By STEPHANIE HAYES, Tampa Bay Times
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Mercy. Twenty new announcements had just arrived on time. Twenty. The September issue of On Top of the World News already had over 60 bloated 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 an active 55+ community, nothing else. Ten thousand locals pass a cerulean globe sculpture en route to condos shaped like cottages and castles. They can choose from 175 clubs, four tennis courts, two swimming pools, etc.
The community has a newspaper, and it is a good newspaper. No, literally. There is no bad news. Nothing approaching critical, combative, argumentative. No smell of expense, scam, certainly not the word that starts with D and ends with TH. Not even pictures of chicken bones on buffet tables. No carcasses!
The monthly miracle took place on an August afternoon under a banner that read “Only good news since 1968”. Through the glass doors, a yellow note hung in reception.
There is currently only one person working in the press room. If Doug is on the phone, he’ll be with you soon. Sit down and be patient.
It’s Doug Kates, editor. He is currently the only paid employee, supported by 80 volunteer journalists from the On Top of the World Press Association. Doug is 55, but he doesn’t live here. Don’t mix work and pleasure.
He banged his fist on a table of prints, working along the row like a spokesman for a rare automobile. Two women pored over the sheets with red pens, looking for typos, awkward words, awkward sentences.
“So the first section is all about On Top of the World news,” he said. “Second section is for Clubs and Groups, Travel Club, Jesters, Baby Boomers.”
Animal of the month? Come, Mr. Mittens. Pet memorials? Certainly not. Holiday tales? Return only; the log will not flag empty units for potential thieves. Some rote words even take on a sunnier tone in these pages. The “smell” of garbage, for example, becomes the “aroma” of garbage.
The advertising bar is just as high. No life insurance. No undertakers. No cemeteries, no lawyers. No financial advisers, because it sounds like money: bad. Alcohol ads are good.
“I have advertisers walking up to my counter thinking they’re going to make a killing here because everyone’s ‘assisted’ and they need help,” Doug said. “I could have 30 people advertising here selling Medicare. But we don’t do that.
Doug was suspicious of my visit, not because he doesn’t want worthy attention from his volunteers, but because he doesn’t have the space or time for more submissions. Don’t call Doug! I understood? I promised to say that. Thanks.
I came to Doug’s newsroom because I wanted to soak up that modest ray of restraint, to experience the bliss of avoiding fate, however briefly. Loss! Everywhere, woe! Should I list the reasons? I’m not the only one feeling the wear and tear of bad news. A 2022 Reuters Institute report shows people are turning away from covering politics and the pandemic. Casual readers say that the news influences their mood, that they are exhausted, that it leads to arguments.
But what is the alternative? Didn’t willful ignorance get us into these dire problems in the first place?
I flipped through a few issues of On Top of the World News that a colleague had picked up.
Nearly 400 Shirley Temple dolls must go to good homes where they will be treasured
What exactly is corned beef?
Farmers Market. Irish Club Parade. Tribute to the Blues Brothers. Giant mystery plant – zucchini? Pet Halloween Costume Contest. Food trucks! The newspaper’s most serious takes were gentle reminders that grilling is 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 patronizing,” he said of the only good news rule. “Just because we’re older, we can’t have bad thoughts?” Doug explained the theory to Bob, and Bob came. “We are here to enjoy our lives,” Bob decided.
No one here is oblivious. They are committed citizens with great life experience, people who know the perils of the world.
Cheer is a perpetual sales job.
One evening, the Philosophy Club met next to Doug’s workspace. Doug remembers hearing.
“Do you know that our newspaper does not print bad news? said a woman. Everyone erupted in a heartbreaking dirge that seeped into the next room, into Doug’s ears.
“Is it a problem?” he said.
“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 newspaper, every magazine. There isn’t a news program on TV that doesn’t start with a dark story, something that gets you down, something that worries you. They are on the billboards. They are on the road signs.
“There are no announcements of political candidates in this newspaper. We don’t have people screaming. We don’t have those negative ads from candidates denigrating someone else. When you pick up our newspaper, you don’t get the bad news. You don’t get the disappointing news, the sad news. You don’t get the war stories. You won’t have any accidents. You don’t know who is injured, who is dead. None of that. Every story is good.
“I’m glad my community can pick up the paper and see that this is all good news,” he said. “And I wish more people could do that.”
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in On Top of the World. That bit about grilling? It was all a brouhaha presented here in the Tampa Bay Times, which indeed prints spicy sagas. Some residents were angry that they weren’t allowed to barbecue, which was considered a fire hazard. They stood up brandishing billboards.
In 2015, 70 people were evacuated from the complex in a fire (stove, not grill). There are foreclosures and unpaid fees, family dramas and everything that happens in a community where people coexist.
And, yes, the d-word is real. The most frequent request Doug receives is for obituaries. People want to see if neighbors have crossed. Go to the Times for that, he said. Go to funeral home websites. Once the obituaries appear in On Top of the World News, that’s it. Because what will happen? Readers will skip all the good news. They will return directly to d__th.
Doug didn’t invent this mission, for the record. He’s a journalist. He worked in other newspapers and even covered sports for The Times. Then, 14 years ago, he landed a job interview with Sidney Colen.
Colen founded his post-war housing business when demand was raging. In the 1960s, he acquired 500 acres of orange groves high in Pinellas County. It was… on top… of the… world. Later it expanded to Ocala.
Colen, who died in 2009, instituted the good news policy. His son, Kenneth Colen, serves as community president and publisher of the newspaper. The archives live, bound in leather books. From 1974: “Ann and Dick Kraus spent an eight-day Thanksgiving holiday with their daughter and family.”
Residents have always been the fabric of the paper. Once a year, Doug organizes a journalism workshop. He teaches new hires to see what makes their neighborhood special, not to dwell on the same old meeting minutes. He brings wine.
Some volunteers have a background in writing, while others are totally fresh. There’s Tara Still, 64, an accountant whose mother charged 25 cents for grammatical infractions. She knows how not to end her sentences with a preposition. Joanne Cordes, 71, has the delicate task of reporting the Democratic Club without bias. Writers feel the buzz that comes from gathering information, meeting deadlines, seeing people reading their articles by the pool.
Maybe this happy diary isn’t really about avoidance, which we know is futile. It is perhaps a question of plunging headlong into existence. About age clarity. By the way, if you walk in enough darkness, there comes the time to turn on a light.
I asked Doug why he got the job.
“Do you want a funny story?”
Sidney Colen added Doug’s phone number during their interview, he said. He came out at 18. It’s a lucky number in the Jewish faith, Doug explained, but he wasn’t sure exactly why. Colen told Doug he would make a difference and hired him on the spot.
Glenda Greenwald, 85 and a former language arts teacher, pondered her tests at the counter.
“Life,” she says. That’s what the number means. Chai. Living.
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