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Home > Publications > Quill > The Web's Hidden Gems


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
The Web's Hidden Gems

by Jeff South

Technology often means steep prices, steep learning or both. But a number of recent innovations are free and easy to use, and they offer tremendous benefits for journalists, journalism educators and journalism students.

With these tips, you can:

• Do better and more efficient research. Instead of going online looking for information, you can summon information to come to you: to your e-mail box or RSS reader. Moreover, you can perform comprehensive searches of Web phone books, blogs and social networking sites.

• Collaborate on writing a news story, with several people in remote locations working simultaneously and securely on the same Web-based document. A group of journalists can organize, share and cross-index their notes using a wiki.

• Create online surveys and polls, open to the general public or restricted to invited respondents. For a story, you could take a group’s pulse or do mass interviews via a questionnaire, generate bar charts of summary results and download the raw data for closer analysis.

• Translate from one language to another; not just words, passages and single Web pages, but entire Web sites. While the translation algorithms aren’t perfect, they usually give you a good sense of the original material and can help you understand news stories, Web documents and blog postings written in languages including Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

• Showcase your work, including videos and photo slide shows, on a personal blog, or publish stories on the growing number of “citizen journalism” Web sites. These sites can be important opportunities for journalism students, fledgling freelancers and others trying to break into the business.

Here are details on those tips. Unless otherwise noted, all tools cited below are free. My advice: Skim the article, pick one or two ideas that may be helpful to you, then sit at a computer and put the tips into action. Take a break, rinse and repeat.

Do better and more efficient research

Most of us use Google by typing words and phrases into a box and clicking the search button. But you can also play fetch with Google Alerts, www.google.com/alerts: You can tell Google to constantly search the Web, news sites, blogs and/or discussion boards for keywords and then to e-mail you the results. You can receive the links as soon as Google finds them or bundled daily or weekly.

Google Alerts can be a godsend for journalists tracking specific topics. You can use all the search commands supported by Google: searching for phrases or synonyms, for example, or restricting searches to specific domains, Web sites, news sources or geographic locations. (For a list of these search operators, see www.googleguide.com/advanced_operators_reference.html.)

So, if I were covering mining for a Virginia newspaper, I might set up a Google Alert with these parameters: mining + safety (location:va OR site:gov)

This means Google would search for mining or related words (mines or miners) and the word safety; it would look for information either in Virginia or on government Web servers; it would search the Web, blogs, Google News and Google Groups; and it would e-mail me a compilation of results once a day.

At the very least, you might want to set up an “ego alert,” to see if people are talking about you or reprinting your bylined stories on the Internet.

Reporters also can monitor the Web with a newer technology. RSS is a way of publishing news online so that headlines and summaries can be displayed by an RSS reader. The reader can be a Web browser (you bookmark an RSS news feed as you would a Web page); a Web application such as Bloglines.com or a personalized iGoogle or Yahoo home page; or even a screensaver (long available from Apple and in beta from Microsoft). From your RSS reader, you can click on a headline to read the full news item.

An increasing amount of dynamic content is available via RSS: home pages, news sites, blogs, online pressrooms (including topic-specific releases from PRNewswire.com) and search results from Google News and Yahoo News. You could receive your Google Alert results as an RSS feed, for instance.

So instead of locking your browser on “Freedom of the Prez,” the blog by SPJ President Christine Tatum, and hitting the refresh button every few minutes, your RSS reader will show when a new item has been added.

In sifting the Internet for obscure information, it’s often helpful to do a “meta search.” deploying several search engines at once. For years, reporters have used such tools as Dogpile.com and Mamma.com. They send your search request to Google, Yahoo and other search engines and compile the results.

The latest meta tool is Zuula.com, and it includes content you won’t find on Dogpile or Mamma: blogs. Zuula will aggregate the results of nine blog search engines, such as Technorati and Bloglines. It can help you find people in your city or state who are discussing a certain topic, from alpacas to Zen Buddhism.

A new people finder called yoName.com offers one-stop searching for Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and other social networking sites. Those sites are magnets for young people posting profiles. Many reporters found yoName helpful in covering such events as the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University.

For searching Internet phone books, a program called Argali has received rave reviews. John Cady of BusinessWeek calls it “the free Maserati of phone directories”; Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute says it’s a tool “journalists should not live without.”

