This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
LAS VEGAS — Americans are twice as likely to die from turning guns on themselves as they are to be murdered with one.
A national News21 analysis of 2012 data found 18,602 firearm suicides in 44 states compared with about 9,655 firearm homicides in 49 states. That means at least 50 people died per day from firearm suicide; 26 died from firearm homicides.
Gun shops and ranges in areas with high rates of suicide are teaming up with prevention specialists to prevent firearm suicides. Range employees are learning the warning signs of suicide to stop mentally unstable people from getting their hands on guns.
News21 contacted all 50 states seeking suicide data for 2012, the most recent year available, but Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island denied requests for statistics or could not be reached. The FBI received limited homicide data from Illinois and Alabama and none from Florida.
That firearm suicides outnumbered firearm homicides doesn’t surprise Matthew Miller, who studies suicide at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Suicide rates have been higher than homicide rates for as long as Miller remembers, but many people still assume they are more likely to die in a mass shooting than they are by shooting themselves, he said.
Living with a gun in the home makes residents more likely to die from suicide, because they’re more likely to attempt suicide using a gun — and with guns, there’s no turning back, Miller said.
The public doesn’t hear about firearm suicides often because of the stigma surrounding suicide and people who kill themselves, he said.
“I think what we see in the media, whether it’s newspapers or television or movies, there have been people shooting at one another with guns, but rarely do you hear information about suicide,” Miller said.
Firearm suicides in the states studied made up 51 percent of the 35,831 total suicides in those states in 2012, News21 found. For the previous five years, firearm suicides made up just under half of all suicides throughout the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Suicide by firearm has been loosely studied for the past 20 years by the American Association of Suicidology, a research and education organization based in Washington, D.C., that was created in 1968. But most experts concentrate on the motives of suicide victims and not the means people use. Prevention specialists are increasingly studying the link between guns and suicide.
Death and gun ownership: Is there a connection?
Experts say having a gun in the house greatly increases the chance someone will use that gun on themselves. States with high rates of firearm suicide generally have high gun ownership.
Alan Berman, former director of the American Association of Suicidology, said there is a direct correlation between gun ownership and death by suicide. Studies show having a gun in the home makes firearm suicide more likely, and can be higher based on gender, age and gun storage.
People choose their method of suicide due to its accessibility, Berman said.
Safe-storage laws are among the few measures suicide analysts agree could help lower firearm suicide rates, because they put a buffer between the mental impulse to end one’s life and the firearms available, Berman said.
“The problem of course is the NRA (National Rifle Association) and their interpretation that any attempt even to talk about safe storage is the beginning of gun control,” Berman said.
Legislation isn’t necessary to promote gun safety, said Don Turner, Nevada Firearms Coalition president.
“As a responsible gun owner, we have the obligation to make sure that our firearms are kept secure and under control, and that we only sell or give firearms to people who are not at risk,” Turner said. “All the time and energy put into limiting access to firearms could be put into improving our mental health system. It would probably yield better results.”
Nationally, firearm suicide rates haven’t changed much over the past 20 years that Berman has studied them. However, some states with prevention programs have had success in lowering rates, he said.
“There are efforts,” Berman said. “But again, they are small-scale efforts relative to a large-scale national issue, which no one has the key to the lock yet.”
Suicide generally stems from a buildup of depression and internal despair, said Cathy Barber, creator of Means Matter — a Harvard research group that studies access to guns or other means of suicide.
It’s not unusual for suicidal people to make several plans or attempts to kill themselves, but experts are noticing a trend of more impulsive suicides with firearms, she said. A survey showed 47 percent of people who attempted suicide did so within 10 minutes of thinking about it, she said.
“For the person who is going from 0 to 60 in a few seconds, you don’t want that person to have access to something that could really quickly kill them,” Barber said. “You want to try to build some delay in them being able to get their hands on something that could kill them.”
Gun owners have higher rates of suicide than non-gun owners, but they don't have higher rates of attempts, according to a study on which Barber worked. They don't have higher rates of mental illness and aren't more likely to kill themselves. They are just more likely to use a more final means for suicide, she said.
Voluntarily relinquishing firearms to a friend or loved one during times of depression, high stress or mental anguish removes the temptation of turning to a gun when someone might be contemplating suicide, Barber said.
Any means necessary
After his son killed himself in 2003, Stephen Johnson, of Las Vegas, installed a gun safe in his garage. Now, Johnson encourages anyone with guns to lock them up for safety.
His 18-year-old son grabbed a Smith & Wesson handgun from a knapsack in his parents’ closet and shot himself in the shower.
Johnson felt guilty about it for a long time. The guilt eventually stopped. The pain never did.
In his suicide note, Levi Johnson said he would’ve killed himself regardless of the means. The note he left behind took fault with his brief time in the Marines and told his Mom not to blame his Dad for the gun, because if the gun hadn’t been available he would have just used a knife or something else.
“Why? You ask that question, oh, a billion times,” Stephen Johnson said. “I still don’t have the answers of why, but I have been able to cope with that — not getting those questions answered.”
It was the second time Johnson’s son tried to kill himself. During basic training, he tried to overdose on aspirin. In high school, he had a history of cutting himself.
Levi Johnson planned his last attempt. He cleaned his room, made his bed and put his last two paychecks and his ATM code on a bulletin board.
Then he picked up the phone and called the police to forewarn them of his suicide. He hung up, turned the phone off, stepped into the shower, pulled the curtain shut and squeezed the trigger.
Two weeks later, Johnson and his wife joined the Survivors of Suicide group. Three years later, they became facilitators to help others process their grief.
Clark County coroner Michael Murphy spends time helping Las Vegas-area families cope after they lose a loved one to suicide. He can’t provide much solace because he can only tell a family how their loved one committed suicide, but not why — the burning question for most.
“They do not bring a child into this world with the idea that the child’s death will precede them,” Murphy said. “Everything’s out of order for them at that point. And then when they look at what they consider to be a senseless act that someone has done and done to themselves, it leaves them with this emptiness and I don’t know if there’s anything that will fill that void.”
Regardless of the means, suicide is a mental health issue to Murphy. The solution is increasing awareness of the problem and treating it as such, he said. It’s difficult to know what prevention practices work best because statistically, it’s hard to measure what hasn’t happened, Murphy said.
