To avoid burying the lede, I’ll get right to it: This is my last column for the Star Tribune. But there’s no way I’m leaving the media company I’ve been so proud to be a part of for nearly two decades.
After 10 years as a columnist — five in the local news section and five in Variety — I was looking for a new challenge. My bosses handed me a gem.
Beginning Aug. 4, I will take over editing Inspired, a Saturday section our company launched in January to a groundswell of gratitude from readers. If you haven’t taken a look at Inspired, I hope you will.
Inspired offers deeply reported stories about innovation and problem-solving, creative approaches to societal ills, and well-told tales about kind folks and fence-menders. This good-news section is a response to a serious “solutions-based” movement among media companies nationally and internationally, which has led to the Washington Post’s The Optimist, Huffington Post’s Good News, MSN’s Good News, Upworthy and the Good News Network.
(The Good News Network has been quietly offering uplifting stories for 20 years, and can be forgiven for wondering what took everybody else so long.)
While our primary mission as journalists remains to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, we are acknowledging that, for too long, positive stories have been buried on inside pages and dismissed as superfluous, soft and secondary.
I’ve rejected that view my entire journalism career and my arms are weary from swimming upstream. I’ve always preferred to tell stories about people such as Esther Mulder, who pushed through a difficult childhood, largely in foster care, to attend Harvard Law School. She returned to the Twin Cities to become a public defender.
And Peter Izmirian, who lost his life savings to a corrupt investment adviser. Living on Social Security, he gives back by donating blood — 77 gallons to date.
And Ron Rudolph, whose grief over the loss of his wife has been lessened by friends and strangers who have bought his bluebird houses — nearly 900 since May, keeping Rudolph’s hands busy and his heart open to kindness.
“Hard” news may be our journalistic lifeblood, but happy news is our oxygen.
We are an increasingly anxious populace. A recent American Psychological Association study finds that three-quarters of Americans felt at least one symptom of stress in the previous month; 57 percent say the political climate is a significant source.
As if I needed to tell you that. You feel that stress at work, with your extended families, with former friends you’ve shut out on Facebook, at awkward block parties. You likely face it most while consuming news. A therapist recently coined a phrase for the modern era’s relentless 24/7 news cycle: “Headline stress disorder.” School shootings. Families torn apart. Floods and fires. Vile political discourse. Suicides increasing at alarming rates.
It is no wonder we are becoming more insular and pessimistic, paralyzed instead of motivated. We have to fight this instinct, but we need help. We need examples.
And there are so many. I was thinking about my own response to the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. As soon as I got a whiff of it (which, working in a newsroom, means about 10 seconds after it happened), I reverted to Mom mode and simply shut down. I could barely take it in. I felt helpless and hopeless.
Then I began to follow the faces of young people, the ages of my own kids, with names such as Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky. They weren’t hiding. They were crossing the country as gun control advocates. They were registering voters. They were encouraging us — we who are supposed to be protecting them — not to give up hope.
I felt a measurable surge of energy and optimism after that. Science backs up that response.
“Reading news stories that focus on solutions, achievements and peace-building can lead to increased levels of optimism, hope and self-efficacy,” said Jodie Jackson, a British researcher with the Constructive Journalism Project. “People believe the world can get better and they feel empowered to contribute.” Her findings also show that people introduced to solution-based stories “have improved mood levels, better perspective, a restored faith in humanity and increased engagement.”
Negativity, on the other hand, “makes us miserable,” said Jackson, who has a master’s degree in applied positive psychology. “At best, it leaves us indifferent, but more often than not, it triggers low mood and a passiveness that can even lead to anxiety and depression.”
She emphasizes that reporting positive news does not mean shunning negative news. There is danger in ignoring grim realities. We need to uncover the dark underbelly, to protect ourselves and our planet. But the two approaches, if allowed to coexist, offer us a wider and more accurate narrative of how we really live, she said.
I know I’ll have to win over many of you. The toughest sells will be some of my delightfully cynical peers in this very newsroom. One colleague made me laugh out loud when he said he’d never be able to write for me because he sees potential stories only in that dark underbelly. I’ll be working on him.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll stay in touch. My e-mail and phone number remain the same. I am eager, as I always have been, to be inspired by you.
10 of Gail’s favorites
1. Two shoes on a bridge, two lives linked forever (July 14, 2009)
2. A tipped-over Biff isn’t that funny in the light of day. (Nov. 3, 2009)
3. Everyman Tom reminds us to put down our book and listen. (Aug. 11, 2011)
4. Let’s not shoot from the hip on leggings issue. (Nov. 15, 2012)
5. Chef whips up memorable meal for man battling cancer. Nelsons (March 30, 2014)
6. Son’s gift to writer mom is one for the books. (Sept. 7, 2014)
7. A persistent thorn, I’ll really miss him. (July 9, 2015)
8. How Does My Garden Grow? With helpers and hope. (Sept. 2, 2015)
9. Maytag Man rejects throwaway society. (Nov. 1, 2015)
10. In seven minutes on a train, a memorable connection. (Feb. 4, 2018)