Note: This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be sharing on some “basic” web reporting tools, tips and tech skills that journalists new to digital tools may find useful but may not know about or may be embarrassed to ask about. Often, we cover the latest tools and trends on this blog, but for new journalists or those just getting comfortable with using the web or data as a reporting tool, these will hopefully give you a good introduction to build from. If you have something you want covered or an idea of something you think we should explain (for example, that question you’ve had to ask colleagues about — or answer questions about — a dozen times already) please send me a note @meranduh or firstname.lastname@example.org or add your idea in the comments below. If you want to track these as they’re added, they’ll be under the tag “basics.”
WHOIS can be a useful, though often overlooked, tool for journalists. But what is it? Basically, WHOIS allows Internet users to find out who is behind a website by letting them access the information about who registered a given domain.
Depending on the registrar and how the domain registrant set up the domain, this information includes the name/business and contact information, including phone, email and address, of the person who bought or owns the domain. Some registrars allow users to register their domain as private, and some domain owners register their domains through proxies. In both cases, that essentially blocks the information from being public. But if the person didn’t pay extra to register private or through a proxy, this simple search basically tells you who bought and owns the site, when, who hosts it and how to get in touch with them. (Technically, registrants are not supposed to lie because that could cause the register to cancel the domain.)
All you need to know is the URL of their top-level domain (this only works for domains, not websites hosted on another domain), which you pop into any number of free WHOIS search engines. There are probably thousands of sites that offer the service, including most domain registration services. I like this one at DomainTools.
So, how is this stuff even useful to journalists? Here are a few scenarios:
- There’s a new website you came across that someone — you don’t know who — posted with outrageous claims about some company, school, city, person, etc. on your beat. Who is behind this site? When did they register the domain? (Is it recent in response to something that just happened, or are you just stumbling on it?) How do you get in touch with the creators to get more information?
- It’s election season and websites are going up left and right for and against issues and candidates. Who’s behind the pro and anti ISSUE X domains? They obviously have a stance on the issue and may be a good source. Got a PAC that’s funneling money or ads into one of your campaigns? Do they have a website (even an email address @domain.com with no active website can be a lead, since that’s got to be registered somewhere). Check out their WHOIS to see if there’s anything there.
- Someone just forwarded you some crazy information posted on a domain purporting to be from a public figure or someone recently in the news. Check the WHOIS to see if the timeline and data checks out. Is the information sketchy or questionable? Was the site set up yesterday but purportedly from before then? Does it check out with other contact info you have about the person?
- You’re working on a story about a business that’s got lots of complaints. The phone numbers you had don’t work or you can’t find one for the owner. Sometimes, the WHOIS info they registered with is different — so this is another potential lead.
If nothing else, it’s another place to look for potential sources and data. It’s also something I’ve seen mentioned a few times in news stories of late about memes taking off from political flubs. How long did it take for someone to register “BindersFullOfWomen.com” for instance (and while you’re looking it up, who registered it)? CNN pins it at 90 seconds from the moment that phrase escaped presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney’s mouth to registration. That’s not hard hitting journalism, per se, but it’s an interesting fact. And this is a sometimes useful, sometimes interesting tool.