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Dean's Digital World - Sources 38

By Dean Tudor

Dean Tudor

The Net moves on... it's hard to keep abreast of new developments unless you deliberately go out of your way to seek them. This also leads to when and how reporters use the Internet...

The main devices for getting information/data from the Internet are the World Wide Web (WWW or Web), Gopher (more on this later), E-mail, and Usenet. The first two contain files of data, while the last two contain (mainly) information from human sources.

So, to keep up to date for each of these areas, you'll need to find the forums that do so. For the Word Wide Web, you could try "What's New?", a daily service from Mosaic (Netscape also has one, but Mosaic's is textual and fastloading). You can get it at:


What's New? is a HTML formatted file, giving a brief description of new World Wide Web sites as uncovered or submitted to Mosaic. You could get a hundred new sites a day. Also available is Netsurfer Digest, in HTML format, which can be E-mailed to you every week. Its Internet name is "nsdigest-html" and you can order it by sending a note to nsdigest-request@netsurf.com. Every week the newsletter will arrive in your mailbox for free, listing and describing about 150 sites, mostly enjoyable. Just export it from your mail program and give it an extension of .htm, and you're ready to surf with Netscape, Mosaic or Lynx.

If you want the latest news in E-mail distribution lists (commonly called listservs), then subscribe to "new-list" (listserv@vm1.nodak.edu). This E-mail list will send you a stream of newly arrived listservs. Just keep them in one file, and do a word search when you are trying to track down experts. More tedious is a listserv archive search at the nodak.edu site.

Usenet contains all the bulletin board postings for over 15,000 subject groups. The latest background information for most of these groups will be on news.answers. New groups will be mentioned on news.lists. Every Internet Service Provider has those specialized groups that begin with the word "news". Just do a global search such as news.*

Usenet (also known as Netnews) has two large areas for information about the Internet:


Looking at comp.internet.net-happenings will give you a record of all Internet activities (E-mail, newsletters, lists, WWW, gopher, Usenet, etc.), while comp.infosystems.www.announce will supply you with all manner of new World Wide Web sites. Net savvy reporters may want to subscribe to both of these groups, in such a manner as to automatically arrive in their E-mail boxes so that they don't have to go out and get them every day on Usenet. But be warned: there is a heavy volume of mail here. Archives for all of the Usenet can be found through Dejanews - http://www.dejanews.com

Can the newsroom make good use of this Internet technology? Anyone using WWW access to various databases can do monstrous research for newspaper articles. But there is a learning curve and a time factor: you cannot just leap in and expect results right away. You need to ask yourself if the time, effort and results do actually lead to enhanced articles. Some basic questions to be asked by every news media outlet:

* Is it more economical to have a single designated person do all of this online research, or should everybody be doing it?

* How should we be sourcing the information used from online research?

* Which online resources are the most useful?

* How should we be storing/retrieving the resources we find and keep?

* What can we contribute to the online world?

When should you be using the Internet? (and every reporter should have an account somewhere: local BBS, CompuServe, a local Internet Service Provider (ISP), the newsroom. This stuff is dirt cheap now.)

Obviously, when you want to locate an industry or government expert. You can use SOURCES SELECT Online, ProfNet, ExpertNet, QuadNet - a whole range of experts are out there. You can search for and post on listservs, which are geared to experts and academics. You'll discover a new source, maybe even somebody with an uncommon experience.

Some of this list come from MediaNet, such as using the Internet for basic resource work: check your facts, answer a tough question. You can find case studies to look at trends and fads, reach some verification and cross-checking. Even compile statistics. Maybe create a roundup of organizations doing something out of the ordinary.

Or, perhaps research a really esoteric topic. Or, learn about an industry that's new to you. Or, simply prepare background material.

You can post messages to bulletin boards, to get some practical opinion from "out there" in the real world. This can add different points of view to your story. You can conduct an informal poll this way. Even get a fresh perspective on a story.

You can get local, in-house documents that you didn't know existed, and maybe even find particular photos, footage, or illustrations.

While the Internet is quick, cheap, and easy, in some regards it can be quite useless (such as chasing down archival materials or anything before 1990). In my own case, it is the first place I turn to when researching a new story -- I can quickly find background material (or find that there is nothing at all) and sources. One of the first things I do is post messages to listservs: while the message will be quickly distributed, people still have to read it at the other end. I can at least set that in motion while I scavenge for data.

There is so much to do, all from the comfort of your chair: searching library catalogues, using online reference works such as almanacs and statistics and encyclopedias, finding story ideas, checking universities for contact phone numbers, using Sources Select Online or ProfNet for opinions from experts, monitoring Usenet groups to find out what people are saying about various topics (although there is a lot of unverifiable and dirty data here).

There also seems to be more interaction between news staff and readers: many newsrooms and reporters are publicizing their E-mail addresses. Many media outlets are offering enhanced information on their World Wide Web sites.

For example, not only did the Globe and Mail reproduce all the Ontario "sunshine law" public sector salaries in its April pages, but also it mounted the ASCII text data files onto its WWW site for the general public to download and parse into any database/spreadsheet.

Of course, though, there is a negative here: surfing from your couch takes time away from your walk on the streets of the beat, away from the school board/city hall/sports palace/police station/fire hall. That still needs to be done. The Internet obviously will not do your job for you, nor replace the need to talk to people. It just makes it all simpler and quicker.

But what of the Internet's future? Things change so fast, it's difficult to make predictions. But here goes...