State prevention measures
Prevention specialists in New Hampshire and Nevada are looking at firearm suicides and working with gun stores and ranges to decrease deaths.
Nevada had a high rate of suicide by firearm, 9.83 per 100,000 residents, or 268 suicides, in 2012, the News21 analysis found. It was ninth in the 13 states that make up the West — the region that accounts for some of the highest rates as a whole.
More than three times as many firearm suicides as firearm homicides happened in Nevada in 2012, data shows.
The Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention has coordinators contacting gun stores, ranges and training centers with pamphlets and posters about gun safety. They also train employees to recognize suicidal or distressed customers, said Richard Egan, prevention training and outreach facilitator.
Egan took the Office of Suicide Prevention job after a long Air Force career. He regularly staffs the office’s booth at gun shows to talk to people about firearm safety and suicide.
He teaches employees of gun ranges and stores to recognize suicidal tendencies of customers in a three-hour class called safeTalk.
“Suicide breeds isolation and darkness — open the door and turn on the light,” Egan said. “Talk to them about what they’re going through. Let them express their feelings. And it may not always be about suicide, but you’re not going to know until you ask.”
Nevada is expanding on safety programs that started on the East Coast.
New Hampshire had a firearm suicide rate of 7.36 per 100,000 people with 97 suicides in 2012, according to News21 data. That put it at more than double the average rate of Northeastern states and slightly above the national average rate. Firearm suicides were nearly nine times higher than the 11 firearm homicides in 2012.
Within five days of each other in 2009, three individuals walked into Riley’s Sport Shop in Hooksett, New Hampshire, and bought firearms they used to kill themselves hours later. Elaine Frank, creator of the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition — of which the sport shop was a member — worked together with the owner of Riley’s to create the Gun Shop Project.
The project — seeking to start suicide prevention conversations among gun owners and sellers — has distributed materials for suicide prevention to more than half of New Hampshire gun stores.
In 2011, the Gun Shop Project added a commandment addressing suicide to the previously established “10 Commandments of Firearm Safety” created by gun manufacturer Remington. The new commandment says “If a loved one is at risk for suicide, keep firearms away from them.”
Suicide is preventable up to a point, Frank said. But there will always be a few individuals who give no warning and will end their lives by any means available. “There are many people who are suicidally ambivalent. They’re not sure that they want to live, but they’re really not sure they want to die,” Frank said.
Counter employees at The Range 702 in Las Vegas are sent to safeTalk training to learn to identify the warning signs of potentially suicidal customers, gunsmith Bill Smallwood said.
Smallwood hasn’t yet been through the training, but after knowing four people who committed suicide — including his best friend — he feels like he can recognize the signs.
Smallwood was in Washington, D.C., when he got a 1 a.m. call about his best friend’s suicide. He was on the first plane home to Las Vegas to be there for Danny Wortman’s wife and family.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said.
Wortman came home and went upstairs for a long period of time, Smallwood said. When his wife went to the bedroom to check on him, she found him with a revolver to his head. She screamed “What are you doing?” and tried to pull the gun away.
He pulled the trigger. Click. He put the gun to his head a second time and pulled the trigger. It went off.
“Going through so many (suicides) and going through what I did, I pretty much know what to look for,” Smallwood said.
For gun shop employees who haven’t experienced suicides, it’s important to know how to recognize warning signs, he said. “It’s something everybody in the building watches out for,” he said.
Employees know it’s a red flag when a customer asks to rent a gun but doesn’t care what kind. When they only ask for one or two bullets, employees know to be cautious, Smallwood said.
That’s when a counter employee will call over Smallwood or another manager for a second opinion. If a manager feels uncomfortable giving the person a gun, service will be denied. Smallwood keeps a stack of brochures and phone numbers in his office he can give to people who seem to need help.
After the person leaves, employees of Range 702 will call every other gun range in town and warn them not to rent a gun to the at-risk individual, Smallwood said.
“People move here for the good life and then you get sucked into Sin City,” Smallwood said. “It is Las Vegas. You start at the penny machine, move up to the nickel machine, then you’re off to the quarter machine and then you’re on to the dollar machine, then you’re spending the rent and it just goes up like that.”
Discount Firearms and Ammo, a gun shop and range in Las Vegas, experienced a suicide about five years ago, operations manager Ron Reyes said.
A suicide will happen at any range if it has been open long enough, Reyes said. Ranges see more red flags and have more ability to stop suicidal customers if they are renting guns, as opposed to bringing their own. But gun ranges hire gun safety officers to provide oversight on the range, spot customers acting irregularly and prevent any incidents, he said.
“It’s a sad instance when it happens to anybody and when it’s as close as within our doors,” Reyes said. “The range officers, where that’s their daily work area, every time they pass by that lane they know something that other people don’t.”
Politicians told Linda Flatt, who helped create the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention and was a former suicide prevention trainer, not to bring up guns or gun safety from the beginning of her crusade for suicide prevention resources in Nevada.
Before the office was created in 2003, Sen. Ann O’Connell, R-Las Vegas, who sponsored legislation Flatt worked on, told her any mention of gun safety or gun control paired with suicide prevention talk would kill any progress for help to curb suicides.
Now, Flatt is amazed the office and its director, Richard Egan, are addressing it.
After her 25-year-old son, Paul Tillander, committed suicide in 1993, Flatt was adamant in thinking suicides were unpreventable. More than a decade later, she’s convinced the creation of the Office of Suicide Prevention and its work have helped decrease the high rate of suicide in the state.
Nevada had the highest rate of suicides and firearm suicides among all states in 1999, and was still in the top five for both in 2003 before the office was created, according to data gathered from the CDC. Flatt attributed high suicide rates to high gun ownership in the state and large rural areas with feelings of isolation and a go-it-alone mentality among residents.
By 2012, Nevada ranked 15th for firearm suicides, the News21 analysis shows. Flatt believes her work and that of her colleagues in her former office is the main cause of the drop over the years.
“I decided I was not going to be destroyed by this,” Flatt said of her son’s suicide. “There was only going to be one death, and that was his.”
