This Side of the Pond – Aug. 10

By Sarah Pridgeon

It will not shock you to hear that I’m a big fan of the newspaper industry here in the States. Not just because it’s how I earn my living, but because true local news is still alive, well and thriving.

If the Sundance Times were a local weekly newspaper back in Britain, life in this office would be very different. It is a sad certainty that I would cease spending my days investigating issues of import and start trawling the sidewalks for angry pigeons and milkshake stains.

The trouble with smaller papers back home boils down to one problem: we’re a space-challenged nation with a full rack of national newspapers and there’s not a lot left over for the locals to cover.

Crime spree in the middle of Norfolk? Epidemic in the Outer Hebrides? In the States, these would be the domain of the local weekly, but in Britain you’ll find them above the fold on the biggest news stands.

Readers are interested, you see, because all those places are practically next door. A rash of burglaries in Cincinnati is nothing for us to fear in Crook County, but a burglar can get from one city to any other back in the UK just by hopping on the motorway for a couple of hours.

The pressing question therefore becomes: what do community journalists write about when everything has already been written? I worked for a short time at the home of several London-based locals and saw a depressing number of front page headlines involving grumpy donkeys and badger sightings.

The bright side of this dilemma is the creativity it breeds. Anything and everything becomes news. Consequently, the billboards proclaiming this week’s biggest headlines, which stand outside every newsagent in the country, are always a delight to behold.

These questionable stories range from the ludicrous to the dull. Because this is Britain and it’s forbidden to make too much of a fuss, even the exciting ones are somehow underwhelming.

My personal favorite appeared outside my local corner store – and please bear in mind this was located in the middle of London, where more things happen than anywhere else – and read simply: “Post office might move”. Groundbreaking, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of the many hundreds of headlines published every week, it seems as though at least 75 percent have something to do with a seagull. “Exeter seagulls turned off my tv,” for example, or, “Seagull stole my dentures”; there appears to an epidemic of seagull-based crime on British shores.

The cream of the crop was a tit-for-tat battle reported by one newspaper over the course of a few weeks. “Student attacked by seagull” said the first story, followed shortly by, “Seagull attacked by student” and then, “Angry seagulls strike back”.

Seagulls are not the only menace – local British papers are obsessed with the presence of animals where animals should not be. “Rogue sheep’s attack on boy,” said one board in Huddersfield, while a Liverpool paper panicked at the idea of a, “One-eyed ferret on the loose in St Helens”.

Still another story lamented the bad behavior of a teenager who stole a lamb and took it to his local chicken restaurant, while a North Devon billboard read, “Mum finds gecko in fridge”. Meanwhile, in Coventry, “Racist swans attack students”.

Sometimes, it’s not so much that the animals are where they shouldn’t be as that they’re doing things they aren’t supposed to do. “Local man covered in spiders ruins child’s birthday party,” claimed one terrifying headline, while North Devon reeled in shock as, “Neighbors warned of sausage stealing bird” and Jersey went on high alert as, “Fugitive sausage dog causes mayhem”.

Locally reported crime is also seldom what you’d call sensational. When “Puddle splash victim vowed revenge” in Somerset, one wondered what would be considered suitable justice for a patch of muddy water on one’s trousers.

To this day, I still wonder what happened to prompt the headline: “Man jailed for baked bean attack”, while I feel very sorry indeed for, “Man forced to eat pot pourri at knifepoint”. I wish I knew the motives behind, “Man arrested for taking cleaner’s mop and aggressively mopping hotel floor” or could read the story attached to the headline: “Man arrested for everything”.

And then you have the stories screaming with indignance over a small slight. For instance: “Out-of-date pasty is sold to young mum” screeched the front page of one local weekly in Kent. Another Kent newspaper actually reported on a 43-year-old woman’s failed efforts to buy a pot of custard anywhere in town. She needed it to top off her apple and blackcurrant crumble, apparently.

And then there’s the 91-year-old man granted an entire page of his local paper after letting them know he’d mistaken a dog waste disposal bin for the mailbox and had been posting letters in it for two years.

Some headlines are a bit of a stretch – obvious signs of a reporter who really couldn’t think of anything else to write that week, such as the stories of the Exeter man who received five identical birthday cards and the Swansea town council that was considering getting a color photocopier. In Llwchwr (which is in Wales, and, no, I can’t pronounce it either), the town council will be stacking its new tables differently to see if it will prevent them from being damaged, you’ll be happy to hear.

I must also mention the photo one newspaper printed of a splotch of milkshake on a sidewalk in Somerset, which a reader had submitted because it looked like a white sheep with black legs.

And finally, the category of headline that does exactly what it’s supposed to do: makes you rush into the store to pick up a copy and find out more. My favorite of these turned up on a board in Hackney, London, and simply read: “Man dies in human fireball…again”.

Additional candidates for Most Bewildering Headline include: “Muswell Hill family shell-shocked as tortoise who defied Hitler comes back from the dead”, “Man tries to sell himself on eBay”, “Postman beaten by lavender bush” and, “Poodle holds clue to deaths”.

There’s something magnificent about the British local newspaper and its refusal to go quietly into that good night. I may grin at the headlines and feel sorry for my counterparts who struggle to find stories on a weekly basis, but it does seem they’ve found a way to solve their problems.

After all, while they can still read a story about “Builders thwarted by fish-eating spiders” or the “Mystery of restaurant’s exploding tea towels”, I’m willing to bet the Brits will continue handing over their small change.