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Sitting under a tiki-decorated patio umbrella in the early evening heat Wednesday at downtown Lenoir’s Hogwaller Stage, my wife and I chatted with a 50-something Caldwell County native as we waited for the sun to drop behind the county office building and a band to begin playing.

This is the third summer that you can find outdoor music with your dinner and drinks one or more evenings a week at Hogwaller, which is on Church Street directly behind 1841 Café, but our friend said he wasn’t even aware there was a stage there until just a couple of weeks ago.

He had a friend he had asked to meet him there. While we were talking to him, she texted him a question: Where is Hogwaller?

She had never heard of it either, though the name “hogwaller” in relation to that spot downtown long predates either of them.

In fact, this man — born and raised here, never lived anywhere else, and active in the community — had never even heard of 1841 until that first trip. He didn’t know that right across Main Street from it was another restaurant, the Side Street Pour House, with 40 beer taps and full bar.

We didn’t talk about it, but I would wager that if he didn’t know about all that, he didn’t know that a couple of blocks west is Loe’s Brewing, serving craft beer with gourmet burgers, pasta and sometimes a few other things, or just a little farther west Joan’s Sourdough Bread (fresh bread plus lunch), or Essie and Olive (known for popsicles but also serving lunch), or the Corner Creamery (ice cream!), or J&A General Store, or the soon-to-open Fercott Fermentables (home brewing supplies, beer and wine). I could go on.

I’ll assume he knows of the downtown antique stores, as well as Piccolo’s Pizza, which has been downtown since he was a young man.

This is something I keep encountering.

A few years ago a woman who grew up in Happy Valley and lived here all her life said she had no idea what was in downtown Lenoir or even what the streets were — she had never been.

When Lenoir had its first-ever beer garden at a street festival a couple of years ago, a woman who lives in Lenoir was irritated to find out about it only after the fact.

Last year a man who moved to Gamewell a number of years ago from another state said he didn’t even know how to get to downtown Lenoir — even though he had been to the U.S. Post Office there many times. He just went straight to the Post Office and then straight back out again. After I told him to just go another block or so farther west than he had before, suddenly he discovered Piccolo’s, his new favorite pizza place.

“Love the layout,” he wrote to me, “feel like I’m on a set for the TV show American Pickers!”

Similarly, the Caldwell County Economic Development Commission’s program “Hired Education,” in which a set of 30 local teachers get a three-day immersion in the local economy, consistently prompts expressions of surprise among its participants: They toured companies they never heard of before, or saw machines they never dreamed existed in buildings they pass every day, and involving jobs they had no idea anyone in Caldwell County held.

A man walked into the lobby of the News-Topic a couple of weeks ago and asked if there’s a shoe-repair place in town. Yes, about three blocks from our office.

Need I point out that all of these places and businesses have been in the newspaper within the past few years?

No one is more acutely aware of how much smaller newspaper staffs are than they used to be, and how much less they are able to cover than they once could, than a newspaper editor is. But there still is a lot of local knowledge missed by people who don’t regularly read the paper, whether on paper or on our website. It doesn’t cross their personal experience or their Facebook feed. It’s information that won’t seek you out. You have to look for it, without knowing for sure what you’re looking for. That’s one thing the newspaper is still good for, and it’s not a small thing.

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For every situation we face, there are choices with bad outcomes and other corresponding choices with good outcomes. We tell ourselves this all the time.

If a choice turned out to be a bad one, we feel sure that if we had made a different choice, what happened would have been a better result.

But life is more complicated. You can make a choice that turns out to be a mistake, but if you had it to do over there might be more than one choice, and it’s not a given that there is always a choice that brings the result you desire, or that the correct choice is easy to recognize. All of the choices might have outcomes you don’t like – a giant series of chutes that all ultimately feed into a single, spiral slide downward to the same destination, or to a variety of slides and destinations, all of them bad.

That’s where I’m left when thinking about Jack Shafer’s much-shared column in Politico about a paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas and published in the journal Journalism Practice.

“The paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust,” Shafer writes. “The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. ‘Digital first,’ the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Shafer contends that the newspaper industry “should have stuck with its strengths—the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from—instead of chasing the online chimera.”

