Afraid of being alone? You are not alone.

Being told repeatedly “you are not alone” may not be all that reassuring. What may be intended to validate your experience, or at least spark your curiosity, also potentially strips your story of its particularity.

When “you are not alone” you no longer are unique — you fit into a pattern. You’re a statistic. A data point, frozen in an icy lake along with all the other data points.

A reminder that you are, when all is said and done, very much alone.

Of course, that’s not exactly what is happening here ->

Instead, consider being told you’re “not alone” a journalistic device — a shortcut for turning the specific into the universal — drawing you in, making a subject “relatable.”

Not unlike the way an evangelist or therapist or marketer peddles a message.

Consider the tried-and-true formulaic news story or column: an anecdotal lede introducing an individual with a problem or concern, followed by the statement that this person is “not alone,” bolstered by findings of a study and/or statements by experts amplifying those findings, then filler and ending with the person highlighted in the lede. Some content producers start with the results — for example, the data or the pitch — then find the “real person” to supply the anecdotal lede.

I believe this approach spread in the early 1980s with the debut of Gannett’s USA Today, which pioneered the blurring of journalism and marketing, helping create the template for much of the mind-numbing and predictable content we see today. Gannett, of course, wasn’t the first chain to take a cookie-cutter approach to content and format — E.W. Scripps did that a century ago — but it did take it to a new level as it aggressively shrank local newsrooms. The same cost-saving methods that worked in manufacturing and retail were applied in newsrooms, with much of the product outsourced to third parties. It changed the nature of the product, putting a premium on content that could be repurposed for multiple markets. Anybody working in a newsroom now knows the drill: a national story is shared with local properties with an invitation to “localize” that story in order to make it relevant to local readers or viewers.

Before newspapers began their long decline, this kind of reporting was less common. Reporters wrote about people in their communities who said and did interesting things — not necessarily important things — and usually let readers draw their own conclusions about broader context and meaning. That’s why it’s a delight to read some old newspapers, with their quirky characters, intrusive practices and unusual and vivid writing.

Perhaps those unique and original stories were the unstated proof that we were “not alone.”

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