How To Research Like A Journalist When The Internet Doesn’t Deliver

The internet is full of information, but sometimes what you’re looking for needs a different approach. Whether you’re looking for public records, family trees, or really old archives, it’s time to do some offline digging like an old-school journalist. Here’s how to get started.

Title photo by Everett Collection (Shutterstock), JMicic (Shutterstock) and Tinatin (Shutterstock). Additional photos by Alexander Baxevanis, Ellen Forsyth, Eric Chan, Aude, nuggety247, Ted

Make no mistake: the Internet is a researcher’s dream. Whether you’re looking for scientific information, busting controversies, or just trying to beef up your own arguments, the net is vast and infinite. However, there are some things that just haven’t gone digital yet.

The Information You Won’t Find on the Web

The Internet is a good starting point, especially if all you need is general, easily-accessible knowledge on a topic. However, if you really want to learn the details on a topic, like local history, how your city was founded, who lived where you do today, or even what your community looked like a decade ago — or even a century ago — you need more detailed, specific resources.

Perhaps you’re interested in genealogy, and want to map out your family tree. Maybe you’re adopted and searching for your biological parents. Maybe your family immigrated from afar and you’d like to know where they came from. The Internet may help, but it won’t be a complete resource by any means.

These limitations aren’t restricted to things like history, either. Perhaps you’re interested in civic activism, and want to collect data from government agencies on things like traffic tickets and red light cameras. If you’re eager to learn more, sift through official records, or talk to people whose opinions matter, it’s time to expand your search. At times like this, we can take a lesson from pre-Internet journalists and start running down primary sources, checking references, and talking to people. Put your newsie cap on.

Start At Your Local Library

If we’re eschewing the Internet — or rather, we’ve exhausted all of the decent sources the Internet has for us — the next logical step is your library. If you have access to a university, state or other major library, head there. University libraries often have access to massive databases and archives (like EBSCO or ProQuest that smaller local libraries may not, and they’re worth using. And ask for assistance: that’s what the librarians are there for.

File FOI Requests

Some useful records are held by government agencies. These are in theory accessible to the public, though your mileage will differ greatly depending on the agency involved and the kind of data you’re seeking. For more complex information, you may need to file a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. The Right To Know site is an excellent resource for this kind of research.

Go Old School And Conduct Interviews

Don’t underestimate how useful a good, old-fashioned interview can be. Of course, everyone’s busy, so finding time to chat with an official, meet with a government representative, or even spend a few minutes on the phone with someone you admire can be difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. One of the best tools in the old school journalist’s arsenal was the in-person interview, and of course, having intelligent, inspiring questions ready helped them answer the questions they (and everyone else) really had.

When you ask, make sure you explain what it is you want to discuss. Make your request small and be precise about what you need. Let the other person know you’re flexible on when you can chat, and offer to meet them, come to their office, or work with their busy schedule. After all, you’re the one asking for a favour, so you should be ready to be flexible. In short, make it easy for them to say yes. Once you’re in, you can ask all of the questions you want answered.

When you’re all finished, follow up thanking the person for their time, especially if you got great information and may want to talk to them again. Even if the discussion was contentious, you never know when you might need their help again.

Digitise Your Work And Contribute To The Greater Good

Finally, once you’ve done all of this digging, visited government agencies, libraries, and the offices of the people with the knowledge you need, don’t lose it. Archive everything. Digitise those notes and the recordings of your interviews. Make copies of any material you’ve gotten your hands on, then scan them and archive them safely. Keep that stuff backed up.

Part of the reason this is important is to make sure you have it all in a safe place. You don’t want to go through all of it again if you don’t have to. However, the bigger, and perhaps more important reason to digitise it all is to make it available to others. We’ve mentioned before that the responsibility of creating an awesome Internet is on all of us to contribute and add to the gestalt. Passively not being a jerk on the internet is a good first step, but making things, contributing useful information, and helping others who need the same information we have is a dozen times better — and more empowering.


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