Recently, Wisconsin Public Radio invited me to provide a list of my favorite Web destinations, as part of a premium it has been giving this week to donors during its current pledge drive. I misunderstood the assignment, providing a write-up of reasons as well as URLs. Since these didn't work for that purpose, I'm posting the list here, for the benefit of my many fans.
As a regular guest on Wisconsin Public Radio, I often feel compelled to provide a contrary view. In that spirit, I'd like to offer my opinion that the Internets -- to quote our president -- are vastly overrated. I seldom go online for quality writing, preferring books, magazines and newspapers I can hold in my hands. When I do find something on a website I'd like to read, I usually print it out. Archaic and backward, I know.
You'll see reflected in this list a bias toward raw information. I go online mainly to gather facts to use in my writing and other work, including my appearances on WPR.
Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA)
Often called CCAP, the larger data system it's based on, this site lets anyone quickly check state circuit court activity, from criminal cases to lawsuits to traffic citations. Wisconsin goes further than any other state in making this information available, and there are periodic calls to curtail access, but I believe most folks use WCCA responsibility. I am proud to have served on committees charged with setting policy for this site, which garners hundreds of thousands of page views each day. I use it to track court cases and check out sources and people with whom I do business. I'm a snoop at heart.
It's really not fair to call this a site -- the agency index here is actually a portal to dozens of sites. You can peruse the state sex offender registry at the Department of Corrections, see which interest groups support or oppose legislation at the State Ethics Board, check out state parks at the DNR. There's more data here than a person could use in a lifetime.
Wisconsin Local Information
This is a terrific site for learning more about any part of the state. You can click on a map by county and get basic information and link to that county's website for more detailed info. It's especially useful for tracking down the names and numbers of local officials.
This is the granddaddy of all newspaper archives, providing access to millions of articles. But here's the rub: I haven't the slightest idea how to use the site when entered through the above URL. I access Proquest through my local library website, by entering my card number, then bookmarking it for future use. It's a terrific way to still get free older Milwaukee Journal Sentinel articles, now that the company has started charging. It lets you do detailed compound searches, like "open records and Wisconsin," and get only stories that contain both terms.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council
Most people probably don't need to use this site as often as I do, but it could come in handy for almost anyone. It's the single best source of information I know on the state's open records and meetings laws. There are searchable versions of the laws themselves, with key court rulings and attorney general opinions, links to the AG's compliance guides for public officials, and a song I wrote about open records.
This is a great site for tracking who's bankrolling the various contenders for president. It searches contributors by Zip Code, which is a little time-consuming but kind of fun. Tommy Thompson did well in my (and his former) Zip Code area -- 53704 -- maybe better than anywhere else in the country. Similarly detailed donor information is available for congressional candidates on Open Secrets.
As someone who grew up in a house where the stuff from cows was called "melk" and the thing you rest your head on a "pellow," I appreciate a resource that helps folks in Wisconsin -- as the late George Vukelich once quipped, "When you say "Wes-kon-son" ... you've said it wrong" -- correctly spit out the names of Dairy State people and places. Too bad my routinely mangled name (should be "LEAD-ERS") is not yet on it.
Interested in what scientific research has been done on any given subject? This site will get you more than you'll know how to handle. You can search by author, subject or publication; not everything is available for free, but you can at least get the abstracts.
Interested in how your favorite radio station compares to its competitors? This site lets you check the latest Arbitron ratings for any market. It's interesting to see which stations rule, and which ones cling to infinitesimal audience shares. The one failing is that only commercial outlets are tracked; Wisconsin Public Radio, no doubt, dominates them all.