Find the vanished ‘Wired’ author, win $5,000 — good idea for newspapers, too


Wired author Evan Ratliff is, as they say, “on the lam.” He has vanished himself:

Starting August 15, I will try to stay hidden for 30 days. Not even my closest friends or my editors will know where I am. I’ll remain in the US and will be online regularly. I will continue to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and I’ll make cell phone calls. I’ll generally stay in the kind of social environment I like to live in (no hiding in a cabin in Montana), and I’ll keep track of my pursuers, searching constantly for news about myself.

There are a couple of caveats (don’t contact his family, don’t physically harm him, etc.) but mostly it sounds like a fun stunt. After all, it’s a pretty common fantasy to just disappear, move, start over … perhaps by faking your own death, as seen in the lengthy feature Ratliff wrote about the subject in Wired:

Perhaps the most infamous recent faked death attempt, that of Indiana money manager Marcus Schrenker, involved a plan equally daring and bizarre. Accused of financial mismanagement, Schrenker, an amateur pilot, climbed into his Piper single-engine and set a flight plan for Destin, Florida. Flying over northern Alabama at 24,000 feet, he made a sequence of increasingly desperate radio calls to the nearest control tower, announcing that he had run into turbulence; that his “windshield was spider-cracking”; that the shattered glass had cut his neck; that he was “bleeding profusely” and “graying out.” He then pointed the autopilot toward the Gulf of Mexico and bailed out with a parachute over Harpersville, Alabama. After landing, he made his way to a motorcycle he had stashed at a local self-storage unit.

Unfortunately for Schrenker, when two Navy F-15 pilots caught up with the still-airborne Piper, they noted that the plane was in fine shape — except for the open pilot’s side door and empty cockpit.

When I read about Ratliff going on the lam — and basically crowdsourcing any attempt to find him by publicizing it in the magazine, I immediately remembered the start of the Graham Greene novel “Brighton Rock.” In it, a character named Hale is employed by a British newspaper to wander around seaside resort towns, hiding business cards that are worth ten shillings if people return them to the paper. And, if they’re the first to stop and challenge him (his location, schedule and description, including his distinctive hat, are published daily in the paper) they’re entitled to the big prize of ten guineas.

It’s based on a real circulation promotion done by British newspapers for years, known as Lobby Lud, after the first one, or Chalkie White, after a recent one.

They work in a similar way to the hunt for Evan Ratliff: find him before Sept. 15, take his picture, and say the password: “Fluke”. You’ll get a code-word in response that you can email to his editor in exchange for the prize and an interview with the magazine.

Sounds like a blast!

And, honestly, sounds like a circulation promotion that newspapers could revive, especially here in North America. Why not send a reporter to a different place every, say, Saturday? Posing as a tourist, they could get plenty of info about a small town or neighbourhood — certainly enough to write a feature-style piece on it. Quotes over the phone and photos can be obtained later in the week. The piece can run in the next Saturday’s paper, along with info about that day’s targeted location.

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