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Akst: Almost all you need is love

My students often loathe their current news/feature writing assignment, but their negative reaction is actually a good teaching moment.

Novice journalists often fail to realize that people don’t care whether or not reporters like their assignments. A reporter’s job is to report – accurately and compellingly – on a topic. If they like doing so, it’s gravy. If not, too bad.

Am I sending students to a war zone? Making them sit through a planning and zoning commission meeting? Having them write a feature sympathetic to drug dealers?

No. I’m making them write about love.

Well, not exactly. I’m making them write about Valentine’s Day, a holiday that celebrates love.

The bitterness about the assignment typically results from bitterness about Valentine’s Day, which students oversimplify as a made-up “Hallmark holiday” designed to guilt overspending consumers into yet more discretionary spending they can ill afford.

Besides that, people not in a relationship don’t want to be reminded about their status by those who are.

Let’s start with the made-up/Hallmark part. Actually, the origin of Valentine’s Day goes back so far (at least two millennia) that there is no universally agreed upon basis for the holiday.

The Catholic Church, for example, recognizes three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, according to the History Channel.

Another theory is that the Christian church decided to “Christianize” the pagan holiday of Lupercalia. Lupercalia, which was celebrated in mid-February, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.

Even the modern tradition of exchanging cards goes back to at least 1840, when Esther A. Howland began mass producing them. The Greeting Card Association estimated last year that Americans exchanged about 145 million cards in 2012, not including children’s packaged valentines.

Now let’s talk about the money (not to go all gushy on you). Valentine’s Day has major economic impact. The National Retail Federation estimated on Jan. 31 that this year, the average person 18 and older plans to spend $131 on candy, cards, gifts and more, up from $126 last year. Total spending will reach $18.6 billion.

About half (51 percent) of gift-givers will buy candy, spending $1.6 billion, and 37 percent will spend $1.9 billion on flowers. Others will buy jewelry, spending more than $4.4 billion on diamonds, gold and silver, the NRF says. Some will buy clothing, spending more than $1.6 billion. Gift cards and the restaurant industry also will do well.

Sweetie, please don’t read the next paragraph. Love you!

Of course, numbers like these enable my self-doubt. I love my wife completely and am pleased with my gifts that cost about $50, but I was at Kohl’s on Wednesday and heard one young man tell the jewelry associate he’d like to keep his Valentine’s gift less than $300. A moment later, another man told the same associate he was looking to spend about $600.

But I assign a Valentine’s Day feature anyway, for a reason that has nothing to do with money: we don’t express our love for one another nearly enough. The older I become, the more certain I am of our collective human shortcomings.

You don’t have to spend lots of money, but you should tell the people you love that you love them.

But in case you hated everything I just wrote and are just not feeling the love, fear not: I have something for you, too.

According to according to 41,000 Google search results, this week is national “Dump Your Significant Jerk Week.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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