Carmen Forman is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow.
This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
For every U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan during 11 years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in America.
More than 450 kids didn’t make it to kindergarten.
Another 2,700 or more were killed by a firearm before they could sit behind the wheel of a car.
Every day, on average, seven children were shot dead.
A News21 investigation of child and youth deaths in America between 2002 and 2012 found that at least 28,000 children and teens 19-years-old and younger were killed with guns. Teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 made up over two-thirds of all youth gun deaths in America.
The News21 findings are compiled in the most complete database to date from records obtained from 49 state health departments and FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports.
“It’s an unacceptable number and it should be regardless of where you stand on gun-owning ideology,” said Colette Martin, a member of Parents Against Gun Violence. “The numbers are that high and we are as a country ignoring them.”
Most of those killed by firearms, 62 percent, were murdered and the majority of victims were black children and teens. Suicides resulted in 25 percent of the firearm deaths of young people: The majority of them were white. More than 1,100 children and teens were killed by a gun that accidentally discharged.
An Epidemic of Violence
Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, a Baltimore youth advocacy group, said the dialogue on guns only seems to pierce the national consciousness when it’s a mass shooting in an affluent white suburban community, such as the one where he grew up.
The American gun debate, he said, rarely takes into account the number of black youth who are murdered every day.
“We as a country tolerate violence when it is in low-income black communities,” Cohen said. “Because we’ve come to accept that the acceptable face of gun deaths is black, we allow it to continue to happen.”
Dawnya Johnson was 11 years old when her already broken life was shattered further. Her mom was addicted to drugs, her dad was in prison, and she was tossed from foster home to foster home. She found solace in her older cousin, but that protection was left on a bloody sidewalk. Johnson’s cousin was shot six times in the back and he bled to death before the ambulance got to the scene. He was 17.
“He had taken on the role of two people who were unable to take care of me at that time,” Johnson said. “This beam of support had been ripped from under me.”
Her cousin had lost his job and started selling drugs to make ends meet. When Johnson’s foster families wouldn’t give her food or buy her clothes, he always found a way to get her what she needed.
“My cousin made sure that I had the basic stuff and that I had Nikes and looked fresh every day,” Johnson said. “No kid would ever know if we were homeless or I was hungry walking in the door.”
A young black girl growing up on her own in inner-city Baltimore, in a state with one of the highest percentage of black youth gun deaths in the nation, she said she doesn’t live in fear.
“I’ve become desensitized to fear,” Johnson said. “Once something happens so many times and it repeats itself it becomes something that you don’t fear.”
Jennifer Rauhouse, executive director of Peer Solutions, an Arizona-based organization that looks to prevent violence from occurring, said gun violence was a manifestation of other issues, such as child abuse, sexual abuse and bullying.
“If we don’t get to the heart of the question of gun violence, we’re doomed,” said Rauhouse, who founded the organization.
It’s not enough to react after a shooting, she said. Steps have to be taken to prevent that sort of violence from occurring in the first place.
Eli Chevalier, a high school senior and member of Peer Solutions, said the group works to prevent violence by teaching middle- and high-school students that respect and equality are the norm, not violence.
“People won’t turn to drugs and violence if they have respect and equality in their lives and in their relationships,” Chevalier said.
Cohen started The Intersection, a Baltimore youth advocacy group, after he was held at gunpoint in his Maryland apartment and realized how many kids live with gun violence in their neighborhoods. Johnson, an active member and student leader of The Intersection, lives with it every day.
“For my students, it’s having hope and feeling like they are playing a constructive role in bettering their communities,” Cohen said. “One of the challenges when you’re dealing with communities is that the victims of the gun violence often have a feeling of disenfranchisement.”
All of the students at The Intersection have been affected by gun violence. They’ve lost family or friends, been shot at or caught in shootouts.
“Our students are attempting to change that narrative and dismantle the amount of violence in our city,” Cohen said.
The state of Maryland had one of the highest percentages of black youth gun deaths from 2002 to 2012. In 11 years, more than 600 black kids were shot and killed in their homes or on the street.
“Kids are getting killed, but the reality is America has played such a role in shaping these communities, there is a responsibility that we have to solve this problem,” Cohen said.
The conversation can’t be just about guns, it’s more about racism and poverty, he said.
“There is too much access. It’s easier for a child to buy a firearm in Baltimore than it is to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Cohen said. “The less guns that are available, the less gun deaths we are going to have, but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
“This is not a Maryland problem, this is an American problem.”
One gun, one moment
Suicides by gunfire, on the other hand, made up the majority of gun deaths among white youth, accounting for an average of 653 every year.
“A gun doesn’t cause the suicidality, but a suicidal person with access to a gun is far more likely to die from an attempt than someone using another method,” said Elaine Frank, the director of Counseling on Access to Lethal Means. “It’s the combination of accessibility, familiarity, lethality and really short time frame that’s offered by a firearm.”
In New Hampshire, where CALM is based, more than 95 percent of all young people killed by guns were white youths and 70 percent of them committed suicide, News21 found.
As a former program director of the injury prevention center at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, Frank helped develop a state plan on suicide prevention, from which the state developed a suicide prevention council. According to Frank it’s not the gun laws that are going to prevent suicide - it has to be more of a family, community and cultural change.
“We are not anti-gun, we aren’t saying that gun use is a problem or gun ownership is a problem,” Frank said. “What we are opposed to is gun misuse and we do consider the ill-attempt by a child misuse.”
With a fairly rural culture, New Hampshire kids grow up with guns and are taught gun safety. They are familiar with firearms and most teenagers know where the guns are kept.
“If someone is suicidal and if they have easy access to highly lethal means, specifically firearms, it greatly increases the risk that if they do make an attempt it will be a lethal attempt,” Frank said.
Vermont, another rural New England state, also is facing the problem of youth suicides, with 73 percent of its youth gun deaths being suicides.
“Particularly in young people, the time of risk is often very short,” Frank said. “The time from making the decision to make an attempt, to actually making an attempt can be very, very short. There’s not enough time to say I don’t want to do this.”
Unintentional bullets are just as destructive
Accidents involving guns are the third-largest cause of firearm deaths for youths, after murder and suicide. More than 1,100 kids have been killed by a gun that accidentally discharged, the News21 analysis showed.
