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Posts Tagged ‘newsroom structure’


Since for most of the past 12 years, a large part of my job has been trying to help journalists – especially in small newsrooms – make sense of the changes and new tools sweeping the industry, I’m going to take a crack at interpreting the imposing study Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

So, do you need to read it? If you work in either the content (news) or business end of a journalism organization, you should read it. But realistically, it’s huge, so there’s a chance either you’ll start and won’t get far, then later think of it but won’t go get your computer or tablet to do it, and if you print it out it will go into your stack of magazines and you won’t touch it until spring, when you’ll put it in the recycling bin. So let’s prioritize: Pressed for time, what do you need to read? The whole thing is a tough slog for one sitting, both for its length and its academic style, and there are pretty good summaries out there, notably from Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Matthew Ingram at GigaOm.

Start with those summaries and then seek out the parts that in the summaries sound most interesting. My take:

The Introduction: If you are one of the people who think the industry’s whole problem is putting information online without charging for it, you seriously need to read the introduction because you have an incomplete understanding of the business end, its history and what’s happening to it.

Part 1: If you are unsure what exactly is changing about the role of a journalist, this helps fill in the blanks, though to me it seems overly focused on what I would call large newsrooms (Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle and New Orleans, for instance), not the size of newsrooms that predominate across the country. However, to the extent that these larger newsrooms have resources and an ability to experiment that small newsrooms do not, it is important to be aware of what they should or may be trying to do because changing technology may make it easier for you later.

Part 2: If you have a big-picture job – an executive, an academic, a journalism think-tanker, writer for CJR, AJR, Nieman Lab, etc. – this section gets into some useful philosophical space about institutional change. It’s also helpful if you are trying unsuccessfully to manage up in a company that is resisting change; you’ll understand better why you can’t get the urgency of your message conveyed higher up. It is not as much immediate help to the typical ground-level journalist except for further context about the changing face of the industry.

Part 3: This attempts to use some recent examples to flesh out the larger picture of how the emerging models of journalism may work. It builds on part 1, so if you still aren’t sure what the changes there mean for you, read this part.

Conclusion: This takes up where the introduction left off, going from how things have already changed to trying to extrapolate into the future. If you found the introduction useful, read this.

To me, the essential message for journalists can be summed up with these passages:

Even as the old monopolies vanish, there is an increase in the amount of journalistically useful work to be achieved through collaboration with amateurs, crowds and machines.

… Figuring out the most useful role a journalist can play in the new news ecosystem requires asking two related questions: What can new entrants in the news ecosystem now do better than journalists could do under the old model, and what roles can journalists themselves best play?

… For many newsworthy events, it’s increasingly more likely that the first available description will be produced by a connected citizen than by a professional journalist. For some kinds of events – natural disasters, mass murders – the transition is complete.

In that sense, as with so many of the changes in journalism, the erosion of the old way of doing things is accompanied by an increase in new opportunities and new needs for journalistically important work. The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.

… The availability of resources like citizen photos doesn’t obviate the need for journalism or journalists, but it does change the job from being the source of the initial capture of an image or observation to being the person who can make relevant requests, and then filter and contextualize the results.

… People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves. It is a device personality-driven television has long relied on, but only in a one-way medium. In a networked world, the ability to inform, entertain and respond to feedback intelligently is a journalistic skill.

In September of last year, I saw what I think is a perfect example of what the above describes, and it came from a small newsroom, the News & Messenger and insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va. After severe flooding in the region, people found themselves without a clearinghouse for information and discussion — but they gravitated to the newspaper’s Facebook page and were filling it with just such information. So, seeing that, online editor Kari Pugh created a flood information clearinghouse page on Facebook (it’s still there). In just a few hours it had garnered about 250 “likes,” and the community discussion on it became mostly self-sustaining.

Though the newspaper’s circulation is something around 10,000, on Facebook it has more than 26,000 likes. And its users have remained an active community. Key to the online community’s activity has been the involvement of the journalists. You can see it in the back-and-forth between them and people in the community.

How the news staff reacted to the flooding and the community’s desire to share information is something at least close to, though less sophisticated than, what Jeff Jarvis said this week he wishes he saw in the New York area in the wake of Sandy. It’s not a complex skillset, it just takes a shift in the way you see what the role of journalists is in this world of mobile devices that let every person report on what’s happening right then and there.

