Washington–There was still one thing that wasn’t right. If we needed a copy of a bill in Washington we had to phone a crony to fax us a copy. We employed the senators and representatives and they worked for us, did they not? Then why were they so difficult to work with?
Yes, many of them sent around these expensive brochures–at public expense–touting how well they had done in office. They really liked you to call their press people and request little things like actual bill language. Know Why? Because that made them smarter than the rest of us. It was leftover elitism working. They acted like royalty and treated us like serfs, not even vassals.
If you wanted to wait for your state legislature to reveal these bills, they came out six months after the legislative session was over. And it might not have contained the text of the bill as it passed, either. That’s the way it used to be. But now, if someone needs actual text of bills or proposals, it’s out on the Net a few minutes after it is introduced. Wow, we’re out of the Dark Age already.It’s all there and it only takes a few minutes to access.
Tips For Accessing Government Information on The Web
In the past, there have been so many plaes to go. Do you have to rely heavily on bookmarks?
Most reporters now keep bookmarked files on their intranets. On the government page you should be able to click on laws or on bills, and it will show you the best places to go.
You should list alternatives, highlighting the best ones. Search Engines have a lot of what you need, but you still should keep a catalog to tell you where to go for information. One person on the floor of a newspaper should be charged with keeping the catalog current of resources on the Internet that they know their reporters are going to need. One person? Yes, because things keep changing and one person can keep her eyes on these changes better than having everyone do it.
Instead of trying to search for things, think in terms of which agency is going to deal with a particular topic and go to that agency’s Web page and start looking there.
The general search engines are not the answer for government documents. If you don’t know which agency to start with, there are some good government-only search engines, such as govSearch  from Northern Light ; Uncle Sam from Google ; and FedWorld . Each of these sites can help you find things more quickly than using a general search engine.
When You Do Use A General Search Engine, What Techniques Work Best?
Start out with the largest or broadest possible search. If you’re searching for a news story in the Web version of Nexis, Dialog or Dow Jones, do a simple word, phrase, or AND/OR search. If it’s a large topic, you should limit your search to the Major Story category, which searches headline and/or idea or lead paragraph. If you get too many hits, go back and add additional terms, story length qualifiers, and so on.
The same is true with Web search engines. We suggest AltaVista  because it can do very special searches. But mostly, you should just put in a few words. If your search contains a phrase, put it in quotes. The search engine’s relevancy ranking will quickly find what you’re looking for. There is no need for complex searches.
Searches that are too specific can eliminate citations you want. But evaluating the result requires a bit of intuition, sometimes to recognize which ones might have the information you want. If it’s not clear, maybe it’s time to try refining the search.
All of this comes with practice!
Next time we will discuss metasearch engines, bookmarking Internet guides, and dealing with the authority and data integrity of materials found on the Internet. We’ll help you to evaluate sources and sites.
Don White was a reporter for the Associated Press and editor of three magazines. He is author of two books, including his latest book: SELLING FAST, WE SOLD OUR HOUSE IN ONE DAY AND YOU CAN TOO.