Archive for November, 2011

Mining the web like a pro: Google and beyond

November 28th, 2011 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. There’s more to search engines than just plugging in words.  The best searchers use the advanced features.  There are many places to find Google tips.
  2. No mainstream search engines, even Google, search anywhere close to the entire web.  They don’t index every page or database result, nor the entirety of many longer documents.  What’s not retrievable via these engines is known as the “deep web” or “invisible web.”  That’s why you need to familiarize yourself with many of the sources I’ve reviewed this semester.  You can’t rely on Google exclusively.
  3. Web sites are not all created equalEvaluate, and trust primary sources FIRST.  Sometimes you’ll want to check who owns a web site.
  4. Web pages don’t die easily.  Old pages can be treasure troves.
  5. The first breakout web search tool was a subject guide.  They are still around and still useful.
  6. In addition to the “general” search tools, there are great “specialty” engines too.  Among the best known are Google NewsGoogle Books and YouTube.

For more, see Barbara Gray’s guide.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 20th, 2011 by Jack Styczynski

Before we gorge on turkey, let’s celebrate some more bylines.

The latest from the Mott Haven Herald includes: Eli Chen’s story about the fight to save a community garden; Evan Buxbaum’s article about a new documentary center in Melrose; Patricia Rey Mallén’s report on the closing of a beloved local restaurant; and Alex Robinson’s piece about a participatory budgeting exercise.

The bonus: Remember when I said comparisons are vital to give context to numbers in stories?  I had a short but sweet example last week.

Your bylines…and mine

November 4th, 2011 by Jack Styczynski

We’re really rolling now!

Patricia Rey Mallén brings us a feature on the African Movies Mall.

Kamana Shrestha has news on the effects of a terminated government housing program.

Sarah Pizon tells us about the last trip for Mexican immigrants.

Melissa Noel writes of a dancer’s inspirational comeback.

And Gwen McClure gives us a break from Wall Street with a different kind of protest.

The bonus: Check out my latest research-inspired enterprise story.  If you choose this option for your next assignment, contact me with your idea ASAP so I can help you make the best possible pitch to David and Ellen.

Research-inspired enterprise option

November 3rd, 2011 by Jack Styczynski

If you choose this option for your enterprise assignment, it should be a three-step process.

  1. Find a newsworthy statistic that interests you.
  2. Compare it to something.  (e.g. other geographic areas, the same statistic in previous years, etc.)
  3. Use reporting, and possibly more research, to determine and explain why your number compares as it does.  This will certainly involve identifying and interviewing experts on the subject.  In addition to getting them to explain “why,” you’ll probably want them to make suggestions for how to improve the number and/or predictions for the future.

Your research grade will be based on how well you handle items 2 and 3.  (Note: identifying and using experts will be part of your research grade no matter what enterprise option you choose.)

Common pitfalls to avoid (the first of which is more specific to this particular enterprise option; the others apply to any story):

  • Back-end research: Don’t conjure up a story idea and then try to figure out how to fit (statistical) research into it.  That’s backwards.  The research is supposed to inspire the story.  In fact, don’t even bother making a pitch unless you already have the data that inspired your story idea.  Once you start writing, if you find yourself several paragraphs into the story before you’ve mentioned any numbers, you’re also “back-ending” it.  A research-inspired enterprise story needs the research up high.  As I mentioned last month in class, the nut graf is often a good place for statistics.
  • Numbers without context: Reporting that there are 27 widget manufacturers in your CD means nothing without context.  How many were there five years ago?  What is the difference from the average CD?  Get it? Some kind of comparison is vital.  Chronological or geographical comparisons are two of the most common and accepted.
  • Statistical overload: Don’t operate on the “more is better” principle.  All you really need is one good statistic to inspire your story.  That’s not to say you’re limited to one, but don’t bombard.  Cramming too many numbers into a story often clouds the theme or makes the necessary backup reporting too unwieldy.

Helpful hints: Interesting statistics you found while researching your beat memos may make for good story ideas.  Many of the sites listed on my NYC.gov handout are treasure troves of statistical information.

Court research

November 1st, 2011 by Jack Styczynski

Points of emphasis for critical thinking:

  1. With many courts at the federal, state and local levels, there is no “one stop shopping” for court research.  In most cases, you’ll need to know the jurisdiction before you can find anything.
  2. In many jurisdictions, particularly at the local levels, case information isn’t online at all.  For those cases, you have no choice but to visit the courthouse or contact the court clerk to get info (unless you can get it from participating lawyers).
  3. Of the courts that do have case information online, there’s no uniformity.  Some post full case documents.  Others provide only basic docket information.  And many times, you’ll have to use a fee-based service to get the info.
  4. For federal cases, PACER is the best place to go.  Although fee-based, it’s relatively inexpensive.  It has both docket information and (most) case documents.  (Note: The Supreme Court has its own no-cost site separate from the PACER system.  Historical SCOTUS info can be found here, here, here and here.)  FindLaw is another good site to search Supreme and Circuit Court decisions.  USCourts.gov also publishes the very useful Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts and Understanding the Federal Courts.
  5. LexisNexis has case information for the most jurisdictions–federal, state and local–but not all of it is available in the academic version universally accessible to CUNY students.  See Barbara Gray in the Research Center for access to the professional version.
  6. Beyond PACER and LexisNexis, you should check individual court sites, such as the New York State Unified Court System’s eCourtsSlip Decisions, Appellate Courts or SCROLL (for Manhattan Supreme) pages, to find out what is and isn’t available online.  (Note: The Bronx County Clerk’s Office has a Law Case Search page, including access to court documents for anyone who registers.)
  7. For higher-profile cases, you can sometimes find court documents posted at sites such as FindLaw, MoreLaw or The Smoking Gun.
  8. You’ll probably need to talk to them for your story anyway, so if all else fails, lawyers might provide case information.  My favorite sites to find lawyer contacts are LegalDockets and Martindale.com.

For more tips on court research, see Barbara Gray’s guide.