James Parker was 12 years old when he was accidentally shot and killed by a family member. He was hunting with his dad, uncle and step brother in Wake Forest, North Carolina, when a shotgun blast took his life.
Sincere Tymere Smith was 2 when he fatally shot himself with his father’s gun on Christmas in Conway, South Carolina. His father, who bought the gun after a previous break-in, was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the toddler grabbed the gun as it was lying on the table and shot himself in the chest.
Ryder Rozier was 3 when he stumbled across a gun in his uncle’s bedroom and shot himself in the head in Guthrie, Oklahoma. The gun belonged to his uncle, a state trooper.
Neegnco Xiong was 2 when he was shot by his 4-year-old brother, who found a gun under their father’s pillow in Minneapolis. The gun did not have a safety on it. The father was charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangerment of a child.
William Rees was 14 when he shot himself at his grandparent’s house in Fremont County, Idaho. He was shooting targets when his pistol went off and pierced his abdomen.
All were killed in 2012.
“Any gun that ends up in the hands of a child is first passed through the hands of an adult,” said Colette Martin, a member of Parents Against Gun Violence. “We have a lot of responsibility and accountability when it comes to legal gun owners who allow children to access their guns unsupervised.”
Teens between 15 and 19 were the most likely to be killed by the unintentional pull of a trigger, accounting for half of such deaths.
“These are the cases that keep me up at night because they are 100 percent preventable,” said Martin, a gun owner and stay-at-home mom, “and I will not be swayed from that belief.”
Whether homicide, suicide or accident, every four hours a child’s life was taken by a bullet during the 11-year period from 2002 to 2012. That’s the equivalent of the Sandy Hook massacre every three days.
More than 19,000 high school-aged students never got to walk across the stage and get a diploma.
“No gun law is going to change anything at this point,” Rauhouse said. “We make it about the guns and we’re not worried about our kids. People should be focusing on why gun violence exists and trying to prevent it from occurring.”
Other gun-control activists argue that gun-storage laws need to be implemented.
“Gun-storage laws with teeth behind them would stop some of the gun deaths that happen in homes,” said Martin, of Parents Against Gun Violence. “It’s a really important piece of federal law that’s missing. Responsible gun owners do it already, it’s not an infringement of a Second Amendment right.”
There are currently 28 states and Washington D.C. with a child access prevention law, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. These laws impose criminal liability on adults who do not properly store their guns when children are in the house.
“The gun lobby is very powerful. Elected officials are out of step with what the general public wants,” said Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety. “Americans are not serious about protecting youths and preventing gun violence.”
A Tegucigalpa-based high court announced this week that it is ready to hear a criminal defamation action by Sonia Inéz Gálvez, a lawyer married to the deputy prosecutor-general, against David Romero Ellner, the head of Radio Globo.
The lawsuit could result in a sentence of up to 15 years in jail for Romero and the closure of Radio y TV Globo, one of Honduras' most popular opposition broadcasters since the June 2009 coup d'état.
In her suit, Gálvez accused Romero and three of his Radio y TV Globo colleagues – Ivis Alvarado, Rony Martínez and César Silva – of insulting and defaming her on the air in connection with a 2002 case involving her and Romero. The court said it would only consider Gálvez's complaint against Romero.
Romero recently accused Gálvez of abusing her influence over the public prosecutor's office to obtain his conviction in the 2002 case.
A few days before she filed her complaint, Romero reported having been threatened by suspicious individuals and accused Gálvez of being behind an attempt to intimidate him. The National Commission for Human Rights (CONADEH) was asked to protect him.
“We call for the immediate withdrawal of this criminal defamation action against Romero,” said Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “Journalists were already censoring themselves so who will dare to speak out now? The closure of one of Honduras' leading opposition media would deal a major blow to freedom of information.”
The case exacerbates an already critical moment for freedom of information in Honduras five years after the 2009 coup, which saw physical attacks by the security forces against Tegucigalpa-based Radio Globo, as well as Radio Progreso in the north of the country and Canal 36 Cholutelsat-Sur in the south.
The current offensive against Radio Globo comes just days after a court convicted Lieutenant Colonel José Arnulfo Jiménez, the military officer responsible for the armed assault and forcible closure of Canal 36 during the coup.
Attempts to tighten control of the media and an escalation in violence against journalists have eclipsed the start of a debate with civil society – to which Radio y TV Globo was not invited – about a proposed law on protecting human rights defenders, journalist and others that it currently before the national congress.
Dagoberto Díaz, the owner of local TV station Canal 20, was gunned down in Danli, in the southeastern province of El Paraíso, on 23 August, becoming the eighth journalist to be murdered in Honduras this year. He was killed just nine days after TV presenter Nery Soto was gunned down in the northern city of Olanchito.
Honduras is ranked 129th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Just over a year old, Bustle is the women’s lifestyle website that blends hard news with stories about the injustice of Orange Is the New Black’s Emmy snub. The site publishes about 150 stories a day, from listicles to personal essays, with the intention of fostering a “positive and inclusive website for women,” says features editor, Rachel Krantz.
Bustle is actively recruiting journalists, essayists and photographers to join its roster of contributors — especially those who fall into its demographic of 18 to 34 year olds (including recent grads). Editors encourage writers to submit hyperlocal and hyperspecific content that share well on social media. However, as always, it’s important to keep in mind the tone of website. Krantz explains:
A lot of websites might have that feminist perspective, but it might not inform every piece. But we draw the line. We’re not going to do weight-loss content or ads around it, even though that content tends to do very well.
For more information on what to pitch to get the editors’ attention, read: How To Pitch: Bustle.
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This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
R.I.P.s are scrawled on the shell of a burned-out brick building, pockmarked by bullet holes. Overgrown with vines, its dilapidated outer walls recall the ruins of a fortress, a monument to a long-finished battle. But a war still courses through the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the past decade, it’s claimed the lives of hundreds of people — most of whom were black and barely into adulthood.
