a topic in depth, however, I find the library is still preferable."
London-based Nick Inman adds: "The first thing I do is decide whether the web will help me or not - or will the phone be quicker and more reliable? I narrow down what I really want to know and set a time limit and don't get distracted (no random hopping about), trying to follow leads methodically. I only bother with official websites, not other people's secondhand information. For searching when I know for sure the information is out there I use Google's 'I'm Feeling Lucky' button. If I am not sure I usually use Yahoo's options page set for a Broolean search."
"If I don't have a web address for a particular subject, I just go to a search engine like Altavista, Yahoo or Terra and write in the appropriate word or name and sift through the results," says Benjamin Jones. "I recently had to write a short piece about Galician bagpipe musician Carlos Nuņez. I typed his name in and found his record company's website and a site maintained by a fan here in Madrid which explained technical details of the instrument Nuņez plays and other info. Through the fan's e-mail address, we were able to arrange a meeting at an Irish pub in Madrid where I interviewed him on his knowledge of Nuņez' work and technique."
WANTED: THE PERFECT ENGINE
When trawling the web, the obvious place to start is a search engine. Everyone has their favorites, though the more you use the merrier.
"I suggest using a variety of search engines," says Robert O'Hoski. "I use Fast Search, 37.com,
Dogpile, Altavista, Looksmart and Yahoo."
For Barcelona journalist Suzanne Wales, "Northern Lights is the best search engine for journalists that I have found. They seem to cut out all the waffle and give you the best sources, mainly from educational institutions and on-line publications. You can even download articles on the same subject written by other authors for a pretty reasonable price, or if you want to save money they give you the source anyway and you can go spend a bit more time searching their site - often you will come up with the article for free."
There are search engines and search engines. First there is the Yahoo-style search; you go to the initial list, click on the category that is closest to your target subject, which gives another list, and so on down until you come to a list of pages that, with luck, will fulfill your criteria. This can be a fairly drawn out process and does not always produce the desired results. You can take a shortcut by entering keywords into the search box, and Yahoo will come up with a list of relevant categories and individual websites.
The second type is the true search engine, of which Altavista used to be the model. You punch in keywords, and their database will come up with a list, presumbly in order of relevance. Then there are "metacrawlers", such as Dogpile, Search-It-All or Mamma.com. These conduct simultaneous searches on several different engines. Finally, some of the most fruitful searches are carried out on dedicated engines, directories or portals devoted to a single topėc.
When using Yahoo, Lycos and other engines, bear in mind that many have different versions for different countries (usually listed at the bottom of their home page). You might not find what you're looking for in Yahoo US, but could have more luck with their British or Spanish page.
Altavista, Yahoo and most of the most popular sites have become less like search engines and more like portals. Probably the most powerful search all-purpose search engines now are Fast and Google (see our review).
Be specific with your search terms.
Click on the "Advanced search" option available on most engines. These allow you to conduct Broolean searches or give other methods for narrowing the search to suit your needs.
Check to see if the engine allows you to restrict your search to pages updated within a certain time period, say, during the past six months or year, to eliminate obsolete sites.
When going to a page from a list of sites on a search engine, open the page in a new browser window (you can do this from the menu bar or by using the right hand button on your mouse). This way, the original list will still be open so you can go back to it to look at further pages listed.
A good source of tips on how to best search the web, plus other information on search engines and a complete listing of them, can be found at www.searchenginewatch.com, edited by Danny Sullivan.
Among other advice, he points out that "anyone looking for unsual or hard-to-find information may wish to try one of the search engines with a large index, because they cover more of the web. However, for general searches or when looking for information about popular topics, a large index does not necessarily mean better results."
THE QUOTABLE WEB
One of the most interesting possibilities which the Internet has made available to journalists is interviewing people by e-mail. It looks pretty good if in an article on nature conservation you quote someone from Brazil, Spain and New Zealand. Most official and company sites provide email addresses so you can contact those responsible for providing information to the media.
You might also want to conduct a mini-poll to gather comments from a variety of people on a given subject. You can do this be posting a message with a news group, or on a forum related to the subject you're covering. For Spanish topics, for instance, you might post a message inviting comments on the Freelance Spain Forum, or on the forum runs by About Spain.
Always be sure point out, in posted messages and in emails to possible sources, that you intend to quote them in your story.
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