Internet SuperSearching for Journalists
Click, scroll. Click, scroll. Click, scroll. The Internet is an amazing reporting tool, but only if you know how to use it. How much time have you wasted hunting around for that one fact or statistic you know is out there, but just can't locate? Like a stubborn guy unwilling to ask for directions, you just keep clicking and scrolling, hunting around cyberspace, determined to find the gold - even though a quick phone call probably could have gotten you the info in half the time.
Or maybe you're one of those people who don't even bother searching the Net, even though your stingy newspaper finally paid for a connection at your desk. You know the information is online but you don't know how to find it, so you suffer through hold times and cranky government workers to get the facts.
Despite embracing the Net early on, I, too, have had these frustrations. So over the years I've gathered the most useful sites, and now you can find my collection on CyberJournalist.net, a site I run that offers tips and commentary on journalism in the digital age.
The CyberJournalist SuperSearch is not just a collection of links for journalists - it's one page packed with actual search tools. From this page you can directly query all the major search engines, find just about any reference information, track down specific news stories, look up company information and get phone numbers and addresses.
Many of the searches engines on the page are self-explanatory, but here are some tips on how to make the best use of them, followed by a few pointers on searching online in general.
General search engines:
Google is the best overall search engine. It ranks pages based on how often they are linked to, and thus is more likely to return pages that are relevant and popular. It's particularly efficient when you're looking for official sites.
- Yahoo!, a human-compiled guide, is the oldest and most popular index -- and it searches websites, not individual pages. Because it groups sites by categories, it's great for when you know the type of site you're looking for, but not the exact site.
- Northern Light is a favorite among some researchers because it clusters documents by topic.
- Ask Jeeves allows you to pose questions in plain English; it's often hit-or-miss, but can be useful when you're trying to answer a simple question and keyword searches on other engines don't do the trick.
- Dogpile allows you to search multiple engines at once.
- The Usenet Newsgroups search is an efficient way to search Internet discussion boards for story ideas and potential sources.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary and Thesaurus: Tired of cluelessly flipping through dictionaries to find the spellings of words? Throw those weighty books away! These online versions offer suggestions when you misspell a word, saving you time and frustration. Plus the words are hyperlinked, so you can easily jump from one entry to another. Broadcast journalists - and President Bush -- will love Merriam-Webster's latest feature: audio pronunciation of words. Now if only The Associated Press would put its Stylebook online.
News searches: The "Quick Clicks" boxes at the top make it easy to scan major news sites. In the Reference section, the Media sites search enable you to find media sites around the world. Search Yahoo! News for the latest press releases and headlines from the wire services, as well as Yahoo!'s wide array of content partners, including The New York Times, ABC News and CNET. And the new AltaVista News Search, powered by Moreover.com, enables you to search for the latest headlines on more than 2,000 news sites. All for a lot less money than Lexis-Nexis!
General reference and topical sites: The SuperSearch pulls together a slew of specialized engines so you can quickly search for health, legal, business or government information. Check out the Bartleby.com dropdown box: from here you can search "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations", "The Oxford Shakespeare," "The King James Bible," "Gray's Anatomy" and even Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." If you're stuck, try the "Encyclopedia Britannica" or RefDesk.com, an amazing site of reference links culled by Matt Drudge's father.
Reporter's sites: A number of sites have gathered and indexed great collections of links for journalists. Think of these as mini-Yahoos just for us. SuperSearch lets you query PowerReporting.com, IRE's Beat Resources and the Librarian's Guide to the Internet to find handy sites you might not otherwise know about.
Be specific: The more specific you are, the more likely you are to find what you want at the top of your search results. Search for prison incarceration rates Washington state instead of just prison statistics.
Include likely sources: Before you search, think about not just what you're looking for, but who is likely to have the information - and include that in your search. For example, don't just search for prison incarceration rates Washington state. Search for Bureau of Justice Statistics prison incarceration rates Washington state.
Use quotes: If you type in a series of words, most engines will return pages that include any one of the words listed. By surrounding phrases with quotes, you're asking for an exact phrase. Searching for Washington state will return any page with either Washington or state on it, and on others will return pages with both Washington and state, but not necessarily next to each other; entering "Washington state" should only return pages pertaining to the home of the Mariners.
Quick lookup: Once you've gotten your results, to quickly find what you're looking for hit Control-F, enter the word or phrase you want and the cursor will jump to it.
Advanced tricks: You can force most search engines to include a word in a search by adding a + in front of the word, or to exclude a word by adding a - in front of it. If you find yourself using a particular search engine often, it's probably worth checking out the advanced searching options, which will show you other tricks, such as how to search by date or for words that are near each other. Here's a good summary of search engine features.
Choose your engine wisely: It's best to start with the most specialized search engine possible. Looking for statistics? Fedstats is most likely to get you what you want. Need to check a movie title? The Internet Movie Database will find it faster than a general search engine.
Of course, sometimes it's faster to just pick up the phone and call someone. And remember to always double-check any "facts" you find online with a real person. Use these search sites as tools, but don't let them replace good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.
I've tried to make the CyberJournalist SuperSearch the ideal launch page for journalists. Check it out and tell me what you think.
Jonathan Dube is MSNBC.com's Technology Editor and the publisher of CyberJournalist.net. Sign up for the monthly CyberJournalist Update e-mail by sending a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org.