In Flint, Michigan, swing-sets in Mott Park are empty as drug dealers and gang members claim the turf as their own, guns tucked in their waistbands. During summer months, parents keep their children indoors, rarely letting them play outside in the daytime. Kickball at night isn’t even a thought. The recreation centers created to give the city’s youth a refuge are now hotbeds of violence, referees replaced with police.
Amid the crumbling row houses in once-industrial Camden, New Jersey, murals are dedicated to the fallen, hundreds more lost in one of America’s deadliest cities. One is dedicated to a veteran who survived his deployment in Iraq unscathed only to be shot and killed in his hometown.
“This is not a war you can win in one day,” one Camden police officer said. “This is not a war where you can go and get rid of the bad guys and say, 'OK guys, here’s your city back.'
“We have to occupy this city forever.”
Homicides are down across most of the country, but little has changed in these three cities. Parents are still losing their children at an alarming rate. Over 40 percent of all victims of firearm-related homicides are 25 or younger. In Camden, Flint and Baton Rouge, the typical victim is just 22.
A News21 analysis of the FBI’s national database of supplementary homicide reports found that across the country, 17,422 black men between ages 13 and 30 have been killed by firearms since 2008.
Patrick Holmes has a large pink scar running from his right wrist to the top of his little finger, a remnant of a gunfight he got into when he was 16. Next to the scar is a tattoo — a black, cursive “R.I.P.” On his left hand is one word: “Lawrince,” his best friend, now dead.
“I was crying, high, drinking, ain’t want to talk to nobody, couldn’t eat for a couple weeks,” Holmes said, of the day his friend was killed.
Now 19, Holmes points to an overgrown yard across from the train tracks that run along a busy highway in a neighborhood of north Baton Rouge called Scotlandville. In the distance is a new, two-story police station. This is where his friend was shot in the chest in September 2011 - collateral damage in someone else’s fight over a girl. He says it took 30 minutes for the police to respond.
News21’s analysis found 74 homicides in Baton Rouge in 2012, giving the city of 230,000 a homicide rate that is nearly seven times higher than the national rate. The data shows that a majority of Baton Rouge’s homicides — 85 percent — involved firearms, and the victims in 68 percent of all firearm-related homicides in Baton Rouge were 30 or younger in 2012.
“Murder in Baton Rouge, period, is glorified,” Holmes said. “The dude that go to school … he get his GED, high school diploma — he get all that, he a square. You ain’t nothing until you get out here and shoot you somebody. You get yourself a body.”
Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the country, with 10.8 murders for every 100,000 people. Some have attributed Louisiana’s high murder rate to the prevalence of weapons in the state and its strong gun culture.
Holmes said he got his first gun when he was 11. He knew where a man kept it, so he stole it and sold it for $150 the same day. Stealing is just one way to get a gun in Baton Rouge -- with $50, it’s easy to buy one on the street, Holmes says.
Perry Brooks, 42, is a substitute teacher in the city. He lives in Scotlandville, just across the train tracks from Southern University, and is a mentor to many former students, including Holmes. The kids in Scotlandville respect him — he’s not afraid of them. Brooks survived a gunshot wound to the head when he was 20. He says it’s not surprising to see 11-year-olds with guns. He’s seen fourth-graders bring them to class. He was disappointed when one of his 10th-grade students, who had a 3.79 GPA, was kicked out of school for selling a gun on campus.
“You’ve got to have guns to ward off people who intend to do harm with them,” Brooks said. “If I have a shotgun, someone is less likely to rob me.”
For Holmes and many of his friends, carrying a weapon is about the economics of survival. He says that most of the kids he knows are raising themselves. They might not know their parents or have a place to live. In Scotlandville, 56 percent of children under the age of 18 live below the poverty line according to U.S. Census data.
“It’s so many situations people grow up in … seeing his mother get beat or on dope and he got to get it for his family,” Holmes said. “He’s 5 years old, breaking into everybody’s cars trying to get something to eat for his little sister or something. You think he get old enough and he get a gun, you think he ain’t going to rob somebody? You think he won’t kill you to go bring that back to his people?”
“This environment don’t do nothing but just swallow you up.”
Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore says he sees kids on the witness stand, no older than 15, who have a three-page rap sheet. He often asks where they see themselves at age 18.
“There’s generally two answers,” Moore said. “The answer is either at Angola (prison) doing a life sentence for killing someone … or being dead.”
Last year, Baton Rouge received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce youth violence. The grant helped the city fund the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program (BRAVE), which is modeled after “Operation Ceasefire,” a crime-reduction strategy that’s effectively reduced gun crime in many American cities since it was first implemented by the Boston Gun Project in 1996.
The program’s primary goal is to get youth to put their guns down and stop shooting each other, Moore said.
The grant is directed at one ZIP code: 70805. Just north of downtown Baton Rouge, bordered on the west by the mammoth ExxonMobil refinery, the 70805 area is predominantly black, and very poor. Moore said it accounts for 13 percent of the city’s population, but 40 percent of all police calls in Baton Rouge come from there.
Moore attributes a drop in Baton Rouge murders last year — from 72 in 2012 to 61 in 2013 — to BRAVE. However, while crime fell in BRAVE’s target area, it rose in some neighboring areas.
On March, 27, Lashona Mosby’s three sons were shot in broad daylight in an area of Baton Rouge referred to as “the Jungle” — just east of 70805. Two survived: her youngest son, age 21, was shot once and the oldest, 25, was shot twice. But her 23-year-old middle son was shot three times in the head and twice in the upper torso. He did not survive.
“We are rooted and grounded in God,” Mosby said. “But I do have my moments when I’m at home, and I might scream. Like today I woke up, I went outside. About 6 o’clock in the morning I began to cry out, to shed tears, because as days go by, months go by I’m missing my son even more so.”
Recently, Mosby has been attending anti-violence events. She hopes to form a support group for mothers who have lost children to violent crime .
“We’re not speaking up enough,” Mosby said. “We’re not being those people that we used to be, whether we’re white, black, no matter what we are, just stand together, pull together.”
Around the corner from Hurley Medical Center, a teaching hospital that treats dozens of shooting victims in Flint, five men rest on the rotting wooden steps of a chipped and crooked house. They say they’re exhausted from a day of work on the streets.
“I don’t like doing that shit man. I don’t like feeding my kids with drug money,” one man says.
