What a wonderful world

A walk through a desert inspired David Hamblin to create an American publication where all news is 'good' news. By Richard Kelly Heft
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The Independent Online
Let's face it, there's no shortage of bad news. Crime, catastrophe, corruption - it could keep you up at night. But what about all the good out there? Surely there are honest politicians, polite athletes and unaddicted movie stars. The question is, after a steady diet of scandal, does the world really want to know about people who do the right thing?

At least one newspaper is betting on it - the World Times, the United States' and perhaps the world's only all-good-news newspaper. It is a paper dedicated, as it says on its front page, to "providing hope to us all".

"We aren't sugar-coating anything," says founder and editor David Christian Hamblin. "These things are really happening; they are real. The tragedy is that we have come to the point where we don't think it's news unless it's negative."

It is a notion not lost on the paper's growing readership. Since it started less than two years ago, circulation has risen steadily to 30,000. Hamblin is a very positive thinker - he claims circulation will hit 100,000 by the end of the year.

Subscribers love it. "I feel less powerless when I read stories about people who are trying to make a difference - people who are trying to change things for the better," says Donna Grosvenor, 58, a yoga and meditation instructor from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the paper is based. "It's hard to hang on to your hope when you read the regular press."

"I love the paper," says Cynthia Coolidge of Rochester, New York. "It helps me remember that that it's not all doom and gloom."

Presumably, that's the point. The publication, which comes out only four times a year, looks like a typical newspaper and usually has about 100 pages. This summer, distribution begins in Italy and Germany (yearly subscription costs $59), where the World Times has received a lot of press coverage.

So far, there has been little UK interest in the paper's honey-sweet world-view, but Hamblin thinks that will change soon. "From what I understand, they're inundated with tabloid journalism and gossip - the World Times would be a great alternative," he says.

The paper is indeed an alternative, filled with uplifting stories about communities reclaiming their streets, caring companies and thoughtful celebrities. A recent issue featured a lengthy if rose-coloured look at the "The Soul of America", Guatemalan peace talks winding up "on an optimistic note" and a profile of a man "Living an HIV-Enhanced Life".

Hamblin, 35 and a confessed news junkie, started the paper after a period of personal upheaval. In 1992, the fashion magazine he founded and published for five years in Rochester went bankrupt, leaving him broke and his home in the hands of creditors.

For a year, he lived in the basement of a friend's house and for the first time in his life, he spent long periods glued to the television set and reading newspapers. "I didn't realise it, but all that bad news was making me more depressed," he says.

The idea for the paper came to Hamblin while on a hike near Sante Fe in June 1994. "I was just walking through the desert when it hit me," he says. He started writing a business plan that same day. His break came when a friend introduced him to Robert Davies III, now chief executive of Church and Dwight Co, which makes Arm & Hammer kitchen products.

While Hamblin had done no market research, Davies was impressed enough with the idea to invest $250,000 in the project. Within three months, the first edition of the World Times was out.

The paper has a New Age feel to it - articles about holistic medicine, vegetarianism and spirituality abound and it is well sprinkled with advertisements for all manner of New Age services and products, from "life-change" spas to holistic health training. But Hamblin objects to classifying the paper as "New Age", saying it implies his readers are "a bunch of crystal-hugging groupies".

"We are not about that," he says. "We're very grounded. We've been supported by [New Age businesses] because they are socially responsible businesses putting out positive products."

News organisations have long been criticised for their infatuation with doom and gloom. Readership surveys show people are both fed up with and fascinated by bad news, but editors have shown little interest in changing the mix. Most are not inclined to add a measure of positivity to their publications.

"It (a good-news newspaper) would be a fairly amusing idea - for a day," says Lance Gould, media critic and editor of New York's hip Spy magazine. "But I can't imagine subscribing. In their sports section, does nobody lose? Is there no obituary section, only births? Would that be a good thing - even in China? You could question the whole idea of what is good news."

To the World Times readers, such cynicism is precisely what is wrong with the mainstream press.

Some US newspapers, responding to reader surveys, are devoting more space to positive news. Last year, The Las Vegas Sun started a daily column called Sunny Side Up, composed of letters lauding positive contributions to the community.

The column has been a mixed success, according to page editor Larry Wills. It has outlasted his expectations, but while interest was initially high, the paper now receives only enough material to publish the column a couple of times a week. "People complain about all the bad news, but they won't write to us about the good stuff. What are we supposed to do - make it up?" he says.

Meanwhile, the World Times finds no shortage of good news. Many of the reports come straight off the Associated Press wire service, but don't get much play in the mainstream press because they're, well, a little too nice.

Some stories, however, beg the question of what exactly constitutes good news. After all, one party's good fortune often comes at another's expense.

A recent article about the continued success of Minnesota's Mall of America illustrates this point. The World Times' wire report told of how the mall - the country's largest - continues to attract record crowds three years after opening. There was no mention, however, of how the gigantic mall has dragged shoppers from the city's inner city, leaving a trail of store- closings in its wake.

With the paper just finding its editorial feet, some questionable editorial practices are apparent. A glowing review of a long-time advertiser - a health spa staffed by "committed, caring people" - is followed by a full- page advertisement for the facility. In another advertisement promoting the prints of a Santa Fe artist, a quote from Hamblin describes the prints as "incredible... absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful".

Last year, the paper moved to monthly publication but had to return to its quarterly format because the organisation was "spread too thinly".

Despite his admittedly tiny organisation - the paper is run from Hamblin's home - Disney was impressed enough to sign him to produce jointly a positive- news TV programme. The show is still on the drawing board but Hamblin is already talking about competing with the venerable 60 Minutes news magazine - as a good-news alternative.

To take the paper to the next level, Hamblin is trying to raise $1m to boost the three-person editorial staff and dramatically increase distribution. With characteristic optimism, Hamblin says he'll be able to raise circulation to a million copies per issue with enough funding. "We have a responsibility to the next generation," he says. "If we only concentrate on the negative, what kind of message are we sending them?"