Newcomers to the Internet concentrate on looking at the web. But as time goes on you may agree that the real strength of the Internet is discussions between people. As journalists, we are always looking for sources with expertise and informed opinions, and this is where we find them.

Usenet, or the newsgroups

The part of the Internet built for exchanging information and views is the Users' Network, or Usenet, also known as the newsgroups. People type in a contribution, known as a "post", send it in to the group, and others add their views.

Beware: there is little "news" in our journalistic sense in these groups. You can find ideas for stories there, certainly, but you will have to turn them into publishable "news" by your own efforts. Mostly, you will encounter gossip and strongly expressed opinion. The groups range from the serious and academic to the rancorous and thoroughly depressing.

The traditional way to read and contribute to the newsgroups is through a newsreader program. You can get excellent free examples from sites like Tucows or download.com .

If you haven't set up your newsreader, you should. First you must put the name of the news server you are using into the Accounts section of the program. If you used one of those auto-setup disks, that will probably have been done for you. Then you must ask the program to download the full list of newsgroups.

Some Internet providers will let you have up to 60,000, filtering out foreign language groups and those involved in illegal activities. Others offer far fewer. If you connect to the Internet in an office, your systems people may consider the newsgroups a waste of time, or worse, and will not let you contact a news server. Do not despair, there is a way round that, as you will discover.

Reporting from the groups

Once you have the list of groups (it may take 20 minutes to download on a normal modem) you can use the searchbox that appears above the full list to find those groups that match your interests. Groups are named according to a hierarchy: "uk.rec.cycling" for instance is a British recreational group about cycling, whereas "comp.sys.mac.databases" is about computer systems, specifically Macintosh databases. British groups start with uk.

After that, you click on the group title to download first a list of subjects under discussion then, with another click, the discussions themselves. After that you are free to read (no-one knows you're there) or contribute.

You will not make yourself popular if you ask a lot of questions and don't reveal you are a journalist. If you want to use these people as sources, it is better to email them personally. Most will have some sort of email address attached to their post, but often they will have been altered in an obvious way to deter spamming programs that collect anything that looks like an email address. Like this: morrish@REMOVETHISblueyonder.co.uk. Remove the obviously false parts and your messages should get through.

Usenet has a reputation for unfriendliness, especially towards beginners, but it is largely undeserved. Some groups are monopolised by grumpy old-timers, but there always alternatives. If you do want to take part, read a document called What is Usenet? at the Internet FAQ Archives.

For quick journalistic access, however, there is an easier way. You can read and write to the newsgroups via the web. What's more, you can word-search the contributions as you would anything else on the web. To do this you go to Google's groups search page. It is an excellent resource that no journalist should ignore. You will have to register with Google and sign in if you want to contribute.

Outside of the newsgroups

The newsgroups are not the only discussion area on the net. Many more discussions take place through web pages: any web page can have its own discussion area. These tend to be known as "forums" or "message boards" and there is no centralised register. You can not usually contact the participants, either.

Many of the large Internet "portals" and service providers have their own discussion forums. There are lots on the BBC message boards site, for instance. Unlike the newsgroups, they require registration and are patrolled for bad behaviour.

You might also like to try Yahoo's message boards. The famous Fleet Street Forum for British journalists is now hosted by Google Groups. Your Google registration, again, will let you contribute. Another lot of forums are run by Tiscali, another major Internet provider. You can read and search the posts. Again, to contribute you have to register and log in.

All of these forms of discussion involve reading something, thinking about it and then sending a response. They should not be confused with Internet "chat", where people type messages "live". Real enthusiasts use a text-only system called IRC, but there is also web-based chat. Most ISPs offer some access to chat, but it is difficult to use journalistically.

And finally there is Instant Messaging, allowing you to "chat" by typing messages "live" to one or more of your friends. To do that you will need special software, available from all the usual Internet providers. The advantage of this over "chat" itself is that you can choose who you "talk" to. And it can be a way of interviewing people if, for some reason, you can't speak to them.

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