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument, but I have trouble seeing how simply not putting content on the web would have done much more than slow the bleed of readers because it assumes news from traditional sources is competing with other news for readers’ attention, not with the larger ecosystem of things that are available to occupy readers’ time, which skyrocketed in number and especially convenience due to the mobile web.

The larger problem for the argument posed by Shafer, who is only the latest to make it, is that the ultimate problem for news is not the bleed of readers leaving print but the bleed of advertisers. As Jim Brady noted in a tweet, “There’s a reason you can put 50 cents in a newspaper machine and take ALL OF THEM. That wasn’t where real revenue was.”

To this day, the Charlotte Observer loses money, when comparing what the subscriber pays to the cost of paper, ink and gasoline, on every paper it delivers to my town. The Observer does it to preserve the size of its print audience, which helps it prop up advertising rates.

Advertising has left print faster than print’s audience has, not because print didn’t serve advertisers’ needs but because online offers shinier, cheaper, easier-to-measure and easier-to-target options in a vastly larger array of attention-getting offerings, even if the measures are bots and smoke and the audiences are diffuse. Put news behind a digital Great Wall of China and it wouldn’t change that.

Defending the idea that print would have been better off keeping the web at arm’s length depends on believing that the departure of advertisers especially not only would have been a great deal less than it has been but also that advertising revenues would – and perhaps still could, if only there were more paywalls – level out at a higher level than they are at now.

You have to consider the possibility that if the newspaper industry had done as Shafer wishes it had, today its overall circulation might be – might be – somewhat higher than it is now, but free online options other than news still would have peeled away many casual subscribers; advertising still would be a fraction of what it once was, which would have driven both staff and content cuts, which would further have driven away readers; and there still would be no end in sight to revenue declines; that the chute might be less steep, but it still would lead the same direction.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue addressed by Steve Buttry that Shafer, Chyi and Tenenboim look at what the news industry has done online and conclude the industry actually strongly pursued a digital strategy, while those like Buttry and Brady who have advocated for a digital-first approach feel the industry pursued less-than-half-hearted measures that were doomed from the start.

“The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made,” Buttry writes, “was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.”

A few, in that view, have actually approached the digital-first chute, including the former Digital First Media that Buttry and Brady worked for.

Buttry again: “When I worked at Digital First, I described our company’s name as an aspiration, rather than an achievement. I applaud our former CEO John Paton and our former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady for leading us further and faster down the digital path than any other newspaper company. But that barely took us to the outskirts of digital experimentation.”

In other words, most who have even approached the true digital-first chute jumped off, and even those still on it have not yet ridden it all the way. We don’t know where it would end up.

Buttry, Brady and others who see things as they do might still be proven wrong about where that chute goes, but there is less evidence that they are wrong than that Shafer is.

UPDATE: Another view, by Matthew Ingram writing in Fortune:

“As tempting as it is to re-imagine history, however, it’s a virtual certainty that even if most newspapers had focused more of their resources on print and less on digital, the outcome would have been more or less identical.”

AND THIS: A good summary of the debate online from Poynter.

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Bill Tate, Meadowood Studios
One thing that hasn’t changed about newspapers is errors.

On page 1 of the yellowed, disintegrating copy of the Lenoir Topic, one of the weekly predecessors of the News-Topic, donated by Frank Coffey and recently posted by Bill Tate on the “Lenoir and Caldwell County History” Facebook page, the paper’s publication date appears as Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1905, but on page 2 it says Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1905.

That makes me feel better about the much more recent times the News-Topic has carried the wrong day, date or both.

Nothing on the 1905 front page was about anything in Caldwell County, except for all of the local ads – and there were quite a few. One was a long, text ad for Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, a pill that supposedly protected you against germs:

“It increases the vital power, cleanses the system of clogging impurities, enriches the blood, puts the stomach and organs of digestion and nutrition in working condition, so that the germ finds no weak or tainted spot in which to break. … Only one or two a day will regulate and cleanse and invigorate a bad Stomach, torpid Liver, or sluggish Bowels.”

