You could see them in several spots around Westerly-Pawcatuck: the remnants of mementos left near the railroad tracks; a cross on Liberty Street; and, most recently, a yarn-wrapped tree in Wilcox Park. Surely there are others in the area: the memorials to young people who took their own lives. Family and friends of one of the latest victims, Shawn Gooding, shared their memories of him with the readers of The Sun and said they would devote themselves to improving our understanding of suicide. They couldn’t fathom how such a fate could befall a young man who had such an “outgoing and vibrant personality” and was so committed to helping other people. Much has been discussed and written about suicide since the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and the release of new national figures from the CDC, but the loss of Shawn and so many others is a reminder of how much we still don’t know.

Still, there are signs of hope. It’s already clear that “red flag” gun-removal laws have saved lives in places like Connecticut where they are in effect. Research is steadily uncovering valuable information about physical and psychological factors associated with suicide attempts, and the public is becoming more aware of the warning signs. Dr. Robert Harrison, the Westerly Hospital physician who offers a training program called QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), has said, “The good news is that suicide is preventable.” And Andrea Duarte, director of the Suicide Prevention Program at the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said that anyone who believes a friend or loved one is considering suicide should ask them directly if they are contemplating taking their own life, and then direct them to sources of help. “Each person was very much loved and cared about by some else,” Duarte said. “One death is too many.”

The publisher of The Providence Journal told an Open Markets Institute forum in Washington, D.C., that the newpaper industry’s business model was broken and that “The market is changing so rapidly that we can’t convert and change fast enough.” The title of the June 12 meeting was “Breaking the News: Free Speech & Democracy in the Age of Platform Monopoly.” Google, Facebook, and Apple have swallowed up much of the  traditional news business, with the result that journalism in many communities is dying. Adding to the pressures are a 22.16 percent tariff imposed at the end of March on imports of Canadian newsprint, and the whole “fake news” syndrome, which, in the words of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, has led to “the erosion of the common world of fact.” President Trump’s assertions that the news media is the enemy of the people have undermined journalists everywhere, even in small markets. 

At the same forum, Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times Company, expressed confidence that press freedom in the U.S. would survive, but said the economic threat “is much more intractable.” He pointed to four unresolved issues: the “opacity” of the major platforms’ algorithms that sort and prioritize content; their encouragement of “atomized consumption of single stories” that strip away signals about “editorial intentionality” (lead story or footnote; news or commentary); the inequitable division of revenue; and the loss of competing, independent points of editorial control. Facebook, he suggested, poses a particular threat because it could be led “into a naive attempt to set itself up as the digital world’s editor-in-chief,” even though it has admitted that its algorithm “was unable to tell the difference between advocacy and journalism.”

As Thompson said, “Democracies cannot remain healthy if citizens do not know what is happening in their communities.” We believe that a newspaper subscription is a vital part of a citizen’s tool kit, and we know there’s a big difference between areas that have a paper and those that don’t. Studies have been done on this. Last month, research reported by business professors at Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Chicago (“Financing dies in darkness? The impact of newspaper closures on public finance”) quantified some of the differences. For one thing, “long-run municipal borrowing costs increase by as much as 11 basis points following a newspaper closure.” Taxes, government wage rates and public employees per capita are also affected, the researchers said, while alternative news outlets “do not necessarily provide a good substitute for high-quality, locally sourced, investigative journalism.” 

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