Shortly after moving to north Scottsdale in 2008, a community newsletter arrived in my mailbox that I found myself reading from cover to cover. Stories included a local restaurant changing ownership, the opening of a new trading cards store, and a failed petition that was supposed to help Scottsdale protect undisturbed natural desert from development.
In general, the news went beyond hyperlocal, shifting deep into what I’d call the nano-local category. In many ways, the six-times a year publication, which was the brainchild of a realtor couple who targeted the roughly 3,800 homes in a large master-planned community called McDowell Mountain Ranch, had more interesting news in it than the Arizona Republic’s community publication or the nonprofit Scottsdale Independent.
“Interesting” might be the wrong word. “Relevant” to our residents would be more precise. For example, this hybrid marketing publication helped me figure out the best time to leave our house rental and buy a home in the same community. From an ad, I discovered Aqua Safe, the school that greatly improved my two children’s ability to swim. The newsletter helped expand my understanding of the community and enrich the lives of my family and friends.
A couple years later, I responded to a story in the newsletter about plans to create a community garden. Attending the first meeting, I met one of the realtors who published the newsletter, which has one of the longest names in journalism history: the McDowell Mountain Ranch Real Estate News. When I met Peter Cass, the publisher, I was all about the garden, but when he found out that I’ve been a journalist for most of my career, he asked if I’d be interested in writing a few articles.
Why, I asked? Because, Peter wanted to retire in a few years and was hoping someone could take over the publication. As a work-at-home dad, it seemed doable, so I said yes.
Sadly, the city killed the community garden idea, but today I find myself publishing a 24-page glossy newsletter that is crammed with news. Sometimes, I rewrite stuff I find among the now-three local media companies that cover Scottsdale, but each edition I try to add more and more original local content. I write about projects planned by the Homeowner’s Association, the newly opened French Paleo restaurant or a proposed senior living center across the street.
At this point, you may be yawning. After all, college-trained journalists may not consider any of this news. To the world of journalists, real news is the sacking of the school district’s superintendent who was caught in a pay-for-play scandal or the epic battle over a proposal to build a $60 million tourist destination in the nation’s largest city preserve. Oh wait, we actually covered the first story and broke the second.
McDowell Mountain Ranch Real Estate News doesn’t read like a traditional newspaper. “He said, she said” stories are rare. Our limited news hole requires concise, compact writing. The newsletter’s “voice” tends to be upbeat and easygoing when warranted. We even take a positive approach by talking about the solutions to overly bright football field lights rather than just harping on the problems. This 23-year-old newsletter is as much about being an advocate, even a protector of McDowell Mountain Ranch, as it is about revealing some of the less-than-perfect elements of living here.
But here’s what I learned from doing this newsletter: Our residents are grateful to know why a car slammed into their neighbor’s garage, that there will be a huge festival behind the Community Center, or that the Homeowner’s Association spent over $1 million on new pickleball courts and a park renovation project.
Our residents don’t see the Arizona Republic, the Scottsdale Independent or revived Scottsdale Progress as local news. They see local news the way I now do – that what matters most in their lives revolves around a three- to six-mile circle that extends from their home address. Exact mileage may vary.
Look, journalists like to think big. And well they should. After all, big crises and problems abound everywhere we look. Global warming. Underpaid teachers. Overpaid CEOs. How can journalists bother with such mundane content such as a new coffee store opening up a few blocks away?
But big journalism also has a big problem. Too many people don’t trust the media. While we certainly can cast blame as to why this has been happening, in a way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that journalists need to reconnect with this country’s citizens at the most basic level. We need to restore trust in our institution and that starts by tossing out some of the more partisan, political reporting and just telling citizens what is going on in their back yards. Remember, I’m not talking about all journalism, just at the nano level.
There is another reason why super nano news should be more positive. Readers can only take so much negative news. Have you ever watched five really intense horror movies back to back? For most of us, it’s too exhausting. Why do you think more than 7.3 million people follow super-cute @EmergencyKittens on Twitter? People need to hear good news as well as bad.
In my mind, it’s imperative that journalists reclaim the readers who have tuned the general media out. And as much as we don’t want to hear this, running incredible investigations into a corrupt government leader does not increase trust; it just increases angst, anxiety and helplessness. While shock and outrage may be effective methods of increasing readership, Americans also need a safe space, so to speak, where they can enjoy the content while learning important news about their community. Nano news might prove to be that necessary vehicle – no matter how unexciting the majority of us perceive this kind of news to be – for rebuilding trust in the media.
Brett Levy is the editor and publisher of the McDowell Mountain Ranch Real Estate News, the administrator of the L.A. Times Line Facebook group and a media technology consultant.
Here are some recent copies of McDowell Mountain Ranch Real Estate News: https://mmrhomes.com/our-newsletter