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Why Are We So Unhappy?

What are you doing today to make yourself and the people around you happier?

Today is International Day of Happiness, which is, of course, a focus on how we all can be happier people. It also comes on the heels of the release of the annual happiness report. The United States is far down the list of happiest countries at number 19. Like many other years, Scandinavian countries top the list.

The United Nations is behind the endeavor, saying happiness and people’s well-being is an indicator of progress for a country, not just economic growth.

It’s not so much about depression (the UN has other endeavors for mental health) as it is about just being happier in general. The happiness report considers economics, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices and generosity as some of the things that make a country happier.

But I do pause on this day and wonder why we’re so unhappy in comparison to others in the world. Maybe it’s because we all feel lonely.

Don’t shake your head no because I bet everyone has moments where they feel completely alone. Heck, I’ve felt alone even in a crowded room, a feeling some people don’t understand. But I’ve noticed more people have started understanding this feeling recently.

A year ago a study stated half of Americans say they feel alone or left out. Plus, nearly half of adults feel they don’t have meaningful relationships or feel isolated. The study triggered lots of articles about how loneliness is tearing us apart.

It’s probably the aspect of our mental health we don’t talk about enough. We talk about the clinically depressed or suffering from general anxiety disorder, for example. But we don’t talk about “the blues,” where we all have days where we just don’t feel happy. We’re down in the dumps. That can be caused by something like being lonely.

We can point the finger at lots of things as the problem. It’s how we all live apart in separate homes or how we all communicate through the Internet. It’s easy to blame social media. It might be a combination of all of those things. Heck, sometimes I want to be alone because there are just too many people in the New York City area, so maybe we bring it upon ourselves.

I’ve wondered in my own life, though, how to battle back loneliness. I live alone, and a lot of my friends and family live a distance away. Right now, I don’t have a full-time job, so I spend a lot of time with myself.

It takes work, just like everything, to make ourselves feel better. And we need to make time to create better connections or build the ones we’ve created, something I’m sure we all fail at doing (because who wants to try to be social after a 12 hour day of commuting and working).

What will work is different for everyone. I joined a writers group in a way to find more community. I spend a lot of time at the library or other community spaces just to get out of the apartment. I walk around my neighborhood, mainly for the exercise, but it also helps build some connections with other people.

The point is we need to talk more about loneliness, and maybe talking about it will make us all feel a lot less lonely.

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Just Write

I haven’t written on this blog in more than four years. The last post is about joining Storyful, and I haven’t worked there in months.

I was laid off last summer, one of the casualties of what has been a hard few months for the news industry as a whole. It’s been a hard topic to talk about on social media as you fight to find your next adventure, though the in between has been its own adventure too. How do you talk about this thing that has been making you feel horrible because everyone feels horrible when they’re laid off? How do you promote yourself when you’re not feeling good about yourself?

And that brings me to writing on this blog, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile but wasn’t quite sure how to do it, especially with the thing weighing heavy on me. What do I write about? How do I address life in the in between?

In the last few months I’ve rediscovered myself as a writer in a lot of ways. I’ve been writing a novel, something I hadn’t had the energy to do, and working on shorter fiction pieces and personal essays. I joined a new writers group, which has been a blessing and inspiration. When I approach my writing now, I tell myself to just write. Nothing will ever get accomplished if you wait for the muse to inspire you to write. Every good writer knows you need to just make time and space and let the words flow, whatever they may be.

So thinking about this blog recently (because a friend was talking about how she neglected her own blog) I wondered why I wasn’t applying the same standard here. Just write. It didn’t matter that this thing is still there. I’m working on plenty of projects, rediscovering my artistic side and have plenty of things to say.

So here I am writing again on my blog. I don’t know what I’ll be saying next, but I’ll have things to write, I’m sure of it. I’m recapturing my own voice.

A few years ago I started following a company called Storyful on Twitter. I don’t even remember the reason I followed them. Perhaps people were talking about them and I was investigating.

In the time since then, the company established it as a force to find, verify and (when needed) acquire user-generated content on the social web for news agencies. They are a social media news agency. It’s also grown to the point when NewsCorp acquired the company while retaining its independence.