Flint residents say the robberies and violence stem from drugs, a lack of education, and a lack of jobs. When General Motors and other factories left, the city’s fall from grace came shortly after. For years, it topped lists as the most-violent city in the nation.
One of the men, who calls himself “Big Hurt,” has lived in the city his whole life and laments how much it has changed and how violent it has become. “I just got shot, around June 5 of last year, like right here,” he says, while pointing at the corner right in front of the home. “Over a whole bunch of bullshit. But I ain’t crying over it…it is what it is.”
In 2012, there were 64 murders in the city, which had 101,632 residents that year, 13 times higher than the national murder rate. Nearly 90 percent of those homicides were firearm-related.
The numbers don’t surprise these men, whose conversations are strewn with murder stories. A man who called himself “Boobie Dawg” said his nephew went to prison because of a $32 gun.
“Him and another friend, they went half on it. Him and another friend were running around going ‘I got you, I got you’ with the gun .... My nephew was f---ing around, he pulled it and he killed somebody. He’s in prison right now. He didn't mean to shoot him, but he shot him.”
It’s Porsha Fluker’s 21st birthday. She’s trying to enjoy a rare day off work, to celebrate with family and friends. But she can’t help thinking about her older brother, now dead. It’s her first birthday without him and the trial of his accused killer is set to start in the weeks to come.
“There is not a day when I’m not thinking about him. I think what hurts more is that I’ll never see him again,” Fluker said, fighting to hold back tears until she no longer can.
He brother, Terience Demonte Johnson, was 26 when he was shot and killed on Oct. 12, 2013. Shortly after his death, Fluker got a tattoo in his memory. It’s a lifeline, like one from a cardiac monitor, intended to represent the peaks and valleys during his short life.
The peaks include the times Johnson cheered on Fluker at her basketball games, and the birth of his two daughters, now 6 and 8 years old.
The low points are run-ins with the law. Johnson did some time in jail for selling drugs, but his grandmother, Star Kelly, said, “He was trying to turn his life around and we thought things were going good.”
A suspect is in custody, but Johnson’s family still doesn’t know why he was killed, or exactly how it happened. No witnesses have come forward. Kelly says it’s difficult to find people willing to speak to police or in court in Flint, as they fear retaliation.
“We’ve seen people try to tell what they’ve seen and the next day they’re dead,” she said.
Although she may never know why her brother had to die, Fluker hopes the trial will bring her peace, and her brother justice.
“I hope that he do life in prison and whoever else was involved I hope they go down too,” she said of her brother's killer.
If there’s redemption to be found, it comes at the Foss Avenue Baptist church where the Brothers Battling Bloodshed are trying keep young men from killing and dying.
“Thank you Lord for everything you’ve done for us,” they pray at their meeting. “Thank you for motivating us to move past any situation or any wrong, Father, that may try to hold us back.”
In a city where little is sacred, Foss Avenue Baptist’s basketball court and community garden are sanctuaries. All of the youth in Brothers Battling Bloodshed live in close proximity to the church, making it easy for them to meet, garden, talk politics and go to theater performances together.
The program director, Roderick Green, hopes he can keep kids from picking up guns by keeping their minds on other things.
Isiaha Canada’s best friend encouraged him to join the outreach group. The 16-year-old had some close calls — including having a gun pointed to his head — and his friend thought that the group might be able to protect him.
“My friend got shot in front of me on my porch,” Canada said. “You see that happen you be like, ‘Oh, shit, it’s a body in front of me, it’s bleeding.’ You don’t know what to do … I was scared.”
Canada says it’s common to see kids as young as 14 carrying guns. He used to be one of them, and reluctantly admits he once shot someone he didn’t like.
“I did what I did,” he said. “I can’t go back in time and stop what I did, but I was young and dumb. Just seeing older people do it, I do it.”
According to Canada, guns in Flint are “dirt cheap” and he says they mostly come from predominantly white suburbs like nearby Grand Blanc, Michigan.
Throughout his first term in office, U.S. Congressman Dan Kildee has fought to secure federal resources for cities like Flint to combat violent crime. In May, Kildee introduced an amendment that would add $15 million to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives budget to fund partnerships of local and federal organizations to “go after these basically bad guys with guns” as he puts it.
The bill failed, and Kildee says many in the government don’t believe there’s “a legitimate federal role” in supporting cash-strapped cities like Flint. But Kildee, a Democrat who was born and raised in Flint, believes the city can only improve if given federal assistance and that it’s the government’s “most significant” responsibility to provide for the basic safety of its citizens.
“The thing to keep in mind is that the people who live in Flint, they’re not any different than the people who live anywhere else,” Kildee said. “They have the same aspirations that anyone else does. They just need to be given the same opportunities. And we, as a society, have a responsibility to them.”
Every other week, the mothers of Camden meet at Virtua hospital, where they come to talk about the dead. They cluster around a table, where the windows behind them frame an American flag flying in front of the towering oxidized copper spires of a historic Catholic church.
Each one raised children in the city; each one lost children to the city.
"I don't think I can really ever 'get over' losing my son," says one of the women. "They told me to go to counseling, but those psychiatrists haven't gone what I've gone through."
Cheri Burks started the support group, United Mothers Stand, after her son was shot and killed on Mother's Day last year. He was 24 years old.
“Nobody here has money,” Christina “Goosie” Carstarphen said. “Nobody has a bank account, nobody has homes, nobody has a business.”
Carstarphen saw her son, Robert, lying in an alley after he was shot and killed in 2012.
“For him to be gunned down like he was, in an alleyway, like a dog, that wasn’t right,” she said. “I couldn’t even cry, I was so angry. It was just like, something just ripped out of my body, like a part of me just went.”
After her son’s death, she installed blackout blinds throughout her apartment. She wanted to grieve in the dark.
“I lost my job and everything when my son died,” Carstarphen said. I didn’t want to leave the house. I shut myself down.”
Camden is a community that has been wrecked by gun violence. In 2012, the small city — only nine square miles with a population of 77,000 — had a murder rate that was 17 times higher than the national murder rate. Since then, the number of murders has fallen, down from 65 in 2012 to 58 in 2013 and 19 so far in 2014, according to statistics from the Camden County Police Department.
