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An amateur's guide to cyberspace.

You may never be a pro. But you can still use the Internet to your advantage - without going broke.

More than a year ago, intrigued by the stories NCEW members told me at the Philadelphia conference about exploring the Internet, I bought a brand new, state-of-the-art computer.

Eagerly I signed up for a commercial online service and started cruising. Wow! What was out there and at my fingertips! I clicked here and there, using my mouse to cruise down alleys and through tunnels.

Then came the rude awakening: My first month's service bill - with 10 free hours - was $130. It was virtual reality.

A sock in the pocketbook always gets a message through. Cyberspace can be an incredible research tool in our business, but you have to learn how to use it wisely. At $3 an hour, the size of the bill makes it clear that wisely also refers to use of time.

So what to do? I did what we editorial writers are good at doing: I asked someone else . . . in fact, a lot of someone elses, including NCEW colleagues.

I attended the very useful NCEW weekend conference on the Internet in San Antonio last spring, read some articles, took a quick public library class, and explored whatever elements of advice I could find that were, frankly, free and easy.

After a year, I've come to this conclusion. I'm always going to be an amateur. That's because cyberspace is so big. Make that BIG! It was unimaginably cosmic when I first logged on and it has reproduced itself many times over since.

I recently did a search to see if there were any World Wide Web sites that offered quotations from famous people. There were: 100,000 of them.

Nevertheless, being an amateur doesn't mean that you can't learn to use the Internet to your advantage without being intimidated - or wasting your time. And you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars doing it, even if you use a commercial Internet provider (and I do because it's still the most convenient).

The first step is follow the leader. I was on a ski racing team for The Ann Arbor News a few years back, and two of our teammates were ski instructors. During practice for an area media race, the rest of us followed the tracks of the instructors.

Race time came and our team won, and not just because of the two experts. Even with our inferior equipment and inexperience, most of the rest of us placed high just by imitating the styles of the two who knew what they were doing.

For NCEW members, following the leader is easy. Go to the NCEW home page on World Wide Web:

There, Webmaster and NCEW member Phineas Fiske does an outstanding job of keeping us up to date on new resources that he and others have found. To get there, you have to sign up for an Internet service with a Web browser.

For some, the scariest step is just signing up for the service. Not to worry. Most services are easy to use - easier to learn, in fact, than the Atex systems most of us have in our newsrooms.

In some areas, services are even free. It's really worth it. And, honest, http:// is not a communist plot.

Fiske has developed a page called Online Resources. It's the most comprehensive I've seen and includes "links" to some of the resources I'd discovered on my own to be extraordinary, such as the search sites known as Alta Vista and Yahoo, and the Newspaper Association of America's guide to all online newspapers.

A "link," by the way, is computer talk for a quick connection: To get to the research site listed, all you have to do is move your mouse arrow to the name (i.e., Yahoo) and click, and you'll be automatically taken to the site, where instructions on what to do next appear on your screen. Usually, those instructions are also very easy to follow. But don't take my word for it. Go see.

Another follow-the-leader step is to sign up for an e-mail discussion network. You may choose from a number of them. (Again, see the NCEW Web page for suggestions.) I signed up for two, and at first the mailings were above my head.

I "lurked," which is a computer term that refers to those of us who sign up for lists and only read the messages without participating in most discussions. From my observation, about 80% to 90% of all discussion groups are lurkers.

In any case, lurking is very useful. You learn terminology; you get a sense of how others use the system, and you often get good tips on Web sites and hot news resources. (The lists were very helpful, for example, for firsthand observations on the Oklahoma bombing last year.)

An added attraction is that every now and then, the name of an old friend in the news business pops up in the discussion, and you get to renew old acquaintances.

NCEW has an e-mail list, which is still in its infancy but valuable. Last year, I used it to get information on the Quebec separation vote. I needed to write an editorial, but nothing comprehensive was available from print resources. I thought one of our Canadian members might know.

I sent out a query, and sure enough, I was right. Peter Calamai of The Ottawa Citizen sent over several sites; Phineas Fiske sent over some more. I not only used them, but also passed them along to the Canadian journalist who was writing an op-ed piece for me.

E-mail Fiske to join the list at: or

Like a good amateur, I'm still following. And following does take time - not as much as running around cyberspace without a guide, but you still need time to explore and get to know the system.

What I have found useful is to limit my minutes of computer use. If I'm searching for a lead and I haven't found a clue within 15 or 20 minutes, I give it up. I follow the same rule if I've found too many leads, so that I don't get overwhelmed. When I found the 100,000 quote sites, for example, I picked only two to explore briefly and printed out only the more useful one.

The most time I allow myself is an hour on computer searches. I've found the best times to do it are when I can't stay on long for practical reasons, like before I go to work in the morning or before a lunch-time appointment.

One last word to entice you online if you're not there already: It's fun.

NCEW member Kay Semion, also known as, is editorial page editor of the Ann Arbor News in Michigan.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Internet usage
Author:Semion, Kay
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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