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By Dean Tudor

Keeping Current

Dean Tudor


What's new this time? A theme I've emphasized over the past several issues has been how to stay on top of journalism and news. You need to keep current.

And probably the hottest/current thing around is RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and news aggregator software. RSS (in XML-format) allows for the delivery of news from web sites to an individual's computer via news aggregator software. The trick is that instead of clicking on one web site after another, which may or may not have been updated, one goes only to one's aggregator. This service alerts the client as to when his favourite blogs, ezines and websites have added new material.

Keeping up is important for journalists; it is a necessary activity for the reporter to stay in touch with the news and information about key developments in the world, and in those peripheral journalistic fields that allow him to keep his skills current. You could try checking out the Keeping Up website at <staff.philau.edu/bells/keepup>.

Lately there's been considerable talk about RSS and news aggregator software as technologies for keeping up. These technologies save time as they improve access to news, information, blogs, developments, or political alerts, or the latest web design

Rather than explain about how RSS works and what it can do for you, I'd like to direct you to Gary Price's ResourceShelf www.resourceshelf.com for a listing of what is available. A basic explanation plus a list of free links is available from Yahoo!
<news.yahoo.com/rss> If you want to learn more about RSS and news aggregators go to www.websearchguide.ca/newsletter/030228.htm Learn what you can about RSS and news aggregators, and then think through your personal strategy for keeping up with the news. RSS and news aggregators may be viable options.

Of course, there is still the old-fashioned way to keep up, via the print world of articles/newsletters or books. I usually prefer articles, since they are on a specific theme or issue. And many can be downloaded from the Internet, read, and saved. Books are tough, for they go out of date very fast. But they can be explicit manuals of advice, to be referred to over and over again.

Some recent books which have come to my attention include a new series from O'Reilly hacks.oreilly.com called the Hacks Series, written by a variety of subject experts. Each book emphasizes the lesser known features of an Internet/computer monolith, and how to use them more efficiently. Each book covers 100 or so different ways to modify the engines which drive the website. Hacking is now becoming a more benign word; its meaning is more like specializing in custom design/retrieval or quick-and-dirty patches.

In the O'Reilly series you will find books on how best to exploit eBay, Windows XP, Linux servers, Mac OSX - to one's own specific needs, as a journalist seeking information or as a businessperson trying for profit. And all books have pretty thorough indexes, plus free samples on the web. I got hold of three interesting books on how to hack Google, Amazon, and TiVo.

TiVo (tapeless VCR) is the wave of the future: the spread of programmable video-recording devices (DVRs) or even PVRs (personal video recorders). This will be an upheaval in the world of television programming. The TiVo digital recorder allows users to bypass commercials using a "skip and omit" principle. Time shifting will also be mere child's play. You can read all about it in TiVo Hacks by Raffi Krikorian (O'Reilly, 2003, 226 pages, ISBN 0-596-00553-9, $38.95 Cdn paperback). O'Reilly tells us that if you Google the phrase "TiVo changed my life", you'll find scores of references. It even appeared on "Sex and the City".

To use TiVo, you'll also need a satellite hookup and s subscription. You can store 300 hours on the harddrive; you can catch all the news on all the stations at one swoop. TiVo Hacks presents the basics of TiVo and then gives about 100 tips and tools on how best to maximize the service (both hardware and software). Tweaks include hacking the remote, upgrading the hard drive, using the TiVo command line for access to programmes, using onscreen caller-ID, presenting digital slide shows, and playing MP3s. There are also instructions for compiling C code for TiVo. To check out how useful the hacks are, you can sample a few for free at www.oreilly.com/catalog/tivohks/chapter/index.html

Amazon Hacks by Paul Bausch (O'Reilly, 2003, 280 pages, ISBN 0-596-00542-3, $38.95 Cdn paperback) helps by giving 100 or so tips and advice on how to access, control, and fine-tune Amazon preferences and information. Journalists often use Amazon.com or Amazon.ca (or even the Amazons in other countries) to get basic bibliographic data, critical opinions, content listings, and reviews of books, not only to cut and paste data but also to see how other people feel about a work of fiction or non-fiction. And this can be done even in the music, DVD, software and games areas.

