As any journalist who has to deal with presidential campaign finance raw data can tell you, the 20th of each month this year poses a competitive nightmare. Candidates must report their contributions and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission by midnight of that day. But some report a day or so early, and others miss the deadline by a few minutes.

This means that journalists might have a day to analyze and report the results or may still be waiting, at deadline, for the data. Knowing when the data is available is crucial and getting the filings as soon as they are posted on the Web becomes a competitive obsession.

Enter Website Watcher. The utility is available for purchase and download at aignes.com. A single-use commercial license costs $99. There are several similar tools on the market. I chose Website Watcher because it was the first one I found that had a few features I needed.

Basic use of the program is simple: You type a Web address for the program to check and give it a name. (See figure 1) You can keep adding pages. For those you want to check routinely, add them to a HotSite. For those you just want to keep track of once in a while, you can just keep it manually. (See figure 2)

After you enter the sites, set them to “Autowatch,” choose how often they should be checked and you can walk away. You can set Website Watcher to alert you of changes by playing a sound, opening the page in a browser, e-mailing a copy of the page or even running a program.

There are a few features that make this program especially good for the kind of work we journalists do.

The most important feature is the ability to ignore changes that don’t matter. For example, the FEC electronic filing system regenerates the page each time it’s checked. This means that technically, the page always changes. (See figure 3)

That little phrase, “Generated Thu May 20 11:37:54 2004,” in the page would create a new version each time the page was checked. But Website Watcher can ignore all changes in dates, ignore a phrase or pattern of characters that you define, or to do the opposite: Only count it as a change when a certain pattern appears. Here is how I’ve told the program to ignore this little “Generated” phrase. (See figure 4)

I’ve told Website Watcher to ignore links and images, since I know they won’t include a new filing. I’ve also told it to ignore internal coding. But I didn?t want it to ignore “all typical date strings,” because that might be included in a new filing. Instead, I gave it a pattern to look for by checking “Ignore userdefined strings,” then typing in this pattern. (See figure 5)

This expression means look for the word “Generated,” then anything, then four digits in a row. If this is the only thing that changed in the page, then Website Watcher won’t consider the page changed.

Another feature I like is that the program archives the most recent copy of the page. When there is a change, Website Watcher alerts you and then saves a new copy with the changes highlighted in yellow. In this case the phrase “(As of March 31, 2004)” has been highlighted and formatted as italic in my viewer. (See figure 6)

For the Bush-Cheney fund-raisers, called Pioneers, it highlights new last names. It can also show you what has been deleted from a page at the end.

There are many more advanced features i haven’t explored. Among them are options to e-mail copies of the changed page and run programs, such as a Perl script, when a change identified.

But I have to go. Website Watcher beeped to let me know that the Bush campaign filed an amendment to its April report. (See figure 7)

Contact Sarah Cohen by e-mail at [email protected]