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.
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