Time to bury bad news

A local newspaper group has decided to print only positive stories. Hacks may splutter, but readers and advertisers love it. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

"All the news that's fit to print" is The New York Times's famous slogan, but a British publisher has decided that the only stories worthy of publication are positive ones. "Unless it's a positive story we would not print it," says John Mappin, the owner of a chain of free titles in central and west London. "All we are interested in is positive, helpful stories."

This eccentric stance would horrify seasoned journalists, accustomed as most are to associating news with wrongdoing, mishap and disaster. It's not a story unless someone, somewhere doesn't want it published or broadcast, goes the old industry mantra.

But Mappin, 39, thinks he's on to something. "If someone has a diet of 'negative, horror, bombs, killings', that is going to do something to them. What it does I'm not entirely sure, but it's not a mood improver."

So he ignores the court roundups, crime stories and council blunders that fill most local papers. "We run positive stuff on the council for doing improvements in the local area," he says. "We did a wonderful story on the Kensington police having cut the crime rate. They were delighted, because a lot of people give them a hard time."

Mappin claims that his rose-tinted view of the world makes his readers feel better. "We're interested in little human-interest stories. Tales of triumph over adversity. Pick up a typical local paper and somebody's died after being hit by a car. Turn the page and there's an old lady who's been beaten up. This is terrorising local people."

Mappin, who took over Independent London Local Newspapers (no relation to this paper) five years ago, says he has been slowly coming round to this editorial position. In December, he published a front-page editorial titled "Dear Friends".

It said: "We have decided that from now on we will only print positive news and stories about positive people or situations. It has become obvious from our observation of the media business that forwarding bad or negative news does not help people or help business."

The philosophy is not new. Martyn Lewis, the former BBC newsreader, famously complained that there were not enough "good-news stories" on the corporation's bulletins. He didn't last too long on the Six O'Clock News.

Mappin points to the popularity of celebrity magazines as an indication that readers like success stories. "Is it because it's celebrities, or because it's light positive news?" he says, citing Hello! and OK!. "Is it because you feel a little bit better after picking up Hello!?"

Mappin acknowledges that for local papers, there is also a clear financial motive. "Any sales person will tell you that the way to sell a product is not to give a customer lots of bad news before you offer the product." He says advertising revenue has increased sharply since the introduction of the new policy, and that readers have written in to applaud the editorial stance.

He would not turn away an investigative story that exposed malpractice, says Mappin, as it would amount to a good news story. Even so, his stance is unlikely to resonate with hard-bitten journalists.

There is also his insistence on including stories relating to the Church of Scientology, of which he is a follower. Hollywood stars such as Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta might practise this faith, but it is regarded with suspicion in Britain, especially in the press. Mappin says he is not a "spokesman" for Scientology, and that his papers run positive stories about Judaism, Sikhism and other religions. He points out that he was married in a Muslim ceremony to his Kazakhstani wife.

The marriage took place on 11 September 2001, two hours before the hijacked planes hit the towers in New York. The world changed that day and, according to Mappin, the mood of newspaper readers changed with it. "I'm going to hold the line, not just because it's the right thing to do but because it's commercially viable," he says. "It positions us to take advantage of what I believe is a global trend."