The names they left behind
Nathan Coffing fearlessly searches the wide-open plains of the Internet
My first task as an intern was to sort through a list of people that receive press releases from the Alibi. It's a bit of a monster. I remembered the title worn by the interns who have come before in these halls and did my best to muster up some sense of "fearless."
The list is a jumble of names and emails. Some of the emails from local blogs and zines were added recently. Others come from a time when email was still considered cutting edge. Many of the contacts have a name, title and publication attached, making my job easy. Others left me wandering the dust of barren corners of Internet to find some scrap of information.
Imagine a short address with initials and a generic email provider. Now imagine that you have to attach an identity to this random jumble of letters, which might represent some small-town publication that went out of print eight to nine years ago. Suddenly, Google, the trusted god of information, fails you. You dig through bakeries in Canada and Asian manufacturing companies in an attempt to figure out what “abn(at)coldmail.com” might possibly stand for, and why one alternative newspaper in Albuquerque saw it as valuable.
(Pro-tip learned from this experience: If you wish to be kind to a random future intern, have an email that is logically based on your name. I have definitely decided to change mine after this.)
For the well-documented characters on the list, another fate awaits. Suddenly, this name and email dispensed at some previous press meeting is fixed in time on a contact list, but the owner has changed and grown into someone unrecognizable.
They handed a stranger in the future a window to their past.
Now, it should never be said that I am a stalker, but I'm an avid people-watcher, and this felt a bit like people-watching in reverse. Rather than seeing a person and trying to figure out how they live, I found myself knowing their details and then imagining what they look like. I was piecing together their stories and personalities from the names they left behind.
Some of the contacts had retired, leaving their work in the archives of their publication. Other contacts listed as staff writers of papers had found their way up the ladder and became editors in chief. I also found myself the grim reaper of names when I solemnly deleted one person after finding his obituary in the same paper he diligently served for years.
One contact proved particularly difficult to find, and after much searching, I realized that she held the same job as when she was added to the list but had changed her last name after marriage. Despite never having met this woman, I suddenly found myself wondering about how she was. Had she met the man at work? Was finding time for dates difficult as she worked in one of the busiest of businesses? Was she happy?
I was struck by so many questions like this as I came to each new name on the towering, unorganized directory. Looking over the list, I saw how journalism is changing. I could see the shifts of several regional papers from small newsletters with a single email purely for contact purposes, their toes barely dipped into the Internet. Then, when I dug up the email, it was on a fully realized website with an active blog.
I also saw the tragedies. The names of publications that have closed their doors flickered like memorial candles. Sorting through the many addresses left behind from the brilliant and ill-fated Albuquerque Tribune staff felt like pulling photographs out of the ashes. An urge swelled up in me to give some respect to one of the two papers that made me want to become a journalist in the first place, and I bowed my head for a moment as I hunched over the computer. It seemed fitting that I got to honor one of those two incredible papers as I began working at the offices of the other.
And so, clinging reverently to the adjective "fearless," I begin my time at the Alibi, sifting through the remains of the past and the names left behind.