The Tow Center report is massive, and the future it paints may feel at times overwhelming. But you don’t have to build that future in one day, just as video games didn’t get from Pong to “World of Warcraft” overnight. (BTW, Happy 40th birthday, Pong.) What’s one step you can take today? Engaging your “readers” is an easy one, and, as it did with the News & Messenger, it may point you to the next step.

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from the Nieman Journalism Lab
A friend who is a web editor asked on Facebook what her journalist friends think of the news that the new owner of the Orange County Register is going all-in on a print-first approach to news.

My initial response was that it was “goofy.” After letting the idea simmer for a few hours, I can substantially amend my response.

First, I applaud the reasoning being used, as explained by editor Ken Brusic:

“The new owners have decided that the way they want to proceed with a business model is to really move from solely an advertising-based newspaper model to a subscriber-based one, and in order to accomplish that — basically, what we need if we’re going to charge more — is more quality in the newspaper.”

This is no small thing. Moving to a subscriber-based model means you believe you can make money primarily from the content you produce, not from finding advertisers who want to reach your subscriber base. Beefing up the staff, then, is just putting your money where your mouth is – the exact opposite of putting up a paywall while also cutting staff and/or pay.

That said, I still think there are limitations to the model. If the beefed-up Register succeeds, I tend to think it eventually will become a niche product for a high-information demographic. If smartly marketed – and keeping a free website for breaking news and pushes to the paper or an all-subscription site is a part of that – it would not be resigning itself to a forever aging and shrinking demographic, but it almost certainly would find itself with a small one: older than average, wealthier than average, better-informed than average. Not a bad demographic to have, for outside promotional events and whatever advertisers might remain, but not a mass-circulation base.

The main reason for that I think is entirely outside the control of the Register, or any news organization, as I summarized elsewhere in a completely different context on Wednesday:

“As Jeff Cole of the Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future has put it, the ongoing changes (facing the news industry) are not just technological but behavioral and comprehensive, of the same order as the changes that followed the advent of television, and anyone seeking to lead a business affected by them has to understand that.”

When my grandfather was a young man, it was an absolute given that if you read a newspaper, you did it after work. By the time my father started dating a pretty, young features writer at the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal, that was no longer a given. By the time I worked a summer internship at The Phoenix (Ariz.) Gazette, that was one of the few afternoon papers left in the country, and it was on its last legs.

Why the change? Were the morning papers that much better? In some cases they may have been, but that wouldn’t explain a nationwide phenomenon, so no. The change came about purely because of changes in people’s lives. It began to make more sense to people to read a morning paper. Their afternoons maybe became busier and busier, or the evening TV news filled their information needs better than a P.M. paper because the TV news was more up to date. Whatever the reason, it was less a vote on the afternoon paper than a symptom of larger trends in society.

Similarly, newspapers today are not facing financial trouble because they are “giving away” their content online – or, if you believe that is a genuine problem, not solely or even mainly because of it. Morning newspaper circulation had been in decline before most people ever heard of the World Wide Web. The advent of the Web, then the high-speed Web, then the mobile Web merely accelerated the trend and added on the burden of advertisers having new options for reaching people.

The decline of the printed newspaper can be seen as merely part of a continuum of change in how people choose to get information, and there’s no reason to think the change is stopping where it is now. And if that is the correct view, then restricting your information to print – even a high-quality, smartly marketed product – is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a living at it, but you are planting yourself squarely where the majority of people have decided they don’t want to be. You might be able to entice some to visit, those few who highly value what you have to offer, but the day will come that you are not and never will be a mass product again. Maybe that isn’t so important to you, and maybe journalism will be better served this way, but just understand where it is you are going.

Another excerpt from what I wrote in a different context Wednesday:

“The biggest obstacle our industry faces is not the tools, which are ever-changing and seemingly ever more powerful and diverse, but whether those leading the newsrooms can accept the necessity of change, even painful change, and find ways to adapt – without letting others keep focused on what is lost and how things used to be. The pace of change, and the related challenges, isn’t likely to let up.”

The reactions my web editor friend has gotten to her post are (as of this writing) largely from the “focused on what is lost and how things used to be” end of the spectrum. There is no Ghost Dance for newspapers. What’s past is past. You can celebrate it, but you can’t bring it back.

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Mark Potts’ description on his Recovering Journalist blog of the first glimpses he and Washington Post executives had 20 years ago of the coming media technology revolution reminds me of my own moment of realization on that topic.

