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Close Encounter with a Porcupine
One Minute to Deadline
By Tom Durkin
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 in school, 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 killed or 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 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 one.
It was a brave new world, and typewriters were going the way of the porcupine quill as a
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
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 with my colleagues. But I was nervous.
Every paragraph I'd written depended on the previous paragraph. They'd eat me alive and
love it 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 two porcupine quills in my car tire, and I began to
entertain the dangerous suspicion I might know what I was doing.