A couple of years ago, this column would have been easy to write. I would have skimmed off the 0.1 per cent of the internet that was actually useful to normal people, and directed readers towards it. But now that cannot be done. Even if the proportion of worthwhile material has diminished still further to about 0.001 per cent-and I believe it has-that homeopathic fraction of sites that do their work better than anything off line is now larger than any one person can hope to grasp. It is no longer news that the web is useful. But exactly how it can be useful to literate Prospect readers with better things to do than “surf,” or people such as my 80-year-old mother, reluctantly coming to grips with e-mail because it is the simplest way to communicate with both her children at once, is still insufficiently understood. The internet is going to change the world as much as the car did, and there are useful things to know about cars even for people who are not interested in them.
most of the discussions about what the web will do to journalism have concentrated on its effects downstream of the journalist: how will we sell our stuff, and to whom? There are no answers to this yet, although there are a couple of web magazines for which one would happily pay on a bookstall, such as Salon (www. salonmagazine.com). But in the meantime there has been a revolution upstream of journalists, in the supply of information to us. Access to a newspaper library used to be the single most professionally important perk of a staff job. But in the last ten years all newspaper libraries have shrunk horribly. Last year, on the Independent, it rapidly became clear that almost any query could be answered more quickly on the internet than by asking the Mirror Group library.
The only important English newspaper that cannot be read online is the Daily Mail. The Times (www.the-times.co.uk) and the Telegraph (www. telegraph.co.uk) both have excellent, searchable internet editions: the Telegraph is still the better of the two, but the internet edition of the Sunday Times (also www.the-times.co.uk) is a tremendous time-saver. I already know I do not want to read 97 per cent of the stories; a single list of contents makes it easy to pick out the ones I might need to study.
American papers are even better. The New York Times (www.nytimes. com) is the only one that charges foreign subscribers. The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com), the LA Times (www.latimes.com), and the San Francisco Chronicle (www. sfgate.com) all have excellent, free sites. Even Murdoch’s tabloid New York Post (www.nypostonline.com) has a useful web presence. All these newspapers have just about everything in the printed edition, including the classified ads; and they have searchable back issues. An enormous amount of modern journalism consists of recycling clippings-it is cheaper. The web now lets you recycle clippings before they have even appeared in this country. For a list of all known online newspapers, go to www.newslink.org /ajrwww.html or http://mediainfo. elpress.com/ Wait until newspaper managements realise that the most important part of a foreign correspondent’s life-reading the local papers-can be done in London.
the web-based databases that I have been talking about do not go back more than a year or two yet. Nor do they compare in thoroughness with a database such as FT Profile (accessible through CompuServe), which goes back to the mid-1970s. But to make a full text search in an old-fashioned database will cost $5 a shot, and that soon mounts up. There is a cheaper alternative; to use the newspaper library in CompuServe, which has the Independent and, I think the Guardian, and only charges $1.50 per article retrieved. The newspaper library is the sort of thing that CompuServe did well, which is why it is a shame to see it up for sale. It was one of the few online services that ever made money, because it sold valuable information to peo- ple who had to pay for it. It used to be expensive, elitist and efficient. Now it is cheap, plagued with junk mail, yet still indispensable to a travelling professional, because there are local CompuServe numbers almost everywhere a modem will work.
there is as yet little online that passes the interest test so far as my mother is concerned. She speaks six languages with varying degrees of fluency, but none of them is Windows. A dialogue box suggests to her something to do with the stage. “Ah! It’s a monologue box,” she cried when she finally got the point. So it was with considerable satisfaction that I was able to point her at a list of computing terms in Anglo-Saxon (www.u.arizona.edu/~ctb/wordhord. html), a language from which she feels they should never have been translated. n