It’s worth the time to read Mark’s post, but his tale revolves around this:

“Twenty years ago, Robert G. Kaiser, newly appointed managing editor of The Washington Post, took a trip to California to learn more about the then-developing world of Silicon Valley. While there, he was invited by John Sculley, then Apple’s CEO, to a conference in Japan about the future of digital media. Several dozen movers and shakers from the worlds of publishing and technology gathered in the resort town of Hakone, outside Tokyo, to discuss what it might mean to use computers to collect and distribute news and information, something described by the newfangled word ‘multimedia.’”

It was just 1992, but what was described in that meeting in Japan is pretty much the online media environment we have now. As Mark describes it, Kaiser and others recognized the need to prepare for the technological tidal wave, but for all the effort put into it, things just petered out:

“The history of the past 20 years of newspapers and digital media is, unfortunately, a legacy of timidity, missed opportunities and a general lack of imagination and guts to leap into the future.”

My moment of realization comes on a much smaller, more limited scale. In 1997, I told my reporters that we all needed to think of the newspaper’s website as a place to report breaking news because it put us on an even playing field with TV, but I remained skeptical of how much new effort needed to be directed online. But in June 2005, I attended a session at API in Reston, Va., with the unwieldy name “Cross-Platform Media Teams: Strategic Thinking for a Multi-Platform World,” and that changed everything for me. In particular, a presentation by Jeff Coles of USC’s Center for the Digital Future drove home the idea that the Internet was driving far-reaching changes in people’s behavior in the same way that the advent of television did. The trends indicated that even then, before the first iPhone launched the explosive growth in smartphones.

Which leads us in more recent years to the kind of scenes such as former Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Glader recently described from a trip on Amtrak:

“All of my neighbors were pecking away at Amazon Kindles or Apple iPads. In this container on rails, the microcosm of well-connected travelers showed what kind of ‘Star Trek’ world in which we are, or soon will be, living. … They flitted back and forth, like distracted youngsters, between email, news sites, books and video games like Angry Birds.”

Newsrooms already have been decimated by massive declines in advertising revenue. Often, the cuts in staffing make editors even more resistant to changing beats or organizational structures – we’ve lost so much, how can we do anything new when we can’t even do what we once thought was the bare minimum? But retrenchment is no way to keep up with a world that’s racing ahead of you.

(Thanks to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman for pointing to both of these articles.)

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USA Today app
The 2012 RJI Mobile Media News Consumption Survey brings some interesting mileposts on the evolution of mobile news use, but to me it seems to raise some questions too.

In a post at poynter.org, Jeff Sonderman writes that certain results of the survey “makes tablet readers seem the best hope for print publishers that want to make a digital transition based on paid content.” Along with a finding that tablets are strongly favored for news consumption by people over 35, Jeff highlights three findings of the survey:

“More than half [52 percent] of the mobile news consumers who said they used their large media tablet most frequently for news also subscribed to a printed newspaper and/or newsmagazine. …
“Those who said they use their large media tablet most frequently for consuming news also are much more likely to subscribe to digital news products than those who said they use their smartphone most frequently for news. …
“About 60 percent of owners who favored large media tablets consider their experience consuming news on their tablets better than reading a printed newspaper.”

Among the questions I have is whether print news organizations should be focusing on where their current audience is or where the potential audience is – and that’s a question that goes back decades.

Among people who already subscribe to newspapers or news magazines, and who are over 35, tablets are a strong favorite – but if you focus on going after that group, what about the people under 35, who much more strongly favor using their smartphones rather than a tablet (57 percent vs. 28 percent)?

Smartphones also are nearly ubiquitous – owned by 92 percent of mobile news consumers, compared to the 40 percent who own tablets.

Maybe if your mobile site is good, it doesn’t matter, but I haven’t heard that the industry is approaching the point where most mobile sites are considered to deliver a good experience. Until then, the few news sites that are good would seem to have an advantage in building a reading habit among a larger segment of the potential audience, leaving the industry still relying on a shrinking portion of the population.

A focus on the tablet also could simply reinforce the old print newsroom habit of tailoring the work toward a particular time of day – except with tablets it is evening instead of morning. Smartphone users are roughly equally likely to check for news at various times of day, while half of tablet users wait until evening.

