in China

How I Use Google Alerts to Follow Niche News in China

A friend who’s a freelance journalist just sent me this question:

There are too many channels/websites for news related to China for me go to them individually, so I want some filtering system to do the job for me. I think you said that you use Google Alert or something like that to do the work. Could you give me some tips on how to set up the system effectively?

Google Alerts are a system with which Google searches the web for a certain word or group of words, and emails you the results at a specified interval (as it happens, daily, or weekly).  Here’s how they’ve been most useful for me:

Use names of journalists whose work you follow

Christina Larson, my good friend and former roommate, writes about China and the environment for publications such as Foreign Policy (where she’s a contributing editor), Yale E360, the Christian Science Monitor, and Boston Globe.  This week, she published two pieces: Tibet is No Shangri-La, and the Dalai Lama is not what you think and America’s Unfounded Fears of a Green-Tech Race with China.  The Google Alert I’ve set on her name sent me both pieces, as well as reactions from bloggers, such as Matt Schiavenza’s personal reflection The Real Tibet and David Wolf’s industry analysis Zen and the State of BYD Innovation.  Google Alerts also sends me links to other Christina Larsons; if I wanted to avoid them I might amend the Google Alert to say “Christina Larson” + China.

Use two or three words that relate to your topic but are uncommon in broader conversations

This strategy has helped me follow the demonstrations against the planned garbage incinerator in Panyu, just outside Guangzhou.   I set my Google Alert on the words Guangzhou + Protest.

Over the past several months, this alert has helped me find three basic types of information:

(1) News on the event: Chinese protesters confront police over planned incinerator

(2) Analysis from unfamiliar sources like the Japan Times:  Despite controls, Web plays key role in connecting, organizing Chinese citizens

(3) Perspectives on related events: As Hong Kong’s Political System Stalls, So Does Its Democracy Movement

Avoid words that rarely make news

When I started my current job, I set an alert on “Corporate Training” + China.  This yielded job postings and press releases from other companies, but little that was useful for my day-to-day work.  I canceled the alert.

Avoid words that are too common

I’ve recently been helping with China-UK educational tourism programs (I really should say “programmes,” shouldn’t I? :) )   I played with Google Alerts a bit to follow this field, but I couldn’t find useful sources.

Overall, I’ve found Google Alerts to be a useful tool for finding niche information.  It has taken some trial and error in setting the keywords, as well as a realistic sense of the kind of information I’m seeking.  Sometimes when Google Alerts have been unhelpful I take it as a sign that I should focus more on face-to-face contact rather than what Google can find me.

What would you add to this list?


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  1. I (we) also follow your good friend Christina Larson on Twitter. In fact there are 2 Christinas in my silly little non-life :-) at the moment. I am trying to obtain the email address of science professor Dr Song Jian born 1931 at the moment.We are on http://www.twitter.com/China70sChild.Have you any ideas on how I can get past all the obstacles in my way to make contact with this amazing gentleman Dr Song Jian…progenitor of China’s 1 Child Policy?

  2. Hi Brently,

    I’ve never tried to contact a famous Chinese professor. In my experience Chinese people use cell phones more than email, and are most likely to trust referrals from friends. Do you know anyone who’s connected with his institution? Does he ever give speeches? Thanks for visiting my blog, and good luck!

    -Leslie