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Tom Durkin multimedia writer-editor-photographer
Tom Durkin
multimedia writer-editor-photographer

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, a daily newspaper in a small town in Northern California. It's not like I went to journalism school or anything. Talk about your fast-paced environment. I went from several freelance articles a month to several stories a day. As the new fool on the beat, I was expendable. So they sent me to cover the city council of Colfax, an even smaller town. The town prided itself on being “a small drinking town with a railroad problem.” Dirty, petty politics was the town sport. They didn’t like reporters. They were eagerly waiting for me to make a mistake. 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 caught – a 15-minute drive back to the Mother Ship. My drop-dead deadline was 11 p.m. Finally! At 10:10 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 didn't even know we had porcupines around – get back to writing the story. "How many inches do I have?" I asked Jerry, the city editor. I threw myself into my chair and logged into my computer terminal. It was 10:30 p.m. "Just write it," he said. "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 work with them. It was a brave new world, and typewriters were going the way of the porcupine quill as a writing tool. To get access, I had volunteered to "key in" my freelance stories. Since they'd 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 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 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 three 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 was just guessing I got it right. As I said, I never went to J school. I have a master of fine arts degree in screenwriting. 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. 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, 2/13/20