GETTING PUBLIC RECORDS ONLINE

By Jonathan Oatis

The wealth of information available on the Internet includes public records. But there's a big catch: a lot of it is not available online. We can expect more records to appear online as the Internet becomes more tightly woven into the fabric of everyday life. But, for now, journalists and others seeking information on a property assessment, a conviction or a death may still have to make trips down to city hall or the county courthouse.

That said, it doesn’t hurt to see what's available online. Use a search engine such as Yahoo! to find government sources of public records on the Internet or obtain the addresses from official sources -- then check them out (Hint: make sure you bookmark useful Web site addresses so you don't have to hunt them down all over again.).

In some cases, you'll find abstracts or indexes of public records online, meaning you'll still have to obtain a hard copy of the full record. Still, an index can help you track down that key piece of paper.

Don't give up on electronic records if they're not on a Web site. You may be able to persuade a county clerk or other official to e-mail you a record if you can help him or her put their hands on it. And don't forget fax machines.

In addition to free, public sources, there are a number of commercial sources of public records that charge a fee for their services. Are they worth it? If you have to pay a big fee for something you could obtain easily by crossing the street and walking into the courthouse, maybe not. On the other hand, a commercial service may offer quick access to a record that may not be available any other way, and for a reasonable fee your editor will gladly pay. It's a case-by-case decision.

For more on getting at public records online, read Chapter 7 of Alan M. Schlein's excellent book, "Find It Online, The Complete Guide to Online Research" (3rd Edition, Facts on Demand Press,  August 2002, $19.95).

Here are some public records Web sites, many of them suggested by "Find It Online" (thanks to Alan for graciously allowing me to use them) or by other computer-assisted reporting experts.

There are other information services. For example, for civil court records, in addition to LEXIS-NEXIS (http://www.lexis-nexis.com), you can use KnowX (http://www.knowx.com); and ChoicePoint (http://www.choicepointonline.com/cdb/). These services provide other information as well.