How I Research Stuff

If you’re a longtime reader of Tedium, you might wonder how I manage to uncover so many strange stories. Well, let me tell you. Hopefully it’s inspiring.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: When I first started Tedium six years and nine months ago, I wanted to see how far I could get with it before I reached the point where I forgot that I had written about something previously. I feel like I’m finally at that point, where there are probably things that I’ve written about that I likely will not remember unless I look them up, like this Charlie Sheen-inspired piece about alternative medicine, or this piece on bottle deposits. I have been at this long enough that there are pieces in my archives that I first wrote in 2015 that I wish I could completely rewrite knowing what I know now. (Example: I totally burned through numbers stations less than a month after the first issue, which I’m still kicking myself about.) There’s always a risk of getting meta when it comes to Tedium, but for today’s issue I wanted to explain how I actually go about researching the things I choose to write about, in hopes that it might help someone who needs some editorial inspiration or who wants to become a better researcher. Maybe you might get better at writing after reading this. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”

— Stephen King, in his 1999 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, one of the most important works I’ve ever read. I’m not big on King, but I found the book fascinating because it broke down his own process in some really important ways. I hope I channel a little bit of King with this little rant.

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(Kristopher Roller/Unsplash)

Where I find sources of inspiration for what I write

Somewhat ironically for a website that gets a lot of search traffic, Tedium seems a bit unfocused and hard to explain, especially to outsiders. Tedium has a reputation of being a website about technology, yet its most popular piece of the year is a story about Tom Waits.

This is actually somewhat by design. See, Tedium is basically focused on telling stories about things that I encounter in the world that inspire me, or seem unheard or not properly explained, that the layperson would not know much about. One of the things that I find inspiring just happens to be technology. I’m sure if I was really into knitting I’d probably have 200 posts on my website about knitting.

Often I’ll look to objects (wandering around a Goodwill, or surfing eBay, is a great point of inspiration, which I’ve written about in the past).

Sometimes I stumble upon a small piece of trivia and try to see if it can be blown out into a bigger yarn. (I read a LOT of articles, probably 200+ per day, on top of tweets.)

Admittedly, not every piece of yarn is long enough to pull. Just to give you an example, around the same time I uncovered the detail about Bob Seger recording a version of “Downtown Train” around the same time Rod Stewart did, I read on a Wikipedia page that Robert Sledge, the bassist for Ben Folds Five, nearly became the bassist for Weezer in 2001. This struck me as very intriguing, both as a fan of early Weezer and a fan of Ben Folds Five. If Sledge had joined Weezer at that specific time, there’s a chance Weezer could have evolved into a significantly different band than it eventually did (nothing against Scott Shriner).

But when I went to research it, digging through old issues of Spin and CMJ New Music Monthly that are made publicly available on Google Books, I could not back up the fact. It was a thinly sourced rumor that didn’t have enough going for it. And not every road is going to lead to an amazing story—but the willingness to try multiple paths is key to figuring that out.

In fact, the only source for this data is an unauthorized biography of Rivers Cuomo for which there was no digital source. Certainly, I can buy the biography to squeeze out the detail, but given that there will be no additional sourcing I can work with to tell the rest of the story? Probably not.

Now, for the Tom Waits story, that also partly leaned on an anecdote from an unauthorized biography. But it was also supported by a lot of news stories and historic quotes from the era, which allowed the story to be followed through in a way that was useful for the reader and seemed to have not been publicly discussed for quite a while.

And maybe it’s something really simple: One day, I was eating a sub in Jimmy John’s and I thought about the sprouts. Boom, story.

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(Hans-Peter Gauster/Unsplash)

Five tips for telling an in-depth history about something using the internet

  1. Look past the accepted answer. It’s easy to look at a Google search and find a result that seems to answer a trivia question that you’ve had floating around. But simply taking the accepted answer and running with it is bad research. Look it up for yourself where you can. You might uncover previously unseen evidence of prior art, like I did when I found an example of a whiteboard that dated to the 1930s a few months ago.
  2. Build an overall context behind the history. A few years ago, I wrote about Ayds diet candy, a topic that had frequently come up as a point of mockery on various parts of the web but didn’t seem to have additional context behind it. I wrote about it with the plan not to mock it, but to understand it, and explain its overall cultural moment. And the result is that the piece tells a more well-rounded story than most other places online. Another tip: Even if something is really old, find a modern hook that can build a valuable tie to the modern day.
  3. Don’t go into a story looking to tear anyone down. One of my most popular pieces of all time, a story about how Bob Vila was fired from This Old House because of his sponsorship deals, could have easily been written a way that attacked Vila or the franchise that fired him. Instead, it approached the story down the middle, offering a context that pointed at the broader structural issues that led to the conflict.
  4. Focus on interesting framing. A router that accidentally became open-source on its own is an interesting tale. But what makes it a story that people actually want to read is the fact that you or someone you know probably owned that router. Finding an angle that can pull in a bigger tent is always better than simply aiming narrowly.
  5. Make it unique by building in personal anecdotes. My other story this past week, about products with hidden features, could have been written without the tale about how I opened up a Shirt Tales drum and found a completely different design inside of it. But because I added it, it became a tale that only I could have told in that way. In an era when people aggregate information wholesale, putting your own voice in there ensures that your view is the one that sticks.

“The secret of success in becoming a writer is you must write; you must finish what you write; and you must write a lot more.”