Argali is a desktop application that can be downloaded from Argali.com. The free version has ads; the subscription version doesn’t. Installed, Argali lets you search more than 20 sources at once, including InfoSpace, SuperPages and Switchboard. You can search for people or businesses; do reverse searches (to see who has a particular phone number, or who lives at a certain address or on a certain street); and save the results as a spreadsheet or other format.

Argali can help when you’re stuck at the office but need to interview people who live near a house fire, or when you have FOIA’d the mayor’s telephone records and must see who is associated with various phone numbers. And, of course, it’s good for ordering pizza.

Collaborate on writing a news story

A signature trait of Web 2.0 — today’s second-generation Internet — is collaboration. A new service from Google, called Google Docs, makes it possible for two or more reporters to work simultaneously on a story, or for all students in a journalism class to contribute to an article. It can ease the anguish, and maybe salvage friendships, when producing a multiple-bylined story.

Google Docs, at docs.google.com, is a Web-based word processor. It’s free, but you must have a Google account, such as a Gmail account.

With Google Docs, you can start a document and authorize other people to view, contribute to or edit it in real time. Whenever someone clicks “Save,” the document refreshes and reflects all of the changes made by all of the users.

You can upload Word and other text documents to Google Docs, work on them (including font and paragraph formatting) and then save them in Word, PDF or other formats. So three reporters in different cities could work simultaneously on a story; for the first draft, one could write the lead and the others could write chunks of the body, then they could polish each other’s sections.

Or while crafting a story, a reporter could authorize an editor to view and edit the work in progress. That’s how editors at OhmyNews International (english.ohmynews.com), a news Web site based in South Korea, help shape stories written by citizen journalists.

The Oklahoman newspaper uses Google Docs to prepare its news budget, authorizing reporters to update the document so editors know what’s in the mill, business writer Don Mecoy said.

He uses Google Docs’ spreadsheet application to track weekly stock prices for his Sunday column, “Eagles and Beagles,” about the best and worst local performers on Wall Street. When Mecoy goes on vacation, he can authorize another reporter to update the Google Spreadsheet. He has even allowed readers a preview of the online numbers.

Another Oklahoman reporter uses a Google Spreadsheet to track daily gasoline prices. He imported data from Excel and continues to update it, “even when he’s out of the office,” Mecoy said.

Google developed the spreadsheet application on its own and integrated the word processor last year after acquiring a service called Writely.

More recently, Google acquired a company called JotSpot that makes it easy to create wikis: interconnected Web pages to which multiple users can contribute. Google has yet to launch its wiki service, but others already exist, such as PBwiki.com, Wetpaint.com, WikiDot.com and Wikispaces.com.

On a complex reporting project, a wiki can help a team organize notes. Each member could create pages named after a topic or interview subject, and then hyperlinks could be created to connect the pages. Authorized users could view, edit or add information, so all reporters have access to everyone’s notes.

A caveat: To make your wiki totally private — ensuring no one outside your newsroom can see it — you may have to upgrade your free account. Wikispaces, for instance, charges $5 a month for full privacy.

Create online surveys and polls

Polls once required complex programming. But now, services such as Blogpoll.com and Bravenet.com do the programming for you free of charge. After filling out an online form to provide the poll question, the number of optional responses and the text of each option, these sites generate a snippet of HTML code. You then paste the code onto a Web page or blog, and the poll will be embedded there.

Blogpoll, which doesn’t even require you to register, lets you create a one-question poll. Bravenet has a short registration process but offers more features, including polls with as many as 10 questions.

These services make it easy to create a poll to accompany a just-published story or to gauge opinion for a story in the works. The disadvantages: Blogpoll and Bravenet place advertisements around your poll results, and you don’t have much control over who takes your poll. Both services try to block repeat voters, however.

A more sophisticated tool is Survey Monkey, www.surveymonkey.com, used by many organizations, including SPJ. Survey Monkey lets you create a questionnaire with a variety of formats: multiple choice, multiple choice with multiple answers, a rating-scale matrix and myriad open-ended questions. You can restrict the survey to people you have invited by e-mail. You can view the results as they come in, and you can download the data into Excel or SPSS.

You can register for a free Survey Monkey account that entitles you to post a 10-question survey and receive up to 100 responses a month. That may be all you need to survey a well-defined group, such as your state’s political convention delegates. For $19.95 a month, you can upgrade to 1,000 responses. And you’re not locked in: You can drop back to a free account after one month or whenever your survey is done.