And on Monday, I’ll be joining the Storyful Open Newsroom staff in New York for my new adventures. I couldn’t be more excited because I know this is the right place for me.

To say the last few months since learning I was being laid off from NJ.com were difficult is an understatement. I have kept my chin up with hope for the future that I’d land on my feet even at the worst of times. Being laid off stinks, but in 15+ years of journalism I’ve never been laid off while working in newsrooms that have suffered cuts. I consider myself considerably lucky for that. And I kept spinning negatives into positives. Unemployment would mean I’d get a break from the stress of working in news.

During those months I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve talked to my contacts about jobs. I talked to perspective employers (about me, about them, about the future). I talked to my friends and family for support. Everyone had a lot of different things to say to me, including how I should face my job hunt.

I always promised myself that I wanted to find the right job not just any job (something some people couldn’t quite understand). I took myself out of the running for one job for this very reason. I could have landed the job, but it wasn’t the right place for me.

Then I started talking to the folks at Storyful in what felt like a whirlwind. Every conversation felt like that — a conversation. It wasn’t an interrogation and I didn’t feel like I needed to do the “please hire me” dance. We talked about the current state of social journalism but also the future and where we all feel it’s headed.

I’ve always admired the work they do at Storyful, especially as someone who has had more than one conversation interrogating colleagues about verification and permissions for user-generated content (just because it’s social media doesn’t mean you stop being a journalist). Talking to everyone just made me feel more excited about the work they’re already doing. There’s so much passion and vision for the future.

The intersection of social media and journalism interests me, and the open newsroom sits there. Newsrooms across the world are trying to figure this out, but Storyful has already figured it out and continues to be a leader. I can’t wait to be a part of that and to face the challenges moving into the future.

Thank you to everyone who has been there in the last few months, providing leads and support. The power of the journalism community is robust, and I’m thankful I know so many good people.

In support of local news

Last spring I attended a conference on social media, and one of the speakers on a panel declared local news to be dead. One of the panelists responded by saying it was a local newspaper (The Record) that uncovered Gov. Chris Christie’s administration being tied to the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge a year ago (commonly referred to as Bridgegate).

The original speaker poo-pooed the story because it was New Jersey, an extension of New York. It doesn’t count.

It seems to have become common practice to dump all over local news. Case in point was an article from earlier this summer that was critical of “hyperlocal” because of its failures though it still has supporters. Part of the story was Jim Brady’s new project in Philadelphia, where he has gone since the closure of Project Thunderdome from Digital First Media. Among the things it picks on are TBD in Washington, which isn’t a fair point since TBD was never hyperlocal nor was it given a chance to succeed.

The article also picks on Patch, which is a fair criticism, but also mentions Backfence. Not familiar with Backfence? It’s because it shutdown in 2007 and it was a project focused on citizen journalism, the buzzword for hyperlocal before hyperlocal. I know about Backfence because it was included in my graduate school thesis in 2006 on citizen journalism. It was an early project, which means there were things to learn here. Just like there are lessons to learn from Patch.

But that fails to highlight how there are many local news websites that are doing just fine. I worked at one in Connecticut, and one of the oldest is in my backyard here in New Jersey. There also are franchises of local news websites in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Look beyond the tri-state area and you’re going to find a lot of local news websites across the country thriving.

Local news is struggling in some ways, no doubt. A recent PEW study outlined the shifting in how many people are covering the statehouse. We still hear about layoffs across the country, including at local news outlets. Some local outlets have trouble shifting from traditional distribution methods (ie printed product), but it isn’t always because they are resistant to change. Often they do not have the resources.

But we should be concerned about local news rather than declaring it dead. It’s an important instrument for you to learn what’s happening in your neighborhood. But it’s also these local news outlets that will stay with a story when the national media is gone.

I’ve seen someone say “what happens when the national media leaves Ferguson?” several times on one of my social media streams. It’s not just friends but also others who work in journalism. What happens is the local media will continue to cover the story, just like the local media always does when the national media leaves.