Despite the falling homicide rate, the problems plaguing Camden and spurring violent crime are numerous. Police Chief Scott Thomson calls the city “the perfect storm of social inequities.” Its streets are deteriorating. There are no supermarkets, and restaurants are hard to find. It is one of the poorest cities in the United States with a per capita income of around $13,000, and there are few job opportunities.
One factor contributing to the killings is the proliferation of illegal firearms. About eight out of 10 guns the police confiscate are from out of state, Thomson said, coming from Pennsylvania and Maryland, both of which have more relaxed gun laws than New Jersey. Frequently, they end up in the hands of Camden’s youth.
Former Camden County Prosecutor Diane Marano said young men in Camden carry guns for protection after they start working on the streets. Marano, who wrote a doctoral thesis on juvenile gun acquisition, interviewed many jailed youth from south New Jersey. In an environment of acute economic deprivation, a gun was "a key to anything you want to do," one teen told her.
Thomson says that with so many guns accessible, they’re commonly used to resolve street-corner disputes.
Camden County Police — successors to the Camden Police Department, which was disbanded in 2012 after the city ran out of money to pay for its own force — has taken on a more prominent role in the community since its was formed in 2013, increasing foot patrols and installing additional surveillance cameras. Thomson said the heightened police presence seems to be helping, with murders down by 35 percent so far this year.
Nevertheless, many Camden residents say they do not feel any safer. People are still reluctant to venture far beyond their “'hoods” -- there’s still a feeling that safety is only possible if you stay within a stone’s throw of your own house.
Thomson concedes that the police will never be able to solve every problem the city is facing.
“We got a gun and we got a pair of handcuffs,” he said. “The pistol and the bracelets aren’t going to fix the problems of our city, and we try to use those as tools of last resort.”
The first line of defense is the community.
Hamzah Hamid is a fixture on Haddon Avenue. Shouts of “Assalamu Alaikum” typical of this heavily Muslim community greet him. He’s a religious man; a prayer bump on his forehead from his daily devotions proves the intensity with which he practices his faith. He feels it’s his destiny to stay in Camden, to keep kids from going down the same path he did: Hamid served three years in prison for selling drugs.
Hamid is one of the co-founders of Rising Leaders, an outreach group trying to create positive opportunities for at-risk youth. He talks to kids in Camden about everything from job readiness, budgeting, and healthy eating. He wants them to have goals, to plan for a future many have trouble imagining.
"We're just trying to show these young bulls that they can do something else with their lives besides dealing drugs and gang-banging," Hamid said.
He says the young people he works with turn to crime because they’re frustrated and alone. They have no place to go, and no positive role models. Part of Hamid’s work is simple: Give the kids something to do besides run the streets. On the bottom floor of his house, Hamid offers drop-in karate courses and lets neighborhood kids play videogames.
“If there were two or three more people like Hamid in Camden,” said Dexter Hart, Hamid’s father-in-law, “the city would be a lot better off.”
A few blocks north of Rising Leaders' makeshift headquarters, a Jesuit priest is fighting the same battle. The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, is the founder and executive director of HopeWorks N' Camden, a group that focuses on helping youths who come from unstable housing situations. The program offers temporary housing and helps young men and women get jobs and GED certificates.
The cornerstone of the program, however, focuses on the youths’ pasts. HopeWorks provides counseling, employing a form of treatment called trauma-informed care that looks at the impact trauma has had on the lives of youths in the program.
“The people living in Camden, especially the youths, have been exposed to so much stress in their lives due to the poverty they've grown up in and the violence all around them,” Putthoff said. “This hurts them when they try to get and hold a job.”
Puthoff says that many young people turn to drugs to alleviate the distress caused by trauma.
"I see a future of healing, but a future that requires a lot of work," he said. “Healing takes work, healing is sweaty.”
“Hope is sweaty.”
A few years ago, Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden was a notorious open-air drug market, littered with needles. But in 2011, Bryan Morton founded the North Camden Little League, remaking the park as one of the only places offering recreational activities to the city’s youth. Now, he says, summer is the best season in Camden.
“Everybody is out, everybody is connected,” Morton said. “Nobody wants to leave the park, nobody wants to go home, everybody wants another at bat.”
He says he founded the baseball league to give fathers the chance to be fathers, mothers a time to relax, kids the opportunity to be kids and to let everyone forget for a moment that they live in the most-dangerous city in America.
He loves the view from the baseball field.
“The sun’s setting, the back channel of the Delaware, light breeze blowing through the trees, kids and coaches. Parents looking on. That’s all-American,” Morton said.
“This is reminding us of our place in this society, and it’s reminding the society that we are here.”
And that they want their children to live.
Erin Patrick O’Connor, Jon LaFlamme, Claudia Balthazar and Jackie DelPilar contributed to this report. O’Connor is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow; LaFlamme is a News21 Weil Fellow and DelPilar is The John and Patty Williams Fellowship Fellow.
Magna Global cut its forecast for U.S. advertising revenue growth this year to 5.1% from 6% on Tuesday, because ad spending the first half of the year was weaker than expected. But the Interpublic-owned media buying and research firm expects the ad market to bounce back in the second half of the year, and see its strongest growth rate in a decade in 2015.
On a normalized basis, television revenues are expected to grow 2.2% this year. Newspaper and magazine ad revenue are expected to decline 8.9% and 11% respectively, while digital ad revenues are expected to jump 17% this year to $50 billion. Radio sales are expected to contract 3% this year, a larger decline than last year. Outdoor media sales are projected to improve 1.7%, a slowdown compared to the mid-single digit growth rate seen in the past three years.
Meanwhile, the firm reduced its forecasts of TV ad revenue growth to 2.3% from 3.8% for 2015. Other traditional media formats will benefit from stronger overall ad growth, but will continue to lose market share and ad dollars to digital media next year. Newspaper and magazine ad sales are expected to fall 6.2% and 9.4%, respectively, in 2015. Meanwhile, radio ad sales will improve slightly at 0.5% and out-of-home will rise 3.4% in 2015, Magna Global projects.
