My boss, Seth Long, posted a great piece the other day called What can news orgs learn from content farms? and it got me to thinking about some of the methods I use to track news (both for my job and for this blog).
One of the big complaints I hear from journalists is that they “don’t have time” for (X,Y,Z), which is why I think it’s so valuable to invest time learning about the various ways you can use the Internet to listen. These strategies don’t even really require that much of an investment—just open yourself up to tinkering and try a few out:
Use Google Reader to build your own newswire
If your strategy for keeping up with your beat these days is to visit a bunch of Web sites and just serendipitously scroll around, you’re wasting a ton of time—you need to discover the ease and convenience that is RSS. If you’re unfamiliar with RSS, check out this three-minute CommonCraft video, which gives possibly the best explanation ever for what RSS is: “…it’s like Netflix compared to the video store.”
There are a lot of RSS readers to choose from—BeatBlogging.org has a handy review of several of them—but as far as I’m concerned, the gold standard is Google Reader (and I’m pretty sure a lot of other people would agree with me).
If you don’t like Twitter, that’s fine, but a lot of your readers do and they publish a staggering amount of information there that can be extremely useful to you. True, there’s some noise out there, but that’s true of the entire Internet and fortunately, there’s a really easy way to filter it—and you don’t even need a Twitter account to do it.
Twitter has what they call search operators; these are search terms that filter Twitter messages so you only get what’s likely to be useful to you. Today, for example, there’s a big storm blowing through Western Washington, so I carried out this search term for one of our reporters:
The full search term was “weather OR storm OR power near:98005 within:10mi” which told Twitter “Show me Tweets near the 98005 area code, within 10 miles, containing the words ‘weather,’ ‘storm,’ or ‘power.'” This way, we get everything that people in that area are saying about the weather and the storm and we’ll be tipped off if the power goes out somewhere. It’s kind of like having a police scanner, but for any event you can think of.
Use Google Alerts to get e-mails on topics relevant to your beat
Google Alerts is kind of like Reader, only instead of delivering blog/Web site updates to your reader, it’s delivering Google search results on particular words and terms to your e-mail. For myself, I’ve got alerts for “paul balcerak,” “paulbalcerak” and a few others. Once a week (you can have your updates arrive more or less often) I get an e-mail with a list of results for those terms, so if I get mentioned somewhere and it passes below my radar, I’ll know about it.
Think of all the stuff that’s been published to the Web and gotten past you…it might not have if you had Google Alerts set up.
Subscribe to comment threads
I still think one of the weirdest things journalists don’t do is interact in comment threads for their own stories. I often see tips being dropped, questions being asked and supplemental information being posted…but I rarely see a reporter actually drop in to scoop any of this up. Maybe it’s because they don’t know anyone’s commenting?
Whatever the case, most comment threads give you an option to “subscribe to comments” or “e-mail me when someone replies.” I’d just subscribe to the thread in the first place (if possible) so I’d know the minute someone commented on my post. Even if you don’t net any valuable information, it’s still a good way to keep an eye on what people are saying about your reporting (and moderate the comments, if necessary).
What do you use to keep up with what’s going on, on your beat? Is it a mix of old-school shoe leather and new-school Web tricks? Or do you have one or two things that you just stick to? Drop me a comment and let me know.