That was just one of many ads throughout the paper for “cures” of various kinds — Cuticura Soap, Ointment and Pills, Mozley’s Lemon Elixir (another for “torpid liver”), Dyspepsia by Crab Orchard Water, Cascarets Candy Cathartic (for your bowels, “They work while you sleep”), Sloan’s Liniment and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which pitched itself exclusively to women starting with the headline, “STOP, WOMAN!” by promising confidential advice by mail for health issues that women would not feel comfortable confiding to male doctors.

Page 2 carried in the top left corner, under the incorrect date, two important items of information: The subscription cost, $1 a year, and the Topic’s telephone number, 7.

Page 2 also carried a mix of news, from the newly brokered peace treaty between Russia and Japan to the General Assembly passing a measure for a referendum in Lenoir on issuing $50,000 in bonds for streets, sidewalks, sewer lines or an electrical plant.

Page 3 started with the heading “OF LOCAL INTEREST” and listed people who had been somewhere or were on their way:

“Mrs. Harper Beall has returned from a visit to Chester S.C.

“R.A. Ramseur has been on a trip to Mitchell.

“Carroll Rapp went to Guilford College Monday.

“Mr. J. Gorden Ballew returned to Baltimore last Friday.”

Farther down, under the headline “Sweet Girl Freshmen and Sophomores,” was a short paragraph:

“It was a sad pity that the Topic reporter belongs to the wrong ‘sect’ (to quote Samantha) Tuesday, for a whole carload of sweetness came up billed for Davenport College. It sho’ was a pretty sight to behold all those nice girls at once. The conductor did look so happy.”

Under that was the news of “the terrible damage done by a mad dog” rampaging from Lenoir to Patterson, which was finally shot and killed under the Crisp, Cilly & Co. store in Patterson.

With that news was a message issued by Lenoir Mayor Edgar Allan Poe saying that, because no one knew how many other dogs the rabid dog may have bitten, “Notice is hereby given that all dogs found on the streets of Lenoir unmuzzled for the next thirty days will be shot.”

Ads on this page included one for a 12-room house in Granite Falls for sale for $1,000. “We stake our reputation on the assertion that you cannot duplicate this for $1,500.00,” it said.

Page 4 brought more details on the Russia-Japan peace, including a separate wire story on world leaders crediting Teddy Roosevelt with brokering the peace, and a mix of state, national and international wire items, then some “filler” (the news term for short things used to fill inconvenient space), including some one-liners that also appeared as filler on at least one other page in the same issue, such as, “A woman’s idea of heaven is five parts wavy hair and five parts a good figure,” and, “A useful thing about automobiles is all the new cuss words you learn when they won’t work.”

The news largely petered out by page 5, where there was a long piece of fiction, “Luke Hammond, the Miser,” by Prof. William Henry Peck, and other apparently syndicated specialty feature items. One, “With the Funny Fellows,” relayed short, presumably fictitious anecdotes supplied by papers around the country:

“I was surprised,” said the Rev. Mr. Goodman, sternly, “to see you playing golf last Sabbath. I should think you’d do better –”

“Oh!” replied Hardcase, “I usually do. I was in wretched form last Sunday.” – Philadelphia Press.

Page 6 was what we would call today the religion page, with lots of inspirational messages and lines (“You have no right to elect His work if you reject His word”). Curiously, it also was the home to the highest number of “cure” ads.

Page 7 was the business page, aside from a wide column down the left side made up of pseudo-scientific pronouncements, including the headline “Mars Inhabited,” with a short description of what scientists know of Mars “By Camille Flammarion, the Famous Astronomer,” which described a wondrously pleasant climate on Mars and concluded, “We know the globe of Mars perfectly; in fact, far better than the earth.”

Bill said there were a total of only seven pages to be posted. I have yet to figure out how that can be so, since every piece of paper I’ve ever seen from any era has both a front and a back, making two pages. Perhaps that’s one thing about newspapers that has changed.

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Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

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During the past nearly 29 years in journalism, I’ve apologized for plenty of errors that appeared in print, most of them my own fault.

One that will forever stick at the top of my memory and still makes me wince was in 1992, when I wrote a story about a court case in Wilkes County, N.C., and not only didn’t spell the assistant district attorney’s name correctly, I called her by the name of a defense attorney I used to write about at my previous job in Florida. My only defense: Both have a first name that starts with B. How do you adequately apologize for that? As soon as I saw it in print I knew it was wrong, but the whole previous evening as I read and re-read the story, I missed it.

