“Got a minute?”
“Hey Madison,” Mr. Portnoy said, “what’s up?”
Madison sat in the chair across from her teacher, down in his basement newspaper office. “I was wondering how you researched things before the internet.”
He smiled. “It wasn’t easy! You kids have it so much easier than we did. That story you’re working on—most of that information you’ve found through internet searching, right?”
“Right,” Madison said. “I have a friend who is amazing at finding stuff online. But we’ve hit a dead end on my current lead because I need to go back to before the internet.”
“So, like the eighties?” he asked.
“Yeah. Early nineties, actually. I mean, I guess that’s not really before the internet, but there isn’t a ton of information online from that time period. How did you do research back then?”
“Ever heard of microfiche?” he asked.
Madison shook her head.
“They would take a whole newspaper, like today’s edition of the New York Times,” he said, holding up that paper, “and they’d take pictures of every page. And then they’d shrink those pages down so the whole paper fit on a piece of film the size of an index card.”
Madison stared in awe, her jaw slack.
“And they’d make an index that listed what all the stories were about, and put that index on microfiche, too. So you’d go to the library and get this piece of film and stick it into a machine that looked kind of like a TV. It would project the pages from the film onto a screen, and you had this trackball you would roll around to see different parts of the paper or the index. And you could zoom in and out.”
“You’re shitting me,” she said. “This is for real? It sounds like steampunk.”
“Totally real,” he said.
“So how did you know where to look? The index?”
“Yes. And big newspapers subscribed to a computer service that had a bigger index that spanned all the big daily papers. So you could call them up and tell them you were looking for information on, say last year’s apple harvest, and they’d give you a list of the papers that had stories about that and what days those stories ran.”
“That’s incredible,” Madison said. “How did the service get the information into the computers to search for it, though?”
“People read the stories and typed keywords in, I guess,” he said.
“Whoa. That’s nuts! But I don’t think that helps me here,” she said.
“What kind of information are you looking for?” he asked.
“Back in the nineties, there was some collaboration between NASA and the military. We found reference to it in their old budgets, but we can’t find out what it was. I don’t think we’d find it in any old newspapers, since they barely even mention it in the budgets. I think they were hiding it.”
He stared at her for a little while, then shook his head. “This is still that story you’ve been working on? With the warehouse?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And it has a connection to secret government military programs in the nineties?”
“I believe so. I’m not sure yet, but I’m chasing a lead and that seems to be where it’s headed,” she explained.
“I don’t know, Madison. This is sounding… I just don’t know.”
Madison grinned. It wasn’t often that Mr. P. was at a loss for words. “How would you investigate that connection, if this were your story?”
“Find the people who were there, I guess,” he said. “Someone wrote that budget. Someone approved it. There were people there who know things. I’d try to find one of them and just ask.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” she said. “That’s what I’ll try next. I’m pretty good at interviews, I think.”
“You are great at interviews,” he agreed. “So Madison, how are you doing?”
“I’m good,” she said instinctively.
“No. I mean, really. How are you doing with school. With things at home. College coming up. This story. It’s a lot,” he said. “How are you handling it?”
Tears came to Madison’s eyes. Damn these emotions, she thought. “Ugh. Mr. P. It’s so sweet of you to ask.” She paused to try to stop the cry she could feel welling up behind her eyes. “No. I’m okay. Actually. You’re right, it’s been hard. Everything about this year is hard. I’ve got some shit going on in my life—my biodad showed up out of nowhere. And money is really tight. My mom and her husband are fighting about it. I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for school. Oh shit.” Madison lost control and started crying hard. She was flustered and embarrassed. Her teacher came around from behind his desk and sat in a chair next to her. He put his hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Madison. With all this going on, are you sure you should be chasing this story, though?” he asked.
Madison took a deep breath. “Oh my God, Mr. P. I have to. Focusing on this story is the only thing keeping me sane right now.” She looked him in the eye, and he smiled softly in response.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m here if you want to talk. Or you can always talk to guidance. They can help you with this stuff, you know. They’re trained professionals.”
Madison nodded and smiled. “Thank you, Mr. P. Maybe I will.”