HEATHER NEWMAN WAS in a situation most reporters know all too well. The DuPont plant in Nashville had struggled to make a particular line of synthetic fibers profitable in the hopes that corporate management would approve a plant expansion.
However, when word finally got out--through unofficial sources and after working hours--that the multinational corporation decided instead to enlarger a factory in Spain, the race for information was on.
"I was suddenly faced with the need to know everything about DuPont's Spain operations--after hours. Local executives were out. I was on deadline," recalled Newman, a business reporter for the Tennessean.
So she conducted a quick electronic search using the Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR archives and found the company's public filings, downloaded what she needed and used a simple word processor to run a key word search for references to "Spain."
"I had all I needed to know in 10 minutes, and I never would have been able to track it down that night by conventional means," she said.
That example points up the power and versatility of the Internet to provide accurate information quickly.
But finding information on the Internet is an acquired skill.
"Learn the resources first if you expect to use them quickly;' advised Newman, who encourages reporters to sign up for mailing lists, which are discussion lists via e-mail.
One thing Newman avoids, if possible, is extended interviews online.
"People are much more stiff in print than they are in person, or even over the phone," she said. --It's much more difficult to wander off on those conversational tangents that can be better than the original question and answer," said Newman.
Patrick Lee, a business reporter for the Los Angeles Times, finds the Internet a useful resource, not only for SEC documents on EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval, http://www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm/), but also for government economic, employment and census data.
When writing about a recent U.S.-China trade dispute, he was able to download export-import information from the International Trade Administration. And, for a story about electric utilities, he culled briefs and data from the California Public Utilities home page.
"Pulling them off the Internet can save a lot of time. E-mail is also very useful, particularly if I persuade a source to send me a compressed data file," said Lee.
His advice for reporters seeking to "surf" the Internet when piecing together a story is to become familiar with a variety of search tech piques, know what you're looking for, and rely on "primary sources of data from reputable sites: government, trade associations, academic institutions."
Lee said he generally doesn't use corporate or government press release sites.
"I bypass press releases and canned statements and head straight for the statistics, official reports or full documents. The advantage of the Internet is that you can go to the primary sources directly without an intermediary,' he said.
Gary Deckelnick, legal affairs editor for the Asbury Park Press and Home News & Tribune in New Jersey, cautions that using the Internet does not mean that journalistic standards can be relaxed.
"Like anything else, the Internet provides good leads. Leads is the key. Anyone can sign on with any name and create their own home page and put up there what they want. That does not make it official. The more you know the person or group, the more you can rely on the most important premise: They are who they say they are," said Deckelnick.
Online services that tout experts on any number of topics shouldn't be treated any differently than other experts seeking to be quoted, he advised.
"You weigh what they say, evaluate their credentials and act accordingly. There's no law requiring you to print everything you get from ProfNet or everything you get from interviewing the local mayor,' he said. …