Tom Durkin: Close encounter with a porcupine
It was the early 1980s. I didn’t know what I was doing, but apparently, I was doing it well enough to be hired as a reporter for the Auburn Journal back when it was still a six-day a week newspaper.
It’s not like I went to journalism school or anything.
As the new fool in school, I was expendable. They sent me to cover the city council of Colfax. The town prides itself on being “a small drinking town with a railroad problem.” Dirty, petty politics was the town sport. They didn’t like reporters.
One night, it was a particularly contentious council meeting over an issue I didn’t particularly understand. I was taking frantic notes and sweating the time. It was past 10 p.m. and it was — if I didn’t get killed or caught — a 15-minute sprint back to the Mother Ship.
My drop-dead deadline was 11 p.m.
Finally! At 10:10 p.m. they voted and adjourned. No time for after-action interviews.
I was racing down Interstate 80, writing the story in my head —
Whoa! Almost hit a porcupine.
I swerved, almost losing control, but there was no fatal thump.
“How many inches do I have?” I asked Jerry, the city editor, as I threw myself into my chair and logged into my computer terminal. It was 10:30 p.m.
“Just write it,” he growled. “I’ll cut it.”
Not the answer I was looking for.
The reason I became a reporter was because the Auburn Journal had word processors. I knew they existed; I’d seen them on TV. I didn’t even know what they were called, but I knew I wanted to get my fingers on them.
It was a brave new world, and typewriters were going the way of the porcupine quill as a writing tool.
To get access to these machines, I had volunteered to “key in” my freelance stories. Since the Auburn Journal would otherwise have to pay somebody to copy my typewritten articles onto the keys of a computer terminal, they let me come in after hours to write my stories on one of the advertising department’s stations.
After several months, they gave me a staff job and a desk in the newsroom. They didn’t seem to be bothered that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I worried about that a lot.
So now, I had a power tool at my fingertips and less than a half hour to make sense of what happened in Colfax. I made a list of everything that needed to be in the story and started writing.
Aha! About six grafs in, I discovered my lede. I cut it and pasted at the top. Then it was just a matter of crossing off the items on my list.
I don’t remember what the story was about, but it was complicated. I was acutely conscious that I had to get it right.
As I said, I never went to J school. I have a master of fine arts degree in screenwriting from UCLA. Although I can, I don’t write in the inverted pyramid style of traditional journalism. I’m a storyteller. Please, God, don’t cut me from the bottom.
At 10:52 p.m. I had all the items crossed off my list, but it was just a disjointed news report. I had eight minutes to move words around into a logical order. I had no idea how big my news hole was, so I wrote as tight as I could.
When you’re a hard-pressed, daily news reporter, you never have enough time or enough information. You just have a deadline.
My narrative instincts kicked in. I turned the jumbled report into what I believed was a neat little news story and filed it at 10:59 p.m.
Most nights, I would have hit the Cal Club for a beer with some of my colleagues. But I was nervous. Every paragraph I’d written depended on the previous paragraph. They’d eat me alive in Colfax if I got it wrong. Or if Jerry did. They don’t know from editors. It’s my name on the story.
I waited around until Jerry hit his deadline at 11:30 p.m.
I caught him as he was coming out of the paste-up room.
“Hey, Jerry, what did you cut?”
He laughed. “I couldn’t cut it. I cut somebody else.”
The story made the front page, I found porcupine quills in my car tire, and I began to entertain the dangerous suspicion I might know what I was doing.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
The Afghanistan conundrum, from the beginning when we went there to kill terrorists who killed many of us to 20 years of nation-building and finally to a disastrous pullout, encourages the question about political leadership…