I work as an investigative reporter, the subject of such riveting movies as All the President's Men and Spotlight. I work at a place called The Marshall Project, which sounds like a mysterious enterprise in a Robert Ludlum novel. And I'm constantly digging for secrets.
My days ought to be exciting.
And yet ...
At the Seattle Times, we went in search of illegally sealed court files. Fellow reporter Justin Mayo identified codes in the electronic dockets of civil suits that served as hints that a case might be hidden away. The state's administrative office of the courts agreed to search its mainframe for those hints -- overnight, so as not to crash the system -- and got thousands of hits. I then took the list of hits to the courthouse in downtown Seattle, sat down at a computer terminal, and began typing.
For hours, which became days, which became weeks, I typed nine-digit identifiers -- for example, 03-2-27609-0 -- for thousands of cases into the court's retrieval system, to see what would happen. If I got into the case, the file was open. If a pop-up box told me to go away, the file was sealed.
This approach worked for newer files -- but not for older ones, which had yet to be electronically scanned. For the old cases, the clerk's office let me go behind the front desk and look for yellow slipsheets used to designate a sealed lawsuit -- a task that required thumbing every folder on every shelf in the aisles of files that seemed to have no end.
So when I wasn't plugging tens of thousands of numbers into a computer, I was trapped in a manila-folder maze -- for hours, which became days, which ought to have been exciting, but were not.
(But worth it? Yes; 03-2-27609-0 was among hundreds cases that proved to be sealed. When we sued and got it opened, here's what we