Hurricane Sandy was a national story and still gets some national press two years later, but it’s the local press that writes the stories about the storms effects constantly. My colleagues are sharing the stories of people who are still struggling two years after the storm. Remember the story about the Sandy Hook gunman that grabbed national headlines? It originated in the Hartford Courant, aka the local press. Bridgegate grabbed national attention, but it’s the New Jersey and New York outlets that are on top of every movement. In 2009, a group of Millburn High School students came under fire for a hazing incident that grabbed national headlines. When the national press was gone, it was the local news outlets (including myself) that followed the story, including what happened the following first day of school.

Plus those stories that evoke dramatic emotion from you? Most often they are covered by a local news outlet first before a national news outlet (or even your local news) picks it up.

The thing about today’s world of media is that you can check in on news anywhere in this country (or the world too) at any time. With a click of your mouse, you can check to see what is happening in the St. Louis area (where Ferguson is located) or what’s happening where you grew up (I don’t do this because my mother tells me more news from home than I could consume online).

But without local news, you wouldn’t be able to check in on those stories or what’s happening in your hometown. We wouldn’t have stories like the Courant’s profile of the Sandy Hook gunman. Those stories take time, local sources and local knowledge. It’s your local press that’s going to deliver on that for you.

I’m not going to tell you to go buy your local newspaper because I don’t buy the local newspaper either. But I do check my local news online. If you want to know what’s happening, check out your local news site.

What are you reading?

I’ve been reading a lot in the last few months. I would say I’m averaging 1.5 books per week, which may be lowballing it. There are weekends I read a whole book. Reading has been a bit of a stress reducer for me in the months since I learned I was being laid off along with some ongoing personal things happening with my family.

I have found, though, that I am running out of suggestions of books to read and having a hard time really finding something I want to read next (though I have three books I will be taking with me on vacation next week). I figure a lot of people run into the same problem and thought opening up a discussion here would benefit not only me but others. If this works out well, we’ll make this a regular feature here.

Yesterday I finished “The Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline, who I didn’t realize until I read her bio after I finished the book lives in Montclair, N.J. That’s right near me and is a hotbed for a lot of writers. I ate up this book because I wanted to know what would happen next. There are moments when you will be aghast at what happens to the main character. Even when she finds happiness, heartbreak follows.

I just started “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, and I am too early in the book to really have an opinion about it. But I already like the characters.

I also have “The Goldfinch” hanging over my head. I started this months ago and have struggled getting through it, unlike some people who have told me they couldn’t put the book down. I found in some sections I couldn’t put down the book, but the book is probably several hundred pages too long. I am two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through with the book and got so bored I set it aside to read other things. I haven’t come back to it yet, though I should.

What are you reading or planning to read? Post about it in the comments.

The Newseum tweeted the blow infographic about the First Amendment and how well Americans know it.

I always find it interesting how people respond to the First Amendment because it’s not always correct.

I can tell when someone doesn’t know what they’re writing about. The story is full of jargon and words people wouldn’t use in every day language. It could be a complicated environmental story or something about an upgrade in technology and my eyes start to glaze over because often there are phrases I won’t understand unless I’m an expert in the field.

Maybe the reporter didn’t ask enough questions to know what they were writing about. I fell into that trap more than once as a young reporter, especially when I had to write about Connecticut’s old affordable housing law. I had someone tell me to stop faking it and ask enough questions so I understood what I was writing about.

There’s another trap, though, and that’s writing too much about a certain topic. If you spend all your time covering cops and fires, you know their lingo. If you cover politics, there’s jargon only lawmakers and politicians use. You spend enough time around any of them and don’t check yourself, the lingo can end up in your stories.

Of course there also are the people who want to make themselves look smart by using all the jargon.

But as a reader it’s frustrating because this isn’t how they talk. I get frustrated because I want to take a red pen and change the words to something my mother would use.

And that’s the key here in breaking the habit of writing inside baseball (we have our own jargon in journalism too) and start writing how most people speak: How would you tell Mom this story?

I had a college professor who often talked about telling Mom the story. We want to write the stories we’d sit down and tell our moms about at the kitchen table. But we also want to write the stories in the same way of how we’d tell our mothers those stories.

Simplifying and breaking through the jargon doesn’t mean we can’t do something special with our stories. We can still write clever ledes. Just don’t write over your readers’ heads and write things in plain terms they will understand.

Also remember this: If you can’t explain the story to your mom, you don’t know the story.