Holiday gifts for readers and researchers

Gusts of sharp December wind remind newspaper folk everywhere that its time for a year-end review. I’ll play along, but with a gift-giving twist.

Instead of reviewing my work, which is too often a cringe-worthy experience, I’ve instead been plowing through your email messages to me. Kind comments, some of which helped me through difficult moments, once again had my eyes filling. I stand in awe of your quick wit and your generous spirit. Some feedback was brutal, constructive or otherwise, yet the vast majority of dissenting views focused on my words and not me. It’s an exceptional gift that far too few writers can claim, and a testament to a widespread desire for more civility and thoughtful dialogue.

Within the messages I also discovered a pattern of questions and compliments (more gifts!) about the research behind my columns. One area resident, a church minister, wrote that while he disagreed with my specific opinion, the sources I quoted were a “welcome opportunity” to re-evaluate his own stance. “I like that you write what you believe, and that you often do it in such a way that makes me think about what I believe,” he wrote.

For a columnist, especially one that peddles in political opinion and doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues, it’s difficult to imagine more satisfying feedback.

Tucked within many of these messages are questions about how I discovered a certain report or document, and then how and why I connected it to something local. One example of this is the column I wrote connecting a grocery store closure in Kansas with a years-old, but still contentious decision by Cedar Rapids officials to use public funds to keep a grocer on First Avenue.

So, as a return gift to all of you, I’m listing some of my favorite research tools and tactics. I hope they help you feel a little less overwhelmed.

First things first: Get off Facebook. Seriously. The chances of finding something you’re looking for, instead of something someone else (probably the Facebook powers-that-be) wants you to see, are so tiny the platform is only slightly better than worthless. Unless you are researching which wizard at Hogwarts is your soul mate or how many levels of Candy Crush you can beat, save Facebook for casual socializing with friends and relatives.

What you need are real and virtual platforms easily searched, and a way to retain and retrieve discovered information. Beginning with the last part first, I rely heavily on a personal wiki called Trunk Notes. (Worth noting that I have no personal affiliation with the programs I’m mentioning in this column beyond being a consumer, and I’m receiving no perks in connection with this column.)

Trunk Notes is wonderful because it runs on my smartphone, which means I can easily carry notebooks upon notebooks of information everywhere I go. And because it isn’t some prepackaged database, I get to decide how everything is organized. Another big perk is I don’t have to rely on the phone’s keyboard to enter new data or to browse information. It’s easily connected to a computer, and the whole shebang can be securely backed up and shared across multiple devices. Perhaps best of all, because of the unique nature of a wiki, connecting the dots between notes is a natural by-product of adding information. The more I use it, the more powerful it becomes.

To find information, I primarily use two virtual platforms: Twitter and Feedly.

Twitter, of course, is a free-to-use social media site. What separates it from other social media is the incredible amount of information that is shared, and built-in search and storage techniques. Using search, you can find messages posted within a specific geographic area, with certain keywords or hashtags, issued during a specific time interval, or that contain links to specific types of information. These terms can be mixed and matched to create very specific results.

Another nice Twitter feature is the ability to create a private list of accounts (hidden from other users). Want to keep a private list of all the local restaurant or musical artist accounts you find? How about a list of medical journals that link to the studies they publish? Twitter can do that without mucking up your primary “following” feed.

Which brings me to Feedly, which is a news aggregator — a program that delivers only what you request. Accounts are free, but the most powerful bells and whistles are limited. Whether or not you’ll want to pay for extended service depends on how you’ll be using the program. If you only want a curated list of what’s been published by a select group of blogs, journals and news sites, the free account will do what you need.

A paid subscription is necessary to follow an unlimited number of sources, and further filter what information is received from those sources. There’s also a separate and more expensive option for use by teams. Because I follow many sources and there are only so many hours in a day, I have a subscription. It allows me to bring in information from sources, like newspapers, that produce lots of different content and filter out information that I don’t typically want to read.

A final resource that I’d be loath not to mention is the brick-and-mortar Cole Library on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon. The facility doubles as a campus and public library, which means no student ID is required to access all the wonderful academic journals and resources. Enjoy the access, but please drop some bills in the hat whenever the opportunity arises.

For an example of how this works, let’s go to the grocery store column. One of my private Twitter lists includes accounts that post about food insecurity. Chatter on that list highlighted a Kansas grocery store closure, and a sociology professor mentioned the closure had affected a first-of-its-kind study on food deserts in mid-sized cities. I used one of my sources on Feedly to explore announcements from the publishing journal and sponsoring university and, finally, was able to lay hands on the study.

From there, other similarities between the two cities — Cedar Rapids and Topeka — became apparent. All that was left was to gather the last strings and write it out.

There is leg work and some luck involved, but it isn’t magic or rocket science. If I discover something interesting that could encourage a reader to dig a little deeper, learn something new or consider a different perspective, I’m compelled to share it as well as my thoughts.

I’m always on the lookout for new tools to curate the massive amount of content produced each day. Send along your favorites. Oh, and happy holidays.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 24, 2017.