Translate from one language to another

Journalists everywhere are missing stories and important aspects of stories because of language barriers: They don’t know what’s being printed in languages other than their own. Web-based translation tools can help journalists break through that barrier. For monolingual Americans, these tools can translate about a dozen languages into English.

A decade ago, translation tools were good mostly for laughs; the Internet version of a drinking game involved translating a phrase from, say, English to German, then German to French, then French to Spanish, and finally Spanish back to English. Things definitely got lost in translation.

Today’s translation Web sites wouldn’t pass a grammar test, but they usually give you the gist of the original material. The tools include Altavista Babel Fish, babelfish.altavista.com; FreeTranslation.com; and Google Translate (translate.google.com).

Those sites allow you to paste a block of text or a Web address into a window, and they provide a translation. Moreover, if you click on a hyperlink in the translated document, it also will open as a translated page.

Babel Fish, FreeTranslation and Google differ slightly: Only FreeTranslation handles Norwegian; only Babel Fish does Greek. A U.S. government study said Google was more accurate than other tools in translating Arabic and Chinese.

Google lets you add a button to your Web browser so that, with a click, you can instantly translate the page you are viewing. I used this feature while training journalists in Ukraine during a recent Knight International Journalism Fellowship: When I had trouble reading an online article or blog posting in Russian, I had the Google translation button turn the document into English. Thereafter, any links from that document also appeared in English.

Showcase your work

Self-publishing tools and “citizen journalism” sites also are aspects of Web 2.0. You can create an online showcase of your work by publishing a blog, using such services as Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com or WordPress.com. And you can post on your blog, not just stories you have written but also photos, video and audio.

You might use several free tools together to post multimedia content. For example, take photos (as often as you can!). Instead of buying Adobe Photoshop, you can use a photo editor such as Picasa (picasa.google.com), Picnik.com or Pixer.us. You can upload an entire album of pictures to the Web (using Picasa, Flickr.com or Shutterfly.com). Then you could post selected photos on your blog and link to the whole album.

In the same way, free tools are available for editing video (iMovie for Mac users, Windows Movie Maker for Windows XP users) and for editing audio (Audacity, available at audacity.sourceforge.net). YouTube.com has just implemented an online video-editing tool called Remixer. It allows you to add titles and transitions to your videos, using a drag-and-drop timeline.

You can make photo slide shows with PowerPoint or an audio slide show with Soundslides.com. You can download a free trial of Soundslides, but the software costs $39.95.

You can upload multimedia files to special Web sites: video to YouTube.com, for example, or PowerPoint to SlideShare.net. Like Blogpoll, those sites generate HTML code that you can paste on a blog or Web page. That’s how you embed your video or slide show on your own site, while the file resides elsewhere.

If a blog strikes you too much as a modern-day vanity press, you can publish instead on a Web site that invites contributions from citizen journalists. The Open Directory Project (dmoz.org) has a list of such sites under “News: Media: Participatory.” Or search SourceWatch.org for “citizen journalism Web sites.”

Some participatory sites, such as the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org), may present more of a political slant than you’re comfortable with. But others offer straight — and local — news. For instance, the news search engine Topix.com has launched “virtual news bureaus” and invites you to submit stories for your city or state.

Citizen journalism isn’t just for print reporters: Radio journalists can submit stories to Transom.org, which collaborates with National Public Radio.

As mainstream media have staked out territory on the citizen journalism frontier, the field has gained credibility. CNN invites people to submit video I-Reports (www.cnn.com/exchange) and airs the most compelling stories on a Headline News program called “News to Me.” And in February, the Associated Press joined the movement.

The AP, the world’s largest newsgathering organization with more than 4,000 employees in 97 countries, announced a partnership with NowPublic.com, which bills itself as the world’s largest participatory news network with more than 60,000 contributors from 140 countries. AP plans to use NowPublic’s citizen journalists to enhance regional coverage and augment breaking news.

The AP did not say whether it would pay citizen journalists, but a few sites already do. Contributors to OhmyNews International can earn about $20, plus tips from readers, for a top article. And Orato.com, which features first-person citizen journalism, each month pays $100 to the author of the highest-ranked story.

So you won’t get rich, but you will get exposure. And you might earn a few bucks toward that video camera, BlackBerry or other techie trinket you’ve been eyeing.

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