For newspapers, continued print advertising declines will mean more pressure on circulation (print subscribers and paywalls) or new revenue (digital marketing services, events) to make up the difference. Most likely, they won’t, and we’ll see more cuts.
If the rate of print ad decline does slow in 2015 (from 8.9 percent down to 6.2 percent down), that would be…semi-good news, I guess, after several years of drops in the high single digits? But there’s nothing here to predict a leveling off, much less a return to growth.
And for all the attention newspapers’ troubles get, those magazine numbers are downright terrible — that’s a predicted 19.3 percent decline in two years’ time.
(“MAGNA GLOBAL is the strategic global media unit responsible for forecasts, insights and negotiation strategy across all media channels on behalf of Mediabrands. Part of Interpublic Group (NYSE: IPG), MAGNA works with the brands within these respective holding companies on behalf of their clients.”)
What makes a media innovation project succeed?
That’s the question the Knight Foundation has been asking about perhaps the most prominent program supporting media innovation, the Knight News Challenge. Since 2007, the competition has attracted thousands of people with ideas for an innovation project, and Knight has funded more than a hundred of them. Some have grown into successful, widely used tools; others have disappeared with barely a trace.
Knight is out with a new report today that looks at the successes and failures of two cycles of the News Challenge, and what lessons might be passed on from them to other inventors and entrepreneurs. (Along with a visual summary, the full report is available as a PDF.)
RELATED ARTICLEWhat we know now: Reevaluating the 2009 Knight News ChallengeSeptember 6, 2012On its face, the document reads like a lesson plan for journalism innovation, especially if you’re interested in developing a project you have to have Knight fund some day in the future. (Now would be a good time for a disclosure: Knight is a financial supporter of Nieman Lab, though not through the News Challenge.) Knight, working with Arabella Advisors, surveyed News Challenge winners from 2010 and 2011, looking at their original applications, metrics around their projects, and other materials to see what behaviors and characteristics correlated with success.
RELATED ARTICLENew Knight News Challenge winners receive funding to help strengthen the InternetJune 23, 2014This is the second time Knight has put together a report card on the News Challenge; the first focused on the 2009 round of winners. The findings will likely be used in helping to shape the program’s future: Knight CEO Alberto Ibargüen has said the foundation is looking for new ways to support innovation in media and on the web.
Over the time period being studied, the News Challenge featured 28 projects like FrontlineSMS, iWitness, and Zeega, among others. The document’s worth a read to get an update on how those projects are faring today — some continue on, others have spun into something new, and others have closed their doors. Knight offers eight lessons for future innovation in the report; here are a few of the highlights.Understand your staffing needs early
Many News Challenge projects are developed by people who already have a full-time job elsewhere, which means figuring out the best ways to devote time and energy to an idea can be tricky. Having a core staff from the outset is important for putting a project on the right footing, but so is identifying what things can be done by part-timers or volunteers, the report says. You can’t just assume that your idea will find the right community of users and take off on its own:
Many projects plan at the outset to rely upon a dedicated user community to refine and promote an innovation, and upon vocal evangelists to drive wider adoption of their tools. In many cases, user communities and evangelists can become indispensable (and inexpensive) cornerstones of a project, especially when a project is dependent upon open source development. But without a core group of paid staff with the skills, the time, and the incentive to devote themselves full time to a project, development of a tool can suffer.The pros and cons of going open source
But News Challenge winners reported that the open source requirement could also slow down their efforts, especially for groups working on existing software or tools that receive funding. The report suggests that more flexibility be offered in the what projects are made open source in the future.
In some cases, the News Challenge winners themselves benefit from using and sharing open source code. In other cases, it is the wider community of developers that benefits most. It is entirely conceivable that the winner might bear the cost of developing open source code, without receiving an equivalent or offsetting benefit, which might accrue to someone else entirely.Getting into newsrooms will be a challenge
A common desire among News Challenge projects is to build tools to help journalists in newsrooms. Some, like Zeega, wanted to build a platform that simplifies multimedia projects for local news outlets. Others, like ScraperWiki, wanted to make it easier for journalists to pull and store data from websites. But both projects were met with some resistance, as newsrooms were unwilling to pay for the service they created.
Fundamentally, unless an innovation addresses a pressing need, journalists and news organizations will not adopt it. In fact, innovators need to anticipate resistance, and create development and marketing plans that address it. Innovators may need to diversify their user bases beyond journalists and news organizations to promote wider adoption and project sustainability.Aim for a broader audience than you might anticipate
So convincing journalists to try something new is hard — that’s why it’s important look at what other users might have a need for what you are building. CityTracking had anticipated an audience of journalists for its public data display tools, but later focused on specifically serving developers. Game-o-matic, which lets reporters build games based off the news, shifted gears to reach users outside of newsrooms.Pushback can come from multiple directions
Newsrooms with tight budgets and established ways of working aren’t the only source of resistance. In many cases, News Challenge projects found themselves bumping up against established institutions, and some institutions don’t like to be disrupted.
RELATED ARTICLEReality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial systemMay 3, 2011For the OpenCourt project, which wanted to provide live streaming of court cases in Massachusetts, that resistance came in the form of lawsuits from the judiciary.Get the user interface right early
A lesson from the world of apps and game builders, applied to journalism entrepreneurs:
User interface can play a major role in determining whether a media innovation is actually adopted by its audience — an interface that’s fun to use or saves the user’s time can make the difference between a tool that’s used and one that gathers dust. Among the innovations developed by News Challenge winners, the most effective interfaces frequently have been those that appear simple or straightforward.Everyone needs a little support sometimes
One thing Knight has heard from News Challenge winners in the past was repeated in this report: They need more support, beyond funding. Because Knight has such a large network that touches into media, technology, government, and more, grantees said they want to be able to tap the expertise of others when it comes to developing their business plans and other strategies. In particular, the 2011 and 2010 winners said further connecting with other winners of the News Challenge would also prove helpful to learn from their experience.Success goes beyond the impact of a single project
The best barometer of success isn’t the outcome of individual projects but the effects projects may have on their sectors or industries. Funders should focus on building the capacity of innovators as leaders in their fields or strengthening their network of supporters and collaborators for long-term impact — regardless of the sustainability of particular projects.