— Jerry Pournelle, one of the earliest bloggers on the internet, though he’d never use that term to describe it, discussing how to become a successful writer in a 1996 BYTE essay titled “How to Get My Job.” Pournelle is probably one of my biggest inspirations as a writer, in case you were ever curious. He often took a very conversational approach to writing essays for BYTE, and when I discovered him around age 12, I spent hours at the library reading his columns (along with every other tech magazine I could find). Other inspirations include Rolling Stone cover stories and websites like Fark and Pitchfork.

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(Amador Loureiro/Unsplash)

How do I find these things I look up?

The thing about Tedium is that it’s research-driven. As much as possible, we try to back up our stuff as possible, to uncover quotes and details and highlight them as needed.

And that requires a lot of digging, something that the internet is amazing at. I use a mixture of sources, both free and paid, to do what I do. Among the parts of my toolkit that are most important: This paid platform isn’t cheap—I pay $75 every six months—but it gives me access to more than 200 years of research materials that include most of the world’s English-language newspapers. Beyond finding stories, having access to a huge archive of newspapers makes it useful to do historic language research to figure out where a phrase emerged from. (My clippings page is here in case you’d like to follow along.) It’s perhaps the most important resource I use.

Google Books: This research resource is one of Google’s best features, so of course Google hasn’t done much with it in a decade. Nonetheless, it’s still full of lots of materials, including many reference books that can be viewed in preview mode. It also offers access to some important historic magazines in the context of technology and popular culture, including Billboard, Boys’ Life, InfoWorld, and Popular Science. One challenge Google Books creates is “snippet mode,” in which copyrighted materials are only allowed to appear in a very limited fair-use way. I’ve ranted about this in the past.

Google Patents. Much more up-to-date than Google Books, the patent site helps uncover the origin of common objects, as well as their evolution. I used it to great effect when I did my piece on the Kensington lock earlier this year.

Internet Archive. This resource started out good and has gotten significantly better over time. You may be familiar with the archive’s Wayback Machine, but I really recommend you dive into the archive itself as well, which now lets you check out software, old magazines, and old books. In the latter category, it is now possible to check out individual books for an hour at a time, making it perfect for research.

The New York Times. Of mainstream newspapers, the Times is the one that is best about managing its archives, which go back to 1851 and cover most major stories of the past two centuries. TimesMachine in particular is a victory of deep research.

There are other research sources, of course—I haven’t even discussed academic papers, which are a massive can of worms. I also recommend taking advantage of the never-ending pool or randomness that is YouTube. If something appeared on TV 30 years ago, odds are it’s on YouTube in some form. Especially if it’s an episode of Computer Chronicles.

I also recommend getting a library card. This sounds like a funny recommendation for digital research, I know, but many libraries these days make lots of research available on the internet, making a library card a secret weapon on the internet in a way that it often is in real life. Take advantage of it—it’s free!

I tend to write and research at the same time, as I find it helps me think through my thoughts on a topic to do it simultaneously. After all, my best quips are likely to emerge upon immediate reaction, and it’s more fun that way anyway.

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(Max Saeling/Unsplash)

Why is Tedium broken up the way it is?

This is a long story, but it’s sort of rooted in my background as a graphic designer for newspapers.

Many newspapers are designed to be long, with full pages of in-depth content. But starting in the mid-1990s, a new style of editorial content called alternative story form started to grow in prominence.

They have existed for decades, as long as newspapers and magazines have had briefs, but they became more influential as design capabilities grew. As newspapers became more capable of doing layouts better known in magazine, it became possible to create entire stories, start to finish, in alt-story-form.

One of the biggest shifts happened, strangely enough, with the rise of the “lad mag,” a type of magazine that drew controversy over its scantily-clad photos, in the 1990s. Maxim and FHM are probably two of the most famous examples, and the controversy was deserved. But they did something that was really powerful: Nearly all of their content was done in alt-story-form, meaning it was very scannable content that provided a lot of targeted information that its audience found valuable.

This format, also known as the “charticle,” inspired three separate newspapers I worked at during my newspaper career, and then inspired my old site, ShortFormBlog, which was nothing but alt-story-form.

Tedium is long-form, which is where digital journalism has evolved over the years. But while you can take the alt-story-form out of the medium, you can’t take it out of the writer. So I still write a lot of lists, a lot of fact boxes, a lot of data points.

This makes the style a bit unique compared to other digital outlets, which just use fact boxes. But it also creates an interesting dynamic for editorial reasons. It also ensures that, if there isn’t an underlying plot driving the story forward, I’m not tied to that story as I write, and I can pull in alternate elements that are interesting, but can be self-contained. So a big number or a quote can be interesting on its own, even if it’s only tangentially related to the broader points I’m covering.

I realize I produce a lot of content, much of which you may have never read. And so much of it is done for me as a creator with lots of itches to scratch. I will never get through all of my itches, but it’s not for a lack of trying. As a writer, the best way to keep all of this exciting is to keep inventing new ways to do so. And the way I do that is to treat the internet as a never-ending font of research.

Not everyone has quite the ambition to write thousands of words twice a week. I’m a special case. But I want to encourage you, if you love the internet, to embrace its potential as a research and creation tool.

You’ll be glad you did, and you might learn something along the way. Tell better stories. It’s a great way to bring the internet to life in a way a bunch of ranting on Twitter never will.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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