During my first few months as editor here in Lenoir in 2013, the News-Topic repeatedly called Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons either Joe Gibbs or Bob Gibbons, despite the fact that he clearly is neither a former coach of the Washington Redskins nor his own brother. I edited every one of those stories and never noticed the errors, consumed as I was with things that were not the names of locally known people, so I apologized at a city council meeting, and while he accepted the apology he did not appear amused. Who could blame him? This qualifies as falling under the definition of “getting off on the wrong foot.”

However, while I can say that the headline that appeared at the top of the News-Topic’s sports page last Sunday was fairly egregious, and I wish it had never happened, I can’t apologize for it, as at least one reader has demanded.

The headline was on an Associated Press story about the North Carolina Tar Heels defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA Tournament, but it got the teams reversed: “Indiana beats N.C., 101-86, in Sweet 16.”

Now, as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I maintain there are actually two errors in that headline, because you can abbreviate the school’s name as UNC, Tar Heels or, if pressed for space, just Heels, but never N.C. That particular error, however, has drawn no one’s notice.

As soon as I saw the headline, I guessed what had happened, and I was correct. The copy desk was short-staffed in both news and sports, and on deadline a page designer who didn’t usually handle sports was pressed into service and while juggling multiple pages and trying to move on to the next deadline got the score right but reversed the order of the teams, even though the story under the headline was correct.

Such things are supposed to be caught in the proofreading stage, but no matter how apparent an error is, your brain sometimes makes you see something you want to see instead of what’s in front of you, especially when you are in a hurry. That’s how the East Oregonian, the newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, ran a sports headline last June declaring, “Amphibious pitcher makes debut,” on a story about Pat Venditte, a relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who actually is ambidextrous, meaning he can pitch with either hand, not amphibious, meaning he can live both on land and in water.

I have no hesitation about running corrections on factual errors that could cause harm/insult or embarrassment or confusion, but no one seemed confused by the “Indiana beats N.C.” headline — we got tons of phone calls telling us it was wrong. The only people embarrassed were the ones who work at the News-Topic. That leaves harm, so I’ll make this pledge:

If UNC Coach Roy Williams has been collecting newspaper headlines to paper his office with, and our bad headline left a gap that has him lying awake at night tossing in his bed, or he actually feels harmed, I will drive to Chapel Hill myself and apologize. I’ll even run laps around the Dean Dome.

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There is no Santa Claus. Many people in the news business know that as a literal fact, but they still believe there may be a kind of Santa Claus who will step into their lives. If they did not, we would not have stories such as this, from Nieman Lab this time, wondering what in the world Warren Buffett (or replace his name with your favorite media-owning billionaire) has in mind for his newspaper(s). The article by Joshua Benton wonders what might be read into the absence of tea leaves about newspapers in Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders.

I’ll tell you what: Nothing.

In 2013, shortly after getting a new job after being laid off from Media General in the wake of Buffett’s purchase of that company’s newspaper assets, I was called by a reporter (perhaps it was Reuters, but I don’t recall for sure) who was working on a story about what Buffett was really after. I told her that from what I saw from the time of the purchase announcement in May 2012 through the transition period until the final cuts that November, you had to take Buffett at his public word — that he thought that prudent, conservative management would keep the papers viable and profitable for some time, but that he had no plans to experiment or try anything that would surprise people.

So far, Buffett’s company has been completely consistent on its management of the company’s newspapers, which is to say conventional. The managers are budget-minded. Papers have to make their “numbers,” above all. Everything has been consistent with what I saw in my brief exposure to that management structure.

So why the never-ending stream of stories wondering what lies over the rainbow, or whether there is a rainbow?

Because people thought Buffett was Santa Claus.

People in news don’t often think of news as a business. It’s a calling. It’s not a way to make money. People take pride that it doesn’t pay well, as people do when they get great satisfaction from a job that doesn’t pay well. It’s a mission. That makes it personal, to a great extent. But Warren Buffett, like most business owners, approaches his business as a business. This is business, but the news people are taking it very, very personal.

