Journalists streaming into newsrooms this weekend to produce special coverage of the shuttle disaster face a common challenge: how to make their stories distinctive.

One of the answers is right at their fingertips. The Internet in the hours after this tragedy is already rife with theories, background data, first-person accounts, and more -- including the bizarre.

Here are a few ideas for how to tap the power of the Internet to find angles to this story that haven't been covered by every other reporter on the planet.

Go blog surfing

We learned this lesson on Sept, 11, 2001, when weblogs produced by New Yorkers close to the scene of the World Trade Center published their first-person accounts, photos, and thoughts in the hours and days after the terrorist attacks. These often were everyday people, including many professional writers, willing to share their experiences with the world. They provided color and story tidbits that professional journalists missed.

With the space shuttle tragedy, reporters should be looking for webloggers covering this story. You might find some who witnessed the shuttle burning up in the skies over their homes. Some will be by writers, scientists, pilots, or military officers who have some expertise in aerodynamics or the space program and are floating theories about what really happened.

While much weblog writing may be noise not signal, it's worth the time to seek out relevant weblogs. You'll probably find some gems worth including in your own coverage -- or at least some fresh story ideas. Look especially for blogs on the topic of space and aeronautics -- often authored by experts in those fields.

Such topical weblogs often have "Discuss This" links or community forums, where people interested in the topic share their expertise and ideas. Don't dimiss this as nothing but community blather -- some of the participants are as knowledgeable (or more so) as the blog's author, or you. Consider blog authors and blog-community participants as potential sources for follow-up reporting.

Even the rampant speculation on blogs presents a potential story: listing the possibilities for the shuttle disaster being talked about, even if we can't take all of them seriously.

While the obscure weblogs are where you're most likely to find uncovered tidbits, it's also worth tracking what the "pro" webloggers are doing. Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit blog had a smattering of interesting stuff Saturday morning, including links to space history documents, such as a speech that President Richard Nixon would have given had the first moon astronauts become stranded. A good source Saturday morning for unusual shuttle material was Dave Winer's weblog, which normally focuses on technology and weblogging issues.

A excellent source for finding weblogs is Daypop, a news search engine that allows you to restrict your search to weblogs. Also try Janes' Blogosphere. (That link finds weblog commentary on "space shuttle.")

MIT's Blogdex is an excellent tool for tracking weblog comments on a particular news story. Find a headline and Blogdex will show you all weblogs in its database that are covering that story. Also, EatonWeb is a guide and search engine for 9,000-plus weblogs. On that site you can do keyword searches or view blogs listed by category. (For even more hints on finding weblogs, see this Career Journal story.)

Look for the out of the ordinary

On my Web travels Saturday, I quickly found a few interesting things of interest to reporters:

  • A ">weather radar loop showing the image of the shuttle's vapor cloud as it broke up.
  • A listing of all Texas police departments -- useful for calling to find out where debris has been found.
  • It's interesting to review coverage from media outside the U.S. on this story. I used Google News to find nearly 400 stories for U.S. and international media. The non-U.S. stories sometimes featured conjecture from astronauts and space officials in other countries.
Spend a little time searching the Web in the coming days and you're sure to find unusual angles on this story. I'd look especially for eye-witness reports. Such reports would certainly require verification, but they might very well surface first in a variety of places outside the mainstream news media.

The bizarre

As bizarre as it seems, a search of the web indicates some bizarre attempts at humor in connection with the disaster. For instance, in my blog surfing today I found, via a weblog called "A Myopic Mindfulness: via the quidnunc," a photo of "What really happened" -- a doctored image of the space shuttle cockpit, with all the computers showing the "Microsoft Windows Blue Screen of Death."

Even eBay, the online auction marketplace, is a source on this story. Early Saturday, someone had posted a listing for shuttle debris for sale. (The eBay posting may be a hoax, the NASA website home page points out that possessing shuttle debris is against the law.)

As distasteful as those items are in the immediate hours after the tragedy, there is probably a story in how people use humor during times of tragedy.