CLEARWATER — Mercy. Twenty new ads had just poured in on deadline. Twenty. The September issue of On Top of the World News already was a puffy 60-plus pages, huge for this time of year. The snowbirds won’t even arrive until November.
If you’ve spent any time in Pinellas County, you know On Top of the World. It’s a 55-and-up active living community, not the other thing. Ten thousand residents drive past a cerulean globe sculpture en route to condos fashioned like chalets and castles. They may choose from 175 clubs, four tennis courts, two pools and so on.
The community has one newspaper, and it is a good one. No, literally. There is zero bad news. Nothing approaching critical, combative, argumentative. No whiff of spendiness, scamminess, certainly not the word that starts with D and ends with T-H. Not even photos of chicken bones on buffet tables. No carcasses!
The monthly miracle unfolded on an August afternoon under a banner that read “Only good news since 1968.” Through glass doors, a yellow note hung from the front desk.
There is currently only one person working in the newsroom. If Doug is on the phone, he will be with you soon. Have a seat and be patient.
That’s Doug Kates, editor. He is currently the only paid employee, buoyed by 80 volunteer reporters in the On Top of the World Press Association. Doug is 55, but he doesn’t live here. No mixing work and pleasure.
He slapped a palm on a table of printouts, working down the row like a spokesmodel for a rare automobile. Two women leaned over the sheets with red pens, hunting for typos, clunky words, awkward sentences.
“So, section one is all On Top of the World news,” he said. “Section two is the clubs and the groups, the Travel Club, the Jesters, the Baby Boomers.”
Pet of the month? Come forth, Mr. Mittens. Pet memorials? No way. Vacation tales? Only upon return; the newspaper will not flag empty units for potential thieves. Certain rote words even take on a sunnier tone in these pages. Garbage “odor,” for instance, becomes garbage “aroma.”
The ad bar is just as high. No life insurance. No funeral homes. No cemeteries, no lawyers. No financial advisers, because that makes people think about money: bad. Liquor ads are fine.
“I have advertisers that walk to my front counter thinking they’re going to make a killing here because everybody’s ‘assisted’ and they need help,” Doug said. “I could have 30 people advertise in here selling Medicare. But we don’t do that.”
Doug was wary of my visit, not because he doesn’t want worthy attention for his volunteers, but because he does not have space or time for more submissions. Don’t call Doug! Got it? I promised I would say that. Thank you.
I came to Doug’s newsroom because I wanted to sop up this modest ray of restraint, to know the bliss of shunning doom, even briefly. Doom! Everywhere, doom! Should I list the reasons? I am not the only one feeling the wear and tear of bad news. A 2022 Reuters Institute report shows people are turning away from coverage of politics and the pandemic. Onetime readers say news tanks their mood, that they are burned out, that it leads to arguments.
But what is the alternative? Hasn’t willful ignorance gotten us into these doomy problems in the first place?
I flipped through a few On Top of the World News issues a colleague had picked up.
Nearly 400 Shirley Temple dolls need to go to good homes where they will be cherished
What exactly is corned beef?
Farmers market. Irish Club parade. Blues Brothers tribute. Giant mystery plant — zucchini? Halloween pet costume contest. Food trucks! The paper’s most serious takes were gentle reminders that grills are not allowed on balconies and articles advising of scams.
On my second visit, I met retired history teacher Bob Rittner, 79. He writes the softball column.
“At first I thought it was condescending,” he said of the good news only rule. “Just because we’re older, we can’t have bad thoughts?” Doug explained the theory to Bob, and Bob came around. “We’re here to enjoy our lives,” Bob decided.
No one here is oblivious. They are engaged citizens with plenty of life experience, people who know the perils of the world.
Cheer is a perpetual sales job.
One night, the Philosophy Club met next door to Doug’s workspace. Doug recalled overhearing.
“Do you guys know our newspaper doesn’t print bad news?” a woman said. Everyone burst out into one soul-slicing dirge of laughter that seeped into the next room, into Doug’s ears.
Doug walked in.
“Is that a problem?” he said.
The room went quiet.
“I don’t know why you’re laughing,” he said, recreating his defense. “You can’t go anywhere without bad news. It’s in your car. It’s in every single newspaper, every magazine. There isn’t a news broadcast on TV that doesn’t start out with a grim story, something to depress you, something to worry about. They’re on the billboards. They’re on the street signs.
“There are no political candidate ads in this paper. We don’t have people yelling. We don’t have those negative ads by candidates bashing somebody else. When you pick up our paper, you’re not getting the bad news. You’re not getting the disappointing news, the sad news. You’re not getting the war stories. You’re not getting the accidents. You’re not getting who’s injured, who’s died. None of that. Every single story is good.
“I’m glad my community can pick up the newspaper and see that it’s only good news,” he said. “And I wish more people could.”
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in On Top of the World. That bit about the grills? That was a whole hubbub featured here, in the Tampa Bay Times, which does indeed print spicy sagas. Some residents were angry they weren’t allowed to have barbecues, deemed a fire hazard. They rose up, brandishing poster boards.
In 2015, 70 people were evacuated from the complex in a fire (stove, not grill). There are foreclosures and unpaid fees and family dramas and whatever else happens in a community where people coexist.
And, yes, the d-word is real. The most frequent request Doug gets is for obituaries. People want to see if neighbors have crossed over. Go to the Times for that, he says. Go to funeral home websites. Once obituaries appear in On Top of the World News, it’s over. Because what will happen? Readers will skip all the good news. They will flip straight to d__th.
Doug didn’t invent this mission, for the record. He’s a newspaper guy. He worked at other papers and even covered sports for the Times. Then, 14 years ago, he landed a job interview with Sidney Colen.
Colen founded his postwar housing business when demand was raging. In the 1960s, he acquired 500 acres of orange groves on high land in Pinellas County. It was… on top… of… the world. Later, he expanded into Ocala.
Colen, who died in 2009, instituted the good news policy. His son, Kenneth Colen, is president of the community and the newspaper’s publisher. Archives live on, bound in leather books. From 1974: “Ann and Dick Kraus enjoyed an eight-day vacation over Thanksgiving with their daughter and family.”
Residents have always made up the fabric of the paper. Once a year, Doug holds a journalism workshop. He teaches new recruits to see what makes their neighborhoods special, to not rehash the same old meeting minutes. He brings wine.
Some volunteers have writing backgrounds, while others are totally fresh. There’s Tara Still, 64, an accountant whose mother charged 25 cents for grammatical infractions. She knows not to end sentences on a preposition. Joanne Cordes, 71, has the delicate task of reporting from the Democratic Club with no slant. The writers feel the buzz that comes from scooping info, hitting deadline, seeing people read their articles by the pool.
Maybe this happy newspaper is not really about avoidance, which we know is futile. Maybe it’s about diving headlong into existence. About the clarity of age. About how, if you walk through enough darkness, there comes time to turn on a light.
I asked Doug why he got the job.
“You want a funny story?”
Sidney Colen added up Doug’s phone number during their interview, he said. It came out to 18. It’s a lucky number in the Jewish faith, Doug explained, but he wasn’t exactly sure why. Colen told Doug he would make a difference and hired him on the spot.
Glenda Greenwald, 85 and a former language arts teacher, leaned back from her proofs at the counter.
“Life,” she said. That’s what the number means. Chai. Alive.
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