Tools of the trade

Published 10:32 pm Friday, July 16, 2010

Perhaps it should have come as no surprise in this day of hyper-branding across platforms. Nonetheless, I was a little bit taken aback to learn while researching an idea for the food page this week that there is, indeed, a website devoted to hotdogs, www.hot-dog.org, of course.

Sometimes, even I am amazed at the vast quantities of information available on the Internet.

On Monday, I needed to know about the history of the hotdog. In the process, I learned that Americans eat enough hotdogs on Independence Day each year — 150 million of them — to stretch from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles more than five times. And Americans consume about 818 hot dogs per second from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Just typing that last sentence makes me feel a little full.

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One of the best things about my job is that I get to spend part of my workday surfing the Internet and being paid for it. I call it research, and I argue to my bosses that the kind of information that fills the previous paragraph makes for more interesting stories and columns. As long as they keep on buying that argument, they’re not likely to cut off my Internet access.

Once in a while, of course, the Internet proves useful in some more significant way. On Friday, for instance, I was able to learn on an FCC website that a cell-phone tower located near Harrell Drive off of Godwin Boulevard is 259 feet tall, which sounds pretty high until you think about how quickly and perfectly your parachute would have to deploy to protect you if you jumped from the top.

We regularly use the Internet here at the Suffolk News-Herald to check on the criminal histories of suspects and to track the status and progress of various trials. The information we gain from Virginia’s courts websites allows us to include richer details within the stories we cover, many of which reach us initially as barebones accounts.

Sometimes we use the Internet for purposes of a more internal nature. Following the comments people make about our stories online, for instance, has led us to make on-the-fly corrections, has given us leads on other important news stories and has helped us to take the virtual pulse of our online readership. When people are commenting, we know they’re interested in the stories they’re reading — even if they’re appalled, or rude or insensitive.

In a similar vein, some Internet tools show us what our most popular online stories have been (obits always lead the pack), when they were last read and how they contribute to the overall growth in our website’s popularity.

Increasingly, journalists are looking at the Internet as a tool. As I have begun to do the same during the last few years, I find that I have a better understanding than ever of my grandfather’s old garage workshop. Everything there was neat, kept in its place and carefully maintained and there were tools that did things I couldn’t hope to understand.

Lately, I have a similar feeling for the Internet. And I love the feeling that — when I open the door to enter that workshop — so many of my tools await me there. Were he alive, my grandpa probably wouldn’t understand the Internet, but he’d sure understand that bit about tools.