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The Stitch Service

Big scoops don’t often happen to little towns, so when a delegation arrives from Ukrania, you can bet it’s front-page news. Reporter Jason Feifer on the struggle for headlines.

They were coming from Ukrania, apparently en masse.

That was the word from an employee of an Internet cafe, who had called the local newspaper in hope of some quirky publicity. She was transferred to me, the lowly and bored reporter, and I took the call because the summer months are slow.

But then again, so are the winter months.

As a reporter in a city of 20,000, my job is to make news where there is none. This is a delicate skill, requiring a good deal of community involvement and a constant deflation of pride. I am writing about nothing, and I’m doing it on a regular basis for relatively nobody. There are more copies of some extremely rare coins than there are of my newspaper. Its influence is limited—just last month, a headline attributed a horribly inappropriate suggestion of burying terrorists in pig blood to the wrong state senator, and it took three weeks for the senator to even notice—and we all know that. So, I don’t burn myself out finding news, and I don’t make castles out of air. I just simply blow air around.

Our readers know the drill, of course. Nobody’s being fooled. That’s why they call the newspaper a ‘snoozepaper.’ But it does have its moments, and for this, city officials don’t ignore it. In June, a senior citizens group planned a fund-raiser in which members took advance orders for Krispy Kreme donuts, and then, on the designated day, the director of the group would drive an hour to the nearest Krispy Kreme shop, order the donuts, and bring them back. I wrote the story for my own amusement, and in the three weeks after it ran, more than 400 donut orders came in.

Such is the nature of community journalism. Nobody in town walks around with ink on their fingers, but suddenly, without warning, everyone’s hands are covered in donut glaze, and there’s truly no way to find out what made one story more important than the next.

Donuts one day, Ukrania the next. But, I wondered, who was actually coming from Ukrania?

‘A group of people from Ukrania are coming to see the cafe,’ the woman said. She didn’t know how many, but from the excitement in her voice, it sounded like a lot.

It also sounded like a worthwhile story—any outsider’s presence drastically changes the diversity ratio in this town. When it snows here, the entire population blends in with the ground. The local museum actually displays artifacts from the city’s fledgling Jewish population, which disappeared decades ago. When a foreigner goes to New York City, he’s shown a street corner; here, he’s shown a reporter.

But, there must have been some confusion. Ukrania? Where’s that? I said: ‘Ukrania?’

‘Oh, well, I was told they’re Ukrainian, so they’re from Ukrania, right?’

Better men than me would slyly drop the word ‘Ukraine’ into a sentence—‘Ah, the weather must be better here than in Ukraine!’ or ‘Hey, didn’t that Chernobyl thing happen in Ukraine?’—to allow her a moment of private embarrassment and a chance to play along. But then again, that’s why they’re better men.

Eventually, I settled on: ‘So, is Ukrania different from Ukraine?’

No, we both learned. It isn’t.

An hour later, I was sitting in the small Internet cafe—a storefront that does actually have computers, but the ‘cafe’ part apparently means ‘soda machine.’ A few people were pecking at keyboards, and the woman who called me said the Ukrainians had gone out for a bite to eat. Ten minutes later, they returned, one with a hamburger. There were, in fact, only two Ukrainians.

‘Getting a taste of American food, I see,’ a cafe employee said, and the Ukrainian with the food nodded.

We all sat down at a table in the back, and I scribbled notes as nothing happened. It turns out that Internet cafes are big business in Ukrania, where solid Internet connections are rare and expensive, and personal computers are more than a modest luxury. One of the Ukrainians is a manager at a popular Internet café, but business was beginning to lag. He came to America in search of a few business secrets, expecting to find a wealth of information as rich as Uncle Sam himself. Surely, he thought, America has found a way to capitalize on the roadside Internet service. Instead, he discovered the opposite had happened: America had only capitalized on the Internet, offering cheap connections and free access in libraries, thus eliminating the need for the cafes.

This was an unfortunate discovery for the Ukrainians, who were to learn nothing from their visit. And as a slightly interesting cultural difference with no relevance to my small town, it was also unfortunate for me. The story I had was bunk. It was absurd. It had nothing to do with anything.

