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BEYOND WORDPROCESSING

by Dean Tudor

That' s what computers are mostly used for by journalists: word-processing. Yet, this usage is mainly just fancy typing. Moving into the sphere of real computer use we have database creation and searching, online retrieval of data, spreadsheet applications, graphic and multimedia capabilities for sending the news and computer-mediated communications (CMC). We'll look at all these in issues to come; they are all part of "computer-assisted reporting" (CAR). If you think that you've got a handle on CAR by typing in a Word for Windows or Wordperfect program, then you're dead wrong-and you're going to be left far behind...

So much is happening these days: There are so many ideas and thoughts floating around in computer-mediated communications. It's like: "Have Modem, Will Travel". With a modem, laptop and a cellular phone you can extend your horizons around the planet- at virtually no added costs.

For starters: the Hamilton Spectator has a Bulletin Board Serviee(BBS) that readers, reporters and writers can access. Stories can be posted and debated, letters written to the editor, materials purchased. Announcements of local interest, sports scores, weather and the like can be viewed. The Ottawa Citizen is contributing similar data to the National Capital Free-Net, with a sub-board for computer-assisted reporting. The Canadian Wire Service Guild has a BBS in Toronto, and is gearing up for full Internet capability (it currently has email and conferences; you can write to me at dean.tudor@guildnet.org). Toronto is developing its Free-Net for a March 31, 1994 launch- and it will have contributions from the Toronto media. There are plans a foot for a national US BBS for journalists, being spearheaded by reporter Bill Dedman and news researcher Nancy Paul who is associated with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Internet seems to be the vice on everybody's mind. Why is it so hot now? Because in November 1992 commercial organizations were allowed to join (by April 1993, they had the majority of hooked up computers- a mere six months later!!). Thus, newspapers, magazines and media outlets-all profit-making-could join up under their own name or provide commercial services on the Internet. Access to the Internet is generally beneficial to writers for a number of reasons:

  • They can join the online library world of catalogues, abstracts, indexes and document delivery;
  • They can download millions of public domain freeware, shareware, databases, textfiles, images-all generally available or specific to just one site.
  • They can access government agency information and databases, from agriculture to zymurgy, not only for US sources but also for US files containing Canadian information (known as Trans-Border Data Flow).
  • They can read and partake in worldwide discussion groups, both the listservers, (several hundred) and the Usenet (several thousand), forging global links through Internet Relay Chats.
  • They can get and use electronic delivery of news, magazines, newsletters and electronic journals.
  • They can use e-mail to conduct interviews with sources.
  • They can easily navigate (called "surfing") the Internet since there are so many secondary schools and colleges presenting programs and training tools. Journalists can partake in journalism education forums, with faculty and students and course developers, perhaps even shaping curricula.

But describing the Internet is exceedingly difficult: how can you catalogue a moving target? What I write today (November 30) for a January publication that may be read by someone in March 1994 will be too old. The Internet will have moved on. Similarly, while books and magazines are useful for backgrounding the Internet, the best tools of all are ones that exist in electronic form on the Internet itself, available as a latest version, perhaps dated only yesterday. I got BIG DUMMY guide to the Internet for my students (dated September 1993), as well as Surfing the Internet (August 1993). These are on-line book length guides to how the Internet operates, and they are more up-to-date than any printed book would ever be.

The Internet allows reporters to do their jobs better: to use more resources, to chase down more contacts and sources, to conduct interviews with people living halfway around the world. If you have a question about anything, then send an e-mail message to the appropriate discussion group (there are lists of these groups). If you have a query about AIDS, try the group sci.med.aids(which has more than 20,000 subscribers). Or you can subscribe to the free newsletter Mednews which has a weekly summary on AIDS from the Centres for Disease Control.

For US federal government information, you can gopher to the Library of Congress (marvel.loc.gov.) and search the catalogues or check listings for government data. You can telnet to the Fedworld BBS, a one-stop US government information resource (fedworld.doc.gov). Fedworld is a gateway to over 100 other bulletin board systems run by various federal agencies, available through a menu option: Consumer Information Centre, Census Information, Computer Systems Lab, Computer Security BBS, Dept. of Commerce, Food and Drug Administration; Labor News from the Dept. of Labor; Human Nutrition Information Service from the Dept. of Agriculture; Minority Impact BBS, Total Quality Management BBS, Travel Alerts, Federal Register Electronic News Delivery - to name a few. Many of these BBSs have Canadian information tucked away, or are so subject-oriented in scope or coverage that nationality doesn't matter.

The Internet is relatively easy to use, once you've played around with BBSs and modems. There are a few potholes, though, in this information superhighway. It is difficult to determine someone's email address. You must get it from the person him/herself, or search using a "whois" or "finger" or 'netfind" operation. Or, you can reply to a posted message which has the address embedded in it. Or, you can begin writing down addresses as you come across them-. and keep them on some electronic Rolodex. Another pothole is the recent decision by the US Dept. of Defence to withdraw from full Internet capability ( the DoD started the Internet in the first place, back in 1969!). The reason given was the overcapacity of the networks, and the strains being placed on the DoD as a purveyor of information.

Opening up the Internet to commercial operations may be its eventual downfall as THE major conduit for data access and exchange. The Internet may look limitless, but with millions of potential users, storage capacity will be filled up quickly. With overcapacity comes slowing down of actions- things take longer. So enjoy and use the Internet while you still can...

In this edition of SOURCES SELECT resources we're bringing you a few different points of view about using these resources: my article is about resources available for computer-mediated communications(CMC), writer and poet David Mcfadden writes about his involvement with Internet since the ' 80's and journalist Alanna Mitchell provides her overview, as an investigative reporter, of computer-assisted reporting (CAR). We've also expanded our "database of databases" to include all E-Resources for University listees as well as Centres of Excellence and Health-related organizations for easier access to Canadian experts in a range of areas.

In honour of 1993's International Year of World Indigenous Peoples we've asked Valerie Alia to review the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples' recent publication, The Path to Healing. This review is twinned with a review of Kit Minor's ISSUMATUQ: Learning from the Traditional Healing Wisdom of the Canadian Inuit.

Dean Tudor is Informatics Consultant for sources, and teaches Journalism and Information Studies at Ryerson University.

 

Published in Sources 33, Winter 1993/1994

 



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