BILLY RUSHTON sat at his keyboard trying to figure out his next step. He had sat in the same seat for three days and had not written a word.
Rushton had started at the Burnie office of the Chronicle on the Monday, and here he was on the Wednesday with nothing to show for his efforts. In fact, there had been no effort at all.
Billy Rushton had been sent to Burnie from Hobart as the Chronicle’s latest addition to its far-north staff of two. He had replaced a high-flying reporter whose efforts from the far-flung reaches of the Chronicle empire had finally caught the attention of those in power in Hobart. Stan Little, the Burnie bureau chief, had hated losing her and her talent and her eagerness to do all the jobs that he did not want to do himself, usually an idea for a story dreamed up in Hobart, a place where Stan Little tended not to venture.
Helen Baron, the star reporter, had come up the traditional way in journalism, starting as a copy-runner in Hobart; a position from which she graduated to cadet reporter. Her transfer to Burnie had been a step up the ladder, and she had larned from Stan Little.
Billy Rushton had sat at Helen Baron’s desk for three days wondering how he could ever fill her shoes. He had gone three days without writing a word and the bureau chief had hardly acknowledged his presence. All this was in contrast to the exhilaration and excitement he had felt when he received the letter on Chronicle headed notepaper informing him of his appointment. He could barely contain himself as he rode the Tiger Line bus to Burnie, at company expense. The company was even paying for his digs in Burnie until he got settled. Rushton thought he had arrived.
Convincing the Chronicle’s editor, Ted Lawrence, that he had what it took to be a journalist had been the easy part. He had lied just a little, telling Lawrence he had been acting editor of the university newspaper when in fact he merely supplied a handful of footy reports on the games played by the university’s second team. Rushton had been relieved when the editor had not asked to see them (he had the reports in his briefcase) but the editor seemed more interested in the reasons he had given to the question, Why do you want to be a journalist? Rushton had said to meet people, but then had added hurriedly, ``To make a difference in society’‘, something he had read in his growing collection of books on journalism. That appeared to impress the editor no end.
When he had first gone to university, Rushton had not considered journalism as a career. He liked books, though, and had wanted to be a librarian, taking a degree in the subject. It was during the course of his studies that he had come across the book about the downfall of President Richard Nixon, All the President’s Men, and the investigative journalists who had brought about his downfall. Rushton discovered in the book’s pages what he really wanted to do.
Rushton, though, was set on the course of librarianship and he wondered how his degree would be of help in the direction he really wanted to travel. Then he stumbled on another book, The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx. In this was the perfect guide to becoming a journalist, or at least the first step to being able to write a news story. The central character, learning to write the shipping news for a local newspaper, is given a lesson on news writing by one of the old journalist hands. Rushton couldn’t remember actually what the old hand had said, or indeed whether he had said it in the novel or in the film that followed the book.
The journalist had pointed out to sea and asked the young recruit: ``Now, what do you see out there?’’ The pupil had merely said a rain cloud. ``No, what you see is a gathering storm threatening the town,’’ said the old hand.
It would be like this, the day he stepped into the Burnie office of the Chronicle, or so Rushton thought. The Burnie bureau chief was not unlike the character in the book, as Proulx described him. Stan Little was a man in his fifties whose worn face suggested he might be older. He carried the look of a man who liked the outdoors, as in sport, but not sport you play, sport you bet on like the trots and dog racing. He was of tall and slim build and did not carry the beer gut that Rushton had expected. There was also no evidence of cigarette smoke (didn’t all journalists smoke?) but Rushton reasoned perhaps times had changed and journalists were not exactly like those portrayed in all the films he had seen on the subject. Little was clean-shaven and clean-cut, with neatly trimmed short hair, and he appeared to wear a suit each day, even though the slightly frayed cuffs seen on close inspection indicated it had seen better days.
Like most journalists of his age, Little had come up the hard way, chasing police cars, fire engines and ambulances. He viewed with unease the recent trend in recruitment to newspapers that saw more and more candidates coming from university with a communications degree. The trend had started on the mainland first and was now spreading to Tasmania. It had all begun at the time of All the President’s Men at the cinema, Little would complain. Suddenly everyone in America, and elsewhere in the western world, wanted to be a journalist, journalism courses were mushrooming all over the States and soon there were not enough newspapers to take the graduates.
Journalism, Little would say, was not like in the movies, or in books. It was doing the police rounds, interviewing people whose sons or daughters had just been killed in a car crash; it was about people and their joy and pain, and not always about bringing down corrupt presidents, although if you could do that, that was OK with Little.