To return to Gopher: sad to say, Gopher is dying a long, protracted death.
It was the original menu to allow people to get files by ftp (you didn't have to understand ftp). It took time, and files were text or binary (you couldn't open the binary files: these needed to be read by a zipper or graphic program). But files did indeed get transferred from a server out there in cyberspace to your home account. The next advancement was the hypertexting of the files, so that you could truly "surf" through many different sites directly without going through a convoluted menu setup.

To my knowledge, there is only one "gopher alert" site that will tell you of new or changed gophers:


Netscape, Mosaic and Lynx are backward compatible, so the Gopher program itself is no longer needed. Gopher sites are still being maintained, principally by academia and governments. Businesses learned early on that you cannot sell anything or make a profit running gophers. Many gopher sites are no longer being updated. The Gopher Jewels project has been suspended, and so have the gopher mailing lists. Veronica (the program used to search gopherspace) seems to be failing more and more: most of my students could not get any materials using Veronica. It just didn't work. This text based file retrieval system is on the way out.

Can Lynx be far behind? It too is text based, and hence limited in its ability to get and display files through the World Wide Web. It cannot load images, but it can still get binary files. The University of Kansas has just announced that it will no longer be updating its Lynx program: version 2.4.2 will be the last one...

What about the practicality of the World Wide Web? Has the Internet created an entertainment monster? Find/SVP just completed a survey which showed that excessive staff time was being used for Internet activities: 7.7 hours a week on the average, most of which is not really productive for the job.

Many of the proprietary conferences maintained on Microsoft Network (MSN) and CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy, etc. are being discontinued since people can get the material through the company's World Wide Web sites (and the company has better control over the material and the selling function). Some of the bulletin board conferences are dying because everybody is out surfing, doing the larger picture of world-wide information instead of just local or national discussion forums.

Even the national bulletin boards are on the way out. CompuServe and AOL are re-organizing. Eworld was killed by Apple. Prodigy is up for sale, reputedly at one-fourth of its 1995 value. Microsoft Network is fast becoming a provider operation, giving access to the Internet without the local and proprietary conferences.

And home use will grow once the cable companies get it together: the current 28.8Kps phone modems will be replaced by 500Kps cable lines. Rogers will sell E-mail and WWW access for under $40 a month. This terrific speed will allow for interaction, multi-media, moving images, audio - just like your television set. You don't need an expensive computer with a big hard drive and lots of memory. It also makes sense not to tie up the phone lines (we've already got answering machines, modems, and fax machines hooked up) or create demand for more lines. There is plenty of room on existing cable lines, and the phone company's Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ASDL) is still some years away from full development.

The loser will be the ISP (Internet Service Provider) that currently has 28.8Kps access. There is a price war now, with Netcom offering unlimited access for under $30. But what if Rogers were to offer unlimited access for under $40 -- at 500Kps, almost 20 times faster?

That will lead to the further development and home offering for Java, called the "third wave" of the Internet. Developed by Sun Microsystems, Java enables WWW sites to have multimedia capability: an environment where one can see, hear, and interact in a new way. Java-enhanced WWW sites can include animation, pop-up windows, interactivity, and so forth. It may (at 500Kps) mean the end of Netscape and the World Wide Web as we know it...Changes are coming. But I digress...

Something Practical At This Point...

Here's the latest stuff I have on good Canadian government World Wide Web sites:

* Industry Canada: With the full text of publications, arranged by sector (Information Highway in Canada, GATT, industry profiles, Lobbyists Registration Act, technology network guides, competition in manufacturing and service sectors)


* National Library of Canada: has a gateway to Canadian government information on the Internet (including federal library catalogues such as the International Development Research Centre's Development Data Bases Service and the NRC's library), bibliographies and pathfinders, publications catalogues, directories, surveys, studies, reports, newsletters


* Statistics Canada: searchable full-text of Daily Reports (current and for the previous six months), schedules of upcoming statistical releases, publications catalogues, services, CANSIM directory and index to subjects with matrix numbers (but not CANSIM itself)


* Statistics Canada 1991 Census of Population Documentation (code books for the geographic and reference files, record layouts for profile files, bst files, sas and spss control files) for use with the Census data tapes. (You'll need to be a U of Toronto student/alumni with an account to actually get the Census or the CANSIM series)


* Natural Resources Canada: provides information on its mandate and sectors (Canadian Forest Service, Geological Survey of Canada, Centre for Mapping, Geomatics Canada), directories of staff, statutes administered, and various links to its library and special services


* Health Canada: offers a BBS, WWW and Gopher programs, for disease, drugs, nutrition, health research funding, and the Health Intelligence Network (a focal point for health professionals, industry and the public to do one-step research in health information)

http://www.hwc.ca (Canadian Health Network)
telnet://hpb1.hwc.ca (login hbpnet -- Health Protection BBS

* Revenue Canada: forms, answers to questions posed, information on such matters as payroll taxes, etc.


* Other fascinating sites:

Auditor General's report: gopher://gopher.phoenix.ca
Agriculture Canada: http://aceis.agr.ca
Environment Canada: http://www.doe.ca
Dept. of Finance (budget papers): http://www.fin.gc.ca
Dept. of Foreign Affairs and Int. Trade: http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca
Human Resources Development Canada: http://hrdc-drhc.ca
National Research Council: http://nrc.ca
Parliament: http://www.parl.gc.ca
Public Works Canada: http://www.pwc.tpc.ca

Dean Tudor is Sources Informatics Consultant and a professor of Journalism and Information Science at Ryerson University. He can be reached at dtudor@acs.ryerson.ca.

Published in Sources, Number 38, Summer 1996 .

See:  Other Dean's Digital World Articles


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