Please stop it, all of you. To the extent that Jeff Bezos or other billionaire-come-latelys to the business are trying new things or talking about new models, please, by all means, spread the word. New ideas need consideration. But please stop waiting for secret plans on how to get out of the quagmire from anyone who steps in and does not enunciate any plans that differ from what you already know or, as in the case of Orange County, require a reality other than the one you know.

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There’s only one sure way to keep your name out of the news: Don’t do anything that is routinely reported by your local news outlets.

Most of the time, that means don’t be arrested for anything serious, and don’t get sued for anything serious. There are some types of public records that my newsroom routinely reports each week inside the paper, such as marriages and property transactions, but as far as avoiding being on the front page or listed as being charged with a crime, you should keep your head down, be a good citizen, and don’t make trouble.

Like most newspapers, the News-Topic reports many arrests, and we try to cover the most serious cases when they go to court.

Sometimes people call and ask whether we would keep someone’s arrest out of the paper. Sorry, no. We have to try to treat everyone the same. If we start making exceptions because someone’s mother or children will be embarrassed, we would have to stop printing all of the arrests.

Last May, I received a letter from an inmate at the Caldwell County Detention Center asking me “to please not put my name in the paper for any reason. Or any thing concerning my case.”

He complained that a story we ran last January about a court hearing that had been called for him to enter a plea deal, pleading guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, only to have him back out at the last minute, was not accurate, though what was in the story was exactly what both his lawyer and the prosecutor said in open court had happened.

“That (story) vilated my rights,” he wrote. “I haven’t even gone to trial and that made me sound guilty before I could get a fair trial. You embaresed me and my family.”

The legal process in the United States is not set up to shield everyone’s identity, just in case someone is not guilty, until the outcome of a case has been decided. It is set up to be open to the public so that members of the public can look up any information they want, observe legal proceedings and therefore be assured that the legal system strives to be just. The jury selection process, however, has steps for lawyers to be able to exclude from a jury anyone whose mind was made up by previous news coverage.

The News-Topic, like any news organization, chooses the cases it covers based on a judgment of which cases are serious enough or unusual enough that we think many people will want to know what happened. In those cases, we do exactly what any member of the public is welcome to do: We go to the courthouse, sit in the audience and listen. You can do it too, if you are quiet and obey the rules of the courthouse. Your friends, neighbors and co-workers can do it too. No one needs to make reservations. Leave your cellphone and pocketknife in the car, but you can show up unannounced, pass through the metal detector and walk right in. The state even maintains a website where you can see whose cases are tentatively scheduled to be heard in each term of court. Literally anyone on Earth with an Internet connection can read those names and see what the charges are.

Before a case has a court hearing, if there is something about the case that we want to find out, we go to the clerk of court’s office and ask to see particular public records on the case. The term “public records” includes the word “public” for a reason. It means those are records that are open to any member of the public, not just reporters. You can go read them yourself, but in some cases, depending on what you want, you might have to pay to get a copy instead of seeing the original file.

The letter from the inmate last May concluded: “I don’t wont my name in the paper period. I will take legal actions if my name is in the paper again. Thank you.”

No thanks were necessary, because we didn’t comply, and wouldn’t. We can’t. I’d get fired if I were to.

And any lawyer in the country will tell you that you can’t win a lawsuit accusing a news organization of violating your privacy because it reported on your arrest, criminal case, court hearing, court records and/or trial.

The inmate’s name wasn’t in the paper for the past few months, but that particular case came to trial last week, and Allen Duane Parlier, 44, of Hudson was convicted as charged (linked story is behind a paywall) of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, who in this case was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the events in question. By going to trial, Parlier caused far more details embarrassing to his family to become public than would have if he had taken the plea that prosecutors offered, so we don’t think he was motivated to write to us to protect his family, and he appeared to admit just before his sentencing that he lied under oath during his trial, so we can’t really put a lot of stock in the assertions of the letter he sent to us anyway. But we didn’t cover his case to spite him. We just covered it, the same as we did for dozens of cases last year and will for dozens more this year.

If you happen to be arrested and you wish to minimize further damage to your reputation, the two best things for that are a good lawyer and sincere prayer, but there are limits to what even those can accomplish.

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