Happy new year! Let's hope it truly is. This e-mail is a shorter, "coming back from vacation" edition.
I spent the past two weeks largely unplugged, though I couldn't stop reading the news in Latin America and put dozens of articles in my database. I didn't do anything, though, beyond read them. And also, a project that I'll talk about in a minute.
I spent the break home with the immediate family, as we were all supposed to do. For the first time ever, due to the pandemic, we did not spend this period traveling around the northeastern United States visiting relatives. My wife, daughter, and I had never before been at home during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. While we missed our parents and other relatives, it was very peaceful, just this once, to stay off the highways and to sleep in our own beds.
While I tried to "reflect" more than work during the break, I did take on a big project that was a bit of both. Going back to the 1990s, I have always done a disastrous job of managing my contacts. Like you, probably, I get a steady stream of business cards, emails, whatsapps, and social media contacts. And over the years, layer upon layer, I've made a total mess of them.
It's a privilege to get to know so many people, but—like you, probably—I never found a good way to keep their contact information organized and easy to find with minimal hassle. I captured some of it digitally, sometimes by hand and sometimes via automated apps that never really worked right. By mid-December, I had about 4,500 people's names and at least some information about them stored on various accounts. Just a huge disorganized mass of address book cruft. Worse, a lot of people I'm in touch with the most weren't even in there.
So—and I know this is boring, but in a few paragraphs I'll talk about what I learned doing it—I set about cleaning up my digital address book, once and for all.
- I threw together those 4,500 contacts in one app (I went with Apple's iCloud).
- About 1,000 were plainly incomplete or duplicates, so I deleted them or merged them together.
- Then, I went over the remaining 3,500 or so one by one. Could I say where that person is now? (Sadly, a few dozen were no longer alive. Others had just fallen completely off my radar.) If I couldn't, I deleted that contact, which was hard every time. If yes, I added all I could find to update them, from past emails, texts, whatsaapps, social media, and via Google.
This took about a minute per person—easily 50 hours over the past two weeks. It was weirdly addictive, though: I really wanted to know what had happened to everyone. So many stories! I had to stop and write notes to some. I started following many on Twitter. That actually improved the holiday a lot for me.
Everybody got tags (categories, like "colombia" or "press"). I added their Twitter account names. I added photos, if I could find them, because it was fun (and now my email inbox has lots of little portraits in it).
The upshot is: while I’ve still got a few hundred more people to add, I’m now just under 1,700 razor-sharp, up-to-date contacts.
As a result of all this, for instance, I can pull up a list of people I’ve tagged “colombia” and “academic” in just a few seconds, and find 94 people. I’ve never ever been able to do this before. Stupid, but true.
Doing this taught me a few things.
The mid-2000s were really a long time ago. Someone who was in their mid-20s when I entered their contact circa 2005 is now in their early 40s. Someone who was in their mid-50s in 2005 is now in their early 70s. Lots of professors in my list are now “emeritus.”
There’s a real career dichotomy between “transients” and “lifers.” Some people were really hard to update because they constantly switch jobs, every couple of years. Others were really easy: for some, not a single phone number had changed since the Bush administration. Almost everyone was one or the other: two very different career models, not much middle ground.
As someone who has worked in two organizations since 1995, I’m in the “lifer” category. I feel fortunate to work where I do—and there are so many books and knick-knacks in my office, it would take a few days and a van to move me out. I never understood the “transient” job-switchers, I guess because my goals, the changes I'm working for, require a slow, long march.
I don’t mean to say that "my way" is better: the chain of short tenures makes sense if your objectives are short-term, like running a campaign or something that ends with “mission accomplished.” You may also decide you're on the wrong path—and hopefully you figured that out while you were still young. Too many switches in the same field, though, leaves an impression of restlessness.
Or it means that you work in a turbulent field. Reporters have it rough: as major media outlets have shrunk, my database lists a much higher proportion as freelancers than it did 15 or so years ago. The overall number of reporters remains large, though—maybe larger than back then. I still see only a handful of podcasters and SubStack-ers, but they're growing too.
Meanwhile, the community of English-language journalists in Colombia is very strong. It's strong at the U.S.-Mexico border, too, but I knew that before I started this project. Before getting my contacts organized, though, I had a misplaced sense that the number of reporters for English-language outlets in Colombia had shrunk from a “golden age” in the early 2000s when many flocked to the country for the onset of Plan Colombia—seen then, pre-9/11, as a "new U.S. war."
I was wrong. There is a terrific and surprisingly large community of journalists reporting in English from, or on, Colombia right now. Here are the 31(!) in my database right now, with their Twitter handles if they have them. (This is still a hugely male list, as it would've been 20 years ago. Also, apologies if you’re a Colombia-based journalist not listed here. Either we haven’t been in touch in a while, or I don’t have your contact information.)
Dylan Baddour @DylanBaddour; Andrés Bermúdez Liévano @bermudezlievano; Matthew Bristow @mjbristow; Mike Ceaser; Steven Cohen @SD_Cohen; Joshua Collins @InvisiblesMuros; Joe Parkin Daniels @joeparkdan; Stephen Ferry; Ezra Fieser @ezrafieser; Juan Forero @WSJForero; Genevieve Glatsky @thegreatglatsky; Joshua Goodman @APjoshgoodman; Oliver Griffin @OliGGriffin; David Hill @DavidHillTweets; Megan Janetsky @meganjanetsky; Mark Kennedy @MarkKennedy721; Chris Kraul; Tom Laffay @tlaffay; Richard McColl @CasaAmarilla; Jeremy McDermott @jerrymcdermott; Oscar Medina @omedinacruz; Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota; Christina Noriega @c_mnoriega; John Otis @JohnOtis; Stefano Pozzebon @StePozzebon; Alessandro Rampietti @rampietti; Manuel Rueda @ruedareport; Luke Taylor @LukeStTaylor; Wesley Tomaselli @wesleytomaselli; Julie Turkewitz @julieturkewitz; and Kejal Vyas @kejalvyas.
That list leaves out many excellent reporters for Spanish-language outlets; they would've made it several times longer. My point is, thanks to my little vacation project, it took me less than 10 minutes to make it.
Here's an added bonus: in order to see whom I might be missing, I queried my nearly six-year-old news database for the names of the reporters or authors whose work appears most frequently in it. Here’s whose bylines I’ve bookmarked most often.
I should make clear this isn’t a list of the “best” reporters; lots of big names are missing here, and some outlets omit bylines. It’s just those who most frequently wrote stories I saw and found relevant to “security in Latin America” during the entire six-year span between 2015 and 2020. For that, hats off to the heavily represented conflict reporters at Medellín’s El Colombiano, who've been cranking out near-daily dispatches for many years.
Redoing my contacts also convinced me to update my long-dormant LinkedIn page and maybe restart Facebook, which I exited after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. I wouldn’t do so in order to spend much time at either service, I don’t see either as a venue for interactions. (A new “inbox” where I don’t have control over how the data is used? No thanks.) But while updating, I found that many people prefer to get their information at those sites, and because I'm not there, my program is missing them. It takes very little extra effort to cross-post something to Facebook or Linkedin so that they’ll see it. Still, I wouldn’t post anything to either that’s not already available somewhere else, because of data privacy concerns.
And that's it for now. Next week I'll go back to the usual format for these e-mails, and talk about something that, I hope, is more interesting than updating contacts. Let's get this year started.