So I went with it anyway. It ran on the front page, next to a completely unrelated photo of two adults and a baby sitting on a stone wall. The headline was ‘Visit compares cultures, cafes.’ I will never understand why people buy this paper.

And yet, people do. They also stop in frequently—to complain, to question, to ask for a copy of a photo that ran ‘a few months ago’ and had ‘a picture of a guy on the street.’ Sometimes they suggest stories, and their ideas cry to us with a curious allure.

Just this week, I walked into the newsroom and passed my editor, who was desperately trying to excuse himself from a heated discussion with some woman.

‘So, you refuse,’ she said.

‘It’s not news!’ he said.

‘So, you refuse.’

It turns out, the woman had brought a print-out of a recent porn spam e-mail she had received. She didn’t understand how such a thing could happen, and thought that clearly, this had to be news. She had been violated! Infiltrated! Decimated! Desecrated!

She started highlighting sections of the e-mail she thought were particularly important, which she then wanted our editor to fax to ‘Boston’ so they would know about it as well. (Boston? Who in Boston? The Boston Globe? Mayor Thomas Menino? The Duck Tour organizers? The guy with the cardboard sign that says ‘I need spare change for beer, but at least I’m honest’? Sadly, despite my editor’s insistence, she wouldn’t specify).

She was furious when we wouldn’t take the story, and threatened to go down to Boston and shop it around herself. I do wish her luck.

She reminded me of the man who came in last month to explain his plan for revitalizing public transportation: first, build a railway out of hemp. Then, dig a long trench and insert a giant plastic tube, à la the pneumatic tube at a bank drive-thru, which people could hop into and be whisked away, presumably to be regurgitated, half a state later, onto a soft, giant cushion. Sadly, we didn’t do a story on him either.

When the door finally closes behind these people, the newsroom erupts. ‘Wait! Wait! Stop the presses! There’s water, and it’s coming from the sky! Why won’t you write a story on that?’It is perhaps the one moment of unity among us, when clashes over Associated Press style—‘teenager’ or ‘teen-ager’? I’ve forced lengthy debates over this—and the fear of mindless assignments are temporarily buried under a dark cloud of superiority. These people are our battle cry, and oh, how we howl.

We often wonder where they get their ideas, and why they bring them to us. We wonder if people at larger papers must deal with them as well. But then again, larger papers set a different example for these noseless news hounds. When they pick up the Boston Globe, they see things out of their reach—the war, the economy, an extensive vocabulary. But when they look at the local paper, it feels more accessible. They think of it as their paper. And we, well, we think of it as ours. And we’d like to think we write about big news.

But last month, I wrote about a boy who accidentally rode his bicycle into a car. He flew over the hood and landed hard, but he stood right up and asked neighbors to call his family. His friends waited around until an ambulance came, and then they walked his bike home. That one didn’t make the front page, but a few days later, a woman called and asked us to do a story on her cat, which she said ‘follows people around like a dog.’ My editor said no, and so she called back the next day. He said no again, so she waited two days, and then called back, this time asking only for a photo. He said no again, and she finally gave up.

The kid on the bike and the woman with the cat may be completely unrelated, but in a way, they’re bound by the same forces that translate small-town-living into small-town-news. Neither story has any community impact; neither has any relevance to a larger issue, nor any real purpose in a newspaper. But we published one, and left the other out. I doubt the cat-woman knew why; I doubt we do either.

She might call again—but if she doesn’t, someone else will. Someone will see a wild turkey in their yard, or will be upset about a neighbor’s noisy stereo, and they’ll call the newspaper with a hot tip. They’ll wonder what their story will look like on the front page, and they’ll write out their comments in advance, so they can be quoted just right. And we’ll listen with twisted amusement, and exchange knowing glances as they rant and ramble. Then, when they’re done, we’ll tell them this story isn’t big enough for us. This story is small, see? We’re a newspaper; read it before you come to us. Don’t you see we don’t run your kind of stories?

Jason Feifer is a reporter in Massachusetts, and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Salon. His blog, HappyScrappy, is not worth your time. More by Jason Feifer