By: Dorothy Giobbe Greater Pine Island Treetop Gazette finds the positive side to all the news it publishes sp.
PERHAPS IT'S NO surprise that Mike Johnson, editor and publisher of the Greater Pine Island Treetop Gazette, Pine Island, Fla., doesn't cover crime or controversy in his paper. Johnson, founder of the local chapter of the Optimists Club, a nationwide organization that promotes positive activities for children, said his philosophy is simple: "You see what you look for. There's a positive side to everything." Together with his wife, Margie, Johnson has distinguished the Treetop Gazette through a commitment to cover only positive news in the 7,000-circulation free bimonthly. "We want our paper to inform, entertain and enlighten whenever possible," Johnson said. "We also want to bring people together on the island rather than drive them apart." To those who complain that the media too often focus on negative or sensational news, the Treetop Gazette may indeed demonstrate that the exception proves the rule. Geographically remote and with a population of 7,329, "Pine Island is a Mayberry or Walton's Mountain kind of place," Johnson observed. "There isn't violent crime here, though there is some petty vandalism." But minor property crime and vandalism are a miniscule part of life on the island, he added. "For every boat motor that's stolen on Pine Island, there's one thousand covered dishes given to a neighbor who's ill. To really be fair in coverage, newspaper stories should reflect the bulk of the activity that's going on as opposed to the sensational things." Johnson has had plenty of time to cultivate his theories of newspaper reporting. As a child holding down a paper route in Minneapolis, Johnson dreamed of owning a newspaper. Later, he got "caught up in the corporate culture" and took positions at McDonalds and Southland Corp., owner of 7-Eleven. He eventually managed 55 7-Eleven stores in the Fort Myers/Naples, Fla., area. After years of "thinking up new ways to sell Slurpees," Johnson was "as close to achieving my writing dreams as 7-Eleven was to creating the perfect microwave sandwich." In fact, Johnson had inched a little closer to his writing dream. While working at 7-Eleven, he authored a book called How to Land Your Dream Job. After it was published, Johnson took his advice and left 7-Eleven to begin his newspaper career. Many people who begin second careers find that success comes slowly. Johnson, ever the optimist, took a part-time typing job at the Pine Island Eagle, a local paper, and contributed a column gratis "to help build up clippings." The column, which he still writes, is a "self-help, motivational column," called "Consider This." Eventually, he landed a position as a full-time writer at the Eagle and things went smoothly until he began suggesting editorial changes to the paper's editor. "The Eagle was flashing crime and controversy on the front page, and even though it's about one-tenth of what goes on in this community, it got 100% of the emphasis," Johnson said. "The paper was out of touch and didn't present the area correctly." After eight months at the Eagle, a rift developed between Johnson and his editor and with "no warning, no ultimatum, no sitdown," he was fired. Crisis evolved into opportunity because "it was evident to me that I had the tools and the talent to provide the paper that I thought Pine Island needed. It was also evident that nobody else was going to do it." Johnson enlisted the help of his wife, who quit her job as a dental assistant to become sales manager and photographer. The pair sold their car to buy a $2,000 computer system to publish the first issue of the Treetop Ga-zette. Eight founding advertisers agreed to place quarter-page ads for a year, paying $1,000 each in advance. "Originally, it was supposed to be subscription-supported, not ad-supported," Johnson said. "I wanted to sell the initial ads to get start-up cash, which would allow me time to build up the subscription base." The two published the first issue in February 1993 in newsletter form, but despite using "paper kids" to sell subscriptions on commission, "the public just didn't buy into it because they thought $2 was too high for the product." A less resolute couple might have become discouraged and turned to other pursuits. The Johnsons, however, decided to invest even further in the venture, switching formats to become a free 20-page tabloid. "That was a turning point for the paper. It was decision time," Johnson recalled. "I had already taken the $8,000 from people in the community and there was no way that I couldn't follow through for them. It was either bail out or go forward." Soon after, the Johnsons arranged to share an area paper's presses, but "when they showed us what was involved with putting out a tabloid of that size, Margie and I just went home shaking our heads, all depressed," Johnson said. A few weeks later, "we really lit up when we discovered the syndicate market and saw all the features that were available because our fear was, 'How are we going to fill 20 pages?' " After switching to the larger format, the Johnsons "took care of the founding advertisers and gave them a larger size at no extra charge" to thank them for their initial faith in the venture. However, Johnson added, they will have to renegotiate at the regular rates when their contracts expire. From the first eight advertisers, there now are "in excess of 150" advertisers on contract, and the paper has added two salespeople. Looking at the past 11 months, Johnson can't believe his good fortune. "Back then, if we had known how much was going to be involved in this, we would have been too scared to start it, so it's kind of good that we were a little naive and didn't know everything," he said. Johnson admitted that "not crossing the line of not covering crime and controversy has been more difficult that I thought it would be." He said that if a violent crime did occur, "we'd have to cross that bridge when we come to it because we haven't come across every situation yet." For now, the Johnsons are quite content promoting positive news in the paper. One of Johnson's favorite features, which he also writes, is called "A Mile In Their Moccasins" and exemplifies the paper's approach to controversy. "For the column, we pick a person or an institution that people like to gripe about," he said, "for example, the sheriff's deputy or the post office, and we spend a day with them. The idea is to show all the stuff these people have to go through in their typical day, so other people can get a better appreciation for everything they do. Then the next time it's time to gripe, they can think, oh, OK, now I get it." ? (Treetop Gazette) [Photo]