Originally created 09/07/98

News plentiful, mostly reliable on Web

It's 3:30 a.m. on Fire Island, N.Y., and I can't sleep. A hurricane's a'comin. The presidency's eroding faster than my beach. Missiles have fallen.

When I used to get like this, I'd often just plump up the pillows, lean back and crack a book. But I've finally moved the PC out of the bedroom, where the beeping disturbed my lightly sleeping wife, and into a newly appointed in-house office -- Nirvana for a nosy old news junkie like me.

I fix myself a sandwich while the PC warms up, load my home page (www.dolinar.com) with all its neat little news links, boot up the little TV window that feeds CNN from my satellite dish to my desktop and settle in for a long night's trip onto the Net.

First stop? A newly discovered site in Monterey, Calif., the U.S. Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (www.fnoc.navy.mil).

I do, after all, live on a beach, and this site "provides atmospheric and oceanographic support for the Department of Defense at all points on the globe." Lest you think I'm some sort of militarist, I heard about this supercomputer installation, which can predict wave heights around the globe days in advance, from a surfer dude, who assures me just as many surfers use it as sailors.

And that's the charm of Net-based news. You can get the stuff everyone else gets from such traditional news sources as CNN, Sports Illustrated, etc., then go that extra step to answer all those niggling little questions copy editors -- one of which I used to be in a previous lifetime -- couldn't get the reporters at those outfits to answer earlier in the day. Like what kind of waves I'll see at my beach when Hurricane Bonnie comes a-courting.

On this morning, the Meteorology and Oceanography Center site shows a cancerous blob -- the wave effects of Hurricane Bonnie -- arriving on my beach later in the week. Odds are slim that the storm will actually hit, the site tells me, but the erosion could be bad.

I sigh, and head to the Carolinas. The American Journalism Review has a nice page of state newspaper links at www.newslink.org/statnews.html that lets me quickly zero in on the Wilmington Star-News (www.starnews.wilmington.net/daily/) for an inside peek at local hurricane shelters down there. It could have been worse, I think. Much worse.

This, of course, is another charm of the Net: It brings you news directly from those who are closest to it, local newspapers. At the Wilmington site, I was introduced to poor old Mark Holbrook, who arrived in the Carolinas just a month ago after taking two years to talk his wife into moving there from New York. They moved into a nice trailer but now are sitting in a temporary shelter in a subbasement of the Topsail Middle School, wondering if they'd done the right thing.

But on to more pleasant musings. In just under an hour I've plumbed the depths of hurricane reporting, and I'm ready for the week ahead. I'm still not tired, and, frankly, I'm getting bored. So what to do?

Heck, one thing you can't say about either Matt Drudge or Bill Clinton is that they are boring. And when you put the two together they can be quite entertaining. Drudge is, of course, the much-maligned, but much-read, Internet gossip columnist who first broke the story about Monica Lewinsky's blue dress that appears to have left somewhat of a stain on the Clinton presidency.

And while I might not leave Drudge's site (www.drudgereport.com) on my computer screen at work -- I wouldn't leave a supermarket tabloid open on my desk there either! -- there is no newsperson alive more entertaining in the wee, small hours of the morning.

Drudge is leading with the hurricane, but he is still flogging the "cigar story." What cigar story is that? Well, it's been floating around the Net for a few days now and may get loose in the "mainstream media" by the time you read this. But if not, I'll give you a hint: It doesn't involve smoking, but it does involve a cigar, Monica Lewinsky and our president. And, yes, it is exceedingly tacky.

But, hey, check the clock. Journalism isn't always about important stuff; at its best, it's reflective of all of the very diverse parts of our lives, including the somewhat absurd.

OK, enough absurdities. The light is dawning through my back window, and I'm starting to feel the need for intellectual sustenance.

After I digest the weather, my usual day begins with something the Net has uniquely given us, various forms of timely meta-reporting, i.e., news about news. Between 6 and 7 a.m., I pay a quick visit to Slate magazine's Today's Papers page at www.slate.com/Code/TodaysPapers/TodaysPapers.asp.

As with a regular newspaper, it helps to know how the Internet is laid out in order to get what you want and to understand what you get. What, for example, is the cyberspace equivalent of the three-column headline in the upper righthand corner of The New York Times? How do you assess the importance, and credibility, of news on the Net?

It isn't easy, but there are some guideposts. There are, after all, only a half-dozen or so major newspapers that can set the agenda of news coverage nationally, and all are available online. Slate's Today's Papers page offers a witty and concise description of the contents of many of them, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

This is primo stuff, a way of discerning a superfecta story, which leads all major papers, from an odd judgment call by your local monopoly. Not too many years ago only a handful of well-heeled editors at news organizations could assemble such widely disparate information sources in a timely fashion; it cost a fortune in faxes and overnight package deliveries.

Now, you are your own editor. Cool, huh?

Next on my list is The Associated Press, that 24-hour-a-day news wire service monster whose stories everyone rewrites and which covers the balance of the night.

AP is available in a lot of different forms on the Net. Some newspapers' sites offer broad-based access (AP Regional, AP National, etc.), namely the same raw wire feeds the editors work from. The Washington Post siteoffers hourly summaries of the AP, which can be a nice catch-up if you're sitting in the office in the middle of the afternoon and don't have access to TV.

Where I go next depends a lot on what's happening. Sometimes I'll follow up on stories by grazing through the local, state and national wires. If an interesting but offbeat story strikes my fancy -- I follow supercomputers and encryption as a hobby -- I'll use my pull-down search menu to run a check on AP, UPI and the various other news sources indexed by such search engines as Newsbot and Excite.

Of late, I've been spending at lot of time at the Free Republic (www.freerepublic.com) Web site. Politically, the site's point of view ranges from conservative to round-the-right-bend, but you'll not find a more politically powerful use of Internet technology.

"Freepers" as they call themselves, cull news stories and audio clips from all over the Net, post them in sequence on the site and then comment on them. It is sort of the ultimate clipping service for the anti-Washington, anti-Clinton crowd and a practice that harks back to the earliest days of colonial journalism, when every paper had its own well-expressed viewpoint and most stories were developed within that framework.

About the only thing wrong with it is that there is no Free Republic of the Left.

Time permitting, I then move on to the traditionals -- my paper, CNN and MSNBC, both of which give credible news reports.

It's now 8 a.m., and, frankly, I'm exhausted.

It's time for breakfast, then I need to check the trade links for my work. And then? Heck, I've just got time for a bike ride with neighbor Ellie, a swim and a nap before I can expect a call from my editor when he shows up for work at 10 ...


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