On July 23, Colin Meek, who also writes at the Insite blog, takes our one-day course on advance online research skills, which focuses on getting the most out of your deskbound research.
In the next in our series of interviews with the trainers, Journalism.co.uk asks Meek how he conducts his own research online and what tools we can all use:
What are the most important areas a journalist should focus on when beginning online research?
Overwhelmingly journalists in the UK turn to Google too often. There are dozens and possible hundreds of search tools that are better for specific tasks. For example, as I wrote in my blog recently, Google no longer has the best answer to the simplest question: 'what are people saying about [my query] right now?' If you want to track changing content in real-time try alternatives such as Collecta or Scoopler.
Similarly, if you are doing background research the best tools to use to get a feel for a new subject are good subject directories and catalogues such as www.intute.ac.uk - one of the best UK-based resources on the web. Another good tactic to get an overview of web sources is to use a 'meta-search engine' - these slice off the top-ranking results from several search engines and then give prominence to results that rank highly in more than one search engine. A good example is clusty.com. But because meta-search engines simply slice off the top hits from several search engines you often can't drill down to get what you need.
Once you've done your background and need to pin-point nuggets of information - that's when you should turn to search engines- but don't just rely on Google. To get an idea how different search engine results can be look at Thumbshots Ranking. When I enter the search term 'MRSA' and search in Google and Yahoo - out of the top sixty hits returned by both engines only six pages are ranked by both. That site demonstrates the danger of depending on one search tool.
But even though most journalists habitually turn to Google, they don't exploit its potential. To use it more effectively - faster - you need to use the 'advanced operators'. These are commands that you can enter directly into the search field to focus your search. Everyday use means you can, for example, limit your search to only .gov.uk websites or you can exclude PDFs or Word documents from your results. Used creatively, they can be extremely powerful, allowing you to drill for information in social networks or from other sources. With practice they can open doors on the web most people don't know exist.
What's your favourite tool(s) of choice in conducting your own investigations?
Overall, I've found search engine advanced operators to be most helpful, but there are a range of other tools that make life much easier. There are incredible tools that allow you to monitor changing web content. If you configure your RSS reader correctly, for example, you can filter news feeds so that you only receive posts and news stories that contain terms that interest you. Similarly, you can set up Yahoo Pipes to filter content from a variety of sources. You can even configure that to include Google searches automatically.
Other tools that take less time to master include Evernote which allows you to save and catalogue your research using a Firefox browser plugin. Not only does this allow you to save, file and annotate web pages, Evernote automatically syncs your saves between your desktop client and its own web-based server which means you can access your sources when you're away from your own computer. Other tools making use of Web 3.0 technology include Twine.com which is similar to delicious, but with added functionality; and Juice, which automatically serves up background research on items as you browse - with no need to leave the webpage you are viewing.
What's your background and how did you learn about these techniques yourself?
I've worked in journalism for more than 20 years. My last full-time position before going freelance was as a research manager at Which? where I worked on investigations into companies, services and products. Since going freelance I've mostly worked on very in-depth and investigative projects in health and medicine for a range of clients including major medical journals and papers and magazines. I've always been interested in how the internet is changing journalism and was founding editor of the Journalism.co.uk news channel.
Over time some of my clients such as Which? and the RPSGB asked me to train their own staff and gradually, with the help of Journalism.co.uk, I knitted together a course covering the most important elements of advanced online research.
Are there mistakes journalists frequently make, but should avoid, when conducting online research?
There is obviously a huge over-reliance on Google. For some reason Google has cornered about 90 per cent of the search market in the UK, but people in other countries generally, and the US in particular, are far more willing to work with other search tools.
Apart from that my one observation is that many journalists fail to fully exploit the potential of Firefox. That web browser is by far the best because you can choose from a range of plug-ins that can quite literally transform your working life online.
A full list of Journalism.co.uk's courses can be see on the training pages. For more information or to book a place, contact ed at journalism.co.uk.