Under normal circumstances, Stan Little’s face would be an open, benevolent one. You could read him like a newspaper, he was out there for the world to see and what the word saw was generally good. But Little’s silence and apparent reluctance to engage Rushton in conversation made the young recruit nervous. What was Rushton supposed to do to find stories? Was it just assumed that he would go out there and get them? He had no idea, beyond just wandering down to the court, or the council chamber, but Little did not seem to do much of that, unless there was a court case involving a Hobert person, or a council matter that might have some relevance down south.
Rushton had learned from one of his books on journalism, one he had found at the library on work experience, stacking shelves with new releases and removing the old, that there was a magical ingredient to a news story: the intro, as journalists called it, or the introduction for those outside the fraternity of newsmen and newswomen. The intro was all important to a story. Get it right, and the story fell into place behind it; get it wrong and everything that followed would be ungainly and unbalanced and in all probability not make sense.
It was never like this in the essays he had been so good at, at school. Or the short-story writing he had tried his hand at once and won a prize.
But how did you know what was a good intro, and a bad one? Stan Little would be the one to tell Rushton, but he was not talking.
After three days of sitting at his keyboard, after logging on each day with the code Little had given him that first morning, Rushton was no nearer learning the intro’s secrets. And after three days of doing nothing, getting no nearer to nailing the elusive art of writing an intro, of nailing it to the top of an elusive news story, Rushton decided to turn to the only person who could help him, his father.
Rushton’s dad knew the strange workings of the world, its mysteries, especially those of human contact, someone fresh out of the sheltered environment of university could not hope to know. These mysteries and the ability to deal with them could only be obtained in the world beyond the classroom and lecture theatre.
``Dad, I’ve got a problem,’’ he started on the phone when he called his father that evening. ``It’s my new job. I’ve just sat there for three days, doing nothing. I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do. I lied during the interview in Hobart, gave the impression I knew it all but now the chickens are coming home to roost.’’ Rushton felt relieved he had someone to talk to at last.
There was a silence on the other end of the line, Rushton’s father digesting what he had been told. His advice, finally, was simple. Just come clean with the boss, tell him tales of journalistic excellence and experience had been exaggerated, and just ask for help.
Rushton arrived at the office extra early next morning. He wanted to approach Little before the bureau chief had time to go out for his morning take-away coffee, as he seemed to do every morning, after taking off his coat and putting down his briefcase.
Little looked surprised to see Rushton sitting there so early.
``Stan, I just want a little chat,’’ Rushton started hesitantly. “Any chance of us going over to the coffee shop? There’s a few things I want to ask you.’‘
Little eyed Rushton quizzically, then nodded in silence, and led the way out of the office.
Once in the shop, Little ordered two flat white coffees without asking Rushton what he wanted. Rushton came straight to the point.
``Well, I came here as a journalist, but frankly I’m not a journalist at all. I’ve had no experience and I don’t quite know what you were expecting. I haven’t the faintest idea of what I am supposed to be doing. I don’t even know how to write an intro.’‘
There was a hint of panic in Rushton’s voice, the pleadings of a drowning man who sees people on the beach who are not interested in coming to his assistance.
Little looked at Rushton for a second, and then looked over at the cafe proprietor preparing the coffee, impatient for it to arrive.
``Well, Billy, I was under the impression that you were a hotshot young journalist, degree and all, coming to sort me and my office out, to bring me up to speed no doubt. That’s the impression I got from my spies at head office.’‘
Rushton laughed nervously. He was in shock.
``Hotshot, I’m a fucking librarian, I’m not a journalist at all, graduate or otherwise.’‘
Little started to laugh.
``Where’s that fucking coffee,’’ Little shouted out to the barista. The fuck word had suddenly become infectious.
``And you can fuck off,’’ said the barista. ``If you don’t like it you can try Angelo’s.’’ The barista had been saying the same thing to Little for years.
When the coffee finally arrived, Little fell silent again. He concentrated as he slowly measured half a spoonful of sugar into his spoon and gently tipped it into the cup, stirring it at the same slow pace, looking into the cup as the froth swirled in a circle.
``What we need to do with you, Billy, is find you something to cut your teeth on,’’ Little said finally.
``We haven’t had a copy-runner here in years, since the telex machines went, and changing the paper and tapes and all that. But the copy-runners who eyed journalism as a career, to get a leg up, they were given a little beat to try them out, to see what they came up with.’‘
He explained that there was once a shipping round, and that might be something for Rushton to revive, along with other duties Little would give him.
``There’s always things of interest to do with ships coming and going, and the seamen and the dockers and all that,’’ LIttle continued. ``They always love that stuff down in Hobart, it’s a port there after all.’‘
``I’ll need to know how to write an intro,’’ said Rushton looking across the tables of the coffee shop to the docks, the cranes just visible through the window.
``Don’t you worry about that,’’ said Little, ordering two more coffees to take away.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 14 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … his musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler