Almost every Web-enabled journalist ought to, every once in a while, flick off the monitor, drop a dust cover over the keyboard and spend a couple of hours with a good old paper-and-ink book about the Internet.
Here are two worth considering, depending on where you are on the journey. Christopher Callahan's "Journalist's Guide" is a concise, thoughtful introduction to the Internet that will find its way into undergraduate classrooms and, one hopes, beat reporters' and executive editors' offices.
Callahan, associate dean at the University of Maryland College of Journalism (and a senior editor at AJR), notes that many journalists have found the Web befuddling when they try to answer specific questions on deadline. "The problem is not the Net," he argues, "but lack of a strategic plan to attack it."
One suggestion is for reporters to keep an "electronic beat," a manageable collection of well-traveled sites where the information is most relevant to a reporter's work and familiar enough to be trusted. Good reporters understand the need to invest many hours painstakingly developing human sources. So it is with the Internet: Spend some time off deadline getting to know what's out there, and the Web is more likely to be your friend when you really need help in a hurry.
Another helpful concept is that the Internet, for many journalists, shouldn't be thought of as a quick-answer machine so much as an opportunity "to get beyond their Rolodex list of usual sources, providing greater depth and breadth." It's certainly a waste of time to search the Web for facts that can be found in an almanac or on Lexis-Nexis, but the Web is a great way to bring national or global perspective to a local story.
Callahan's book provides good starter collections of links in very specific areas, but it's not an Internet directory so much as a strategic framework. There are good chapters on search strategies, e-mail and discussion groups and how to assess the credibility of online information.
For experienced researchers, there won't be a lot of new ground here. But Callahan's insights are consistently rewarding.
By contrast, Alan Schlein's "Find It Online" could be helpful to novices but might be best used by Web-savvy people who are ready to spread their wings a bit. It's about two pounds of concentrated inside dope from information professionals. It's not very pretty or polished, but the useful-information-per-page ratio is high.
A veteran Washington reporter who set up his own news service 17 years ago, Schlein is a strong researcher, and it shows. He provides a good starting list of public records online, including details of what is likely to be available electronically and on paper and a survey of government agency data on the Web.
There's a good primer on business research, but perhaps the strongest section is a list of commercial online records vendors around the country. There are excellent example searches, where you get to watch over Schlein's shoulder as he uses the tools in his arsenal to background individuals and companies.
My only beef with Schlein is his chapter on privacy, where the tone drifts from helpful to editorial and alarmist. "Medical records: a privacy meltdown waiting to happen" wails one section. "Identity fraud: a devastating epidemic" reads another. How odd that so many journalists spend their careers poring through public records so they can write news stories informing their communities, but then blithely feed the privacy paranoia that is causing a wave of closures of public records.
Politicians and agency bureaucrats have been only too happy to wave the privacy flag while they hack away at sunshine laws. Privacy is an important issue, to be sure, but it needs to be written in thoughtful language and framed against tradeoffs of other rights, one of which is an open, democratic society. If everyone took Schlein's privacy chapter to heart, in a few years there might not be much of a need for the rest of this very useful book.