Some useful tips here include switching to a text-only Amazon (saves time, easier to save and print out), how to access Amazon by cell phone or PDA, finding browse mode Ids for category searching, importing data directly into Excel. Sample hacks, such as powersearching or using the ASIN, are at www.oreilly.com/pub/ht/24

Google has been around since 1998; it is easy to use. But the Google Hacks by Tara Calishain and Rael Dornfest (O'Reilly, 2003, 329 pages, ISBN 0-596-00447-8, $38.95 Cdn paperback) maximizes the strengths of Google. There are tips on how to increase traffic on your website via Google by increasing your own profile, and using special syntaxes in the search box to filter results. Google has a lot of syntaxes to narrow searches by pages, domain, kinds of content, and collection.

There are also many special services, beyond the News, Groups, Images - ones such as Catalogs, Froogle, Directory, and some experiments in beta mode. For the technie journalist, you can write information retrieval programs that use the Google Web API in Java, Perl, PHP, Python and .NET. Google API leads to Google whacking, "goopoetry", Google art, Google bounces, and Google mirrors. Author Calishain, a top researcher www.researchbuzz.com has developed an API on her site for Google recipes that I have used, with great success in tracking down food preparations (why buy another cookbook ever?).

Other useful tips include hacking your way through Yahoo! Buzz with Google to find all relevant background data on new fads and celebrities. Plus assorted software modifications for your own site.For more samples, such as scraping Google News or using full-word wild cards, try www.oreilly.comk/catalog/googlehks/chapter/index.html

All hacks continue to evolve; thus, Calashain also has some new tips and devices on her own website for using Google. You'll need all of these books if you want to be effective in what you are doing with Amazon, Google, or TiVo (plus the others listed above), as sort of manuals for dealing with information from or about that source. Of course, if you have no need for Google, then forget it…

Another recent book, which I had to request several times (hence the late review) is The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers, and Journalists by four authors: Mary McGuire, Linda Stilborne, Melinda McAdams, and Laurel Hyatt (Trifolium, 2002; distr. by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 276 pages, ISBN 1-55244-082-6 $27.95 paperback). It was first published in 1997; this is the third edition, from late 2002. But in general, current updates are available at the publisher's website www.trifoliumbooks.com So it is okay to use the book as it is today.

As it says, this is "a basic introduction to the Internet and describes specialized resources and tools for writers, researchers, journalists and students". The book will help develop one's online search strategies which produce fast, accurate, and relevant data, and also sources of online databases, libraries and government sites. There is material on multimedia applications such as streaming media, web conferencing, and desktop video conferencing. Basic chapters cover using email and newsgroups and listservs for posting queries, creating webpages with basic HTML, and how to write for an online audience.

This book is mainly about sorting the grain from the chaff; more specific books will sort the bran from the germ. Each chapter, with plenty of tips and advice and screen shots, concludes with a "Further Reading" bibliography. But some page references in the index are off slightly, because of careless editing of the new edition's index, and there are no discussions of API, Google News, and newstreaming such as Rocket or RSS - all of which were around in 2002. A book for both the beginner to learn from, and the professional to serve as a review.

More sharply focused on the art of writing for the web are a pair of books from off-shore. The better of the two is Web Word Wizardry by Rachel McAlpine (Ten Speed Press, 2001, 264 pages, ISBN 1-58008-223-8, $11.95 US paperback). It was originally published in New Zealand; it has been slightly modified for the North American market. The author is a playwright, ESL teacher, and now is a trainer in online content.

This is a basic guide to chunk writing, to fit between web design and print business writing. And, of course, it itself is written in chunk style (e.g., three paragraphs maximum per heading). Basic chapters discuss how to make online content readable, usable, findable, accessible and credible. She covers the art of skim-reading, how people read, the context of writings, the progression of screen by screen, keywords, metatags, links, interaction with readers, graphics and Javascripts.

There is also writing for ezines, writing alt-text passages, forms, optimizing websites for search engines, and proofing/editing/layout. Company websites (intranets) need different writing styles, and so these too are also covered in this book. Wherever possible she has included lots of screen shots for illustrations. Her ancillary material has checklists of important points to remember when writing for the web (e.g., metatags, titles and descriptions, body copy, links), adapting documents for the web, and evaluation of sites. Of course, there is a glossary and index.

The second book is Writing Copy for the Web in a Week by Nigel Temple (Arnold Publishing, 2003; distr. by Oxford University Press, 96 pages, ISBN 0-34085-802-8, $14.95 Cdn paperback) which is good enough to get you started and rolling with basic chunk writing skills. It is shorter - only 96 pages - and illustrated with 30 black-and-white cartoons. But start with McAlpine's book first.

Dean Tudor, Wine Writer and Professor Emeritus of Journalism, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada<www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor


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