Reporter's Leg Work Now Web Work
THE Internet has changed this journalist's job.
As a result of radio and television, a newspaper reporter can no longer merely describe events in his articles. Many readers have already picked up the heart of a story on the electronic media before their paper arrives. So the written press has to include background, analysis, and insight to offer something unique and useful to readers.
The World Wide Web, also offering instant news, is making a big difference on the news-gathering side of our work. It often makes research easier and faster. We get information through our computers, supplementing the usual telephone interviews and "leg work" at a story's location. This can make for more informed articles.
For example, when Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testifies before Congress, his text can be picked up on the Fed's Web site right away. No need to go to Washington to hear him, or watch him talk on C-SPAN, or wait for the mail to deliver a text of his testimony in Boston a few days later. I can scan the text quickly, looking for news and nuances, just as Fed watchers do on Wall Street.
The visible result can be a quotation in a story. The article likely will differ somewhat from that carried by the wire services.
Reporters, like others, keep a list of Internet sites - bookmarks - that can be called up with a click of the computer's mouse. My list includes various US government sources - Treasury, Commerce, Labor, Census Bureau, the Fed, US Trade Representative, White House, Council of Economic Advisers, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management and Budget, Congress. Reports and statistics can be picked up from these sites.
If the needed data is easily available in a few basic printed publications, say the Federal Reserve Bulletin, that's the quickest source. But if not, a visit to a Web site may be easier than finding the right statistician in Washington's governmental maze.
Most think tanks maintain sites full of useful background and sources. The Electronic Policy Network links you to two dozen or so such institutions, mostly liberal in inclination. Conservative think tanks - The Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, for instance - also make reports available on the Web.
Need corporate information? Hoover's Online will give you a brief report free.
There are plenty of Wall Street sources. The stock exchanges maintain sites that provide price quotes and links to company sites. Big brokerage houses put economic reports and other information on sites.
For a story on stock investing around the world, the other day I called up the site of the International Federation of Stock Exchanges in Paris, printed out some background, got the name and phone number of the chief economist, and linked up with other stock exchange federations for Europe, Africa, and Asia. All in half an hour.
A Web site maintained by the department of economics and international business at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg - Resources for Economists on the Internet, provides brief descriptions and links to hundreds of useful or not-so-useful sites around the world, ranging from Germany's Bundesbank, the Bank of Japan, Central Bank of Turkey, and Reserve Bank of New Zealand to Scottish Economic History, EDGAR (the Securities and Exchange Commission site with its voluminous reports on companies), the World Bank, and numerous economic consulting groups.
In effect, reporters have a large, up-to-date reference library at their fingertips.
If you need your own story "clips" for background, you look them up on the Monitor's own Web site. Our library ceased clipping bylines this year.
Monitor science reporter Peter Spotts keeps more than two years of science magazine articles, press releases, and other background material on a 100-megabyte zip disk. These are received by e-mail or retrieved from Web sites.
When he travels, he takes the disk and its portable drive along with his laptop computer. No briefcase jammed with paper files of background. Computers have changed the profession of journalism, just as it has many other professions.
David R. Francis is the Monitor's senior economics correspondent.