Ultimately, this may come down to whether you think news will (or should) wind up primarily supported by subscriptions and some type of paywall or will (or should) remain largely free and supported by advertising. If the former, the ready niche – of older, presumably better-off readers accustomed to your style of product – is tablets.

But even if that’s the better path in the short-term because it based on paid content now, not the promise of something uncertain later, it’s less of a digital transition unless your theory is that it is the best way to convince stubbornly print-oriented editors and publishers to begin tailoring their work toward a tablet-based digital audience, and that from there it then would be easier to get to an all-digital orientation from there than from where they are now.

7/11/12 UPDATE: I think my own view comes closer to what the deputy publisher of TPM expressed in May to Nieman Journalism Lab:

“We’re giving a lot of thought to three different kinds of consumption: Active consumption being at the desktop, on-the-go consumption being on your mobile phone, and passive consumption being in your bed, on your tablet, something like that.”

7/13/12 UPDATE: I’d like to see more studies of the effects of paywalls on demographics, but one from Our Hometown about what happened to the online audience of the Times Record in Brunswick, Maine (that link goes to a PDF), should give everyone pause: When the paper’s website was free, the average age of users was 43, but after a paywall went up the number of young site visitors dropped off a cliff and the average age rose to 59.

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I hesitate a little to dive into attempting an answer to the question from Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins, “How should a news curation team work?” As the comments on many of Steve’s posts the past couple of years make clear, use of terms such as “curation” invites debates that often boil down to semantics and people talking past each other, even agreeing at times on general practices but disagreeing at the edges like alien cultures trying for but not quite achieving mutual understanding. But I’ll wade in anyway.

The idea of news curation has always seemed to me just the continuing evolution of what has long been standard operating procedure. In the 1990s at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal during the summer, when a hurricane approached we usually had staff at the coast, and unless the storm was hitting point-blank where our staff was, the state editor (me) would blend staff reports with elements of several other wire stories, adding attribution where needed. As technology advanced and we all had access via the Internet to more news sources, we could blend in elements from more places. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, in addition to editing stories from Media General’s Washington reporters I supplied a one-column at-a-glance collection of highlights, a mix of my own reporting (whatever eye-catching protests were going on around the convention site), a detail or two lifted from advance copies of the night’s big speeches, and elements from wire services and the National Journal.

Technology now, though, opens a vastly wider world, including live conversations. Limiting your news gathering to a few wire services or mainstream news sources may be easier, but it leaves out a huge amount of perspective. All of this information of course is available for people to find on their own, but isn’t it a logical extension of the role of a journalist to help people sort through it? It’s the role of a journalist to say, “I can help you make sense of all this and point you to the best places for more.” Automatic tools can only do so much – Tweetdeck, Twitter search, Google alerts and the like can bring you a river of information, but it can be a torrent, or a swirling jumble. Human intervention to sort it, done right, is valuable.

That said, when I get to the specific questions Steve and Mandy ask – “How should we …?” – I find myself reminded of and answering instead a different question, one I saw recently on Twitter (I thought it was raised by Stijn Debrouwere, but at the moment I can’t find it – if someone out there has curated it already, please point me to it), which essentially was this: Why after years of people talking about all these ideas for remaking news is it taking so long for anyone to do much with them? As much as anything, I think it’s just the daily crush – you run around like crazy trying to keep up with everything that you already have to do, and you want to try these new things people are talking about … but you look up and suddenly you have already been at your desk nine hours or more. “Maybe this weekend,” you think. Of all the newsrooms I have visited over the past 11 years, there were only a few where suggestions for new things to try online met with resistance to the idea itself; usually it was more a matter of “where will the time come from?” There are exceptions – where the boss makes it a priority to try new things, which means being willing to drop some of the old, new things get done.

Most of the time, you learn things that are truly new by doing them, and something else then occurs to you, so you try it, and on and on, not because someone showed or told you what you should do – if there were a great mass of people out there who knew all about doing this thing, it wouldn’t be new, would it? So assuming you are among the vast majority of journalists or soon-to-be-journalists who have no actual experience curating the news on the fly, and you have no concrete answers to the “How” questions, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I believe that at some point, good curation will be a key ingredient of any successful news organization. So go ahead, answer them.

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I will take issue with the poynter.org headline The one chart that should scare the hell out of print media, for two reasons. First, it’s actually two charts, the second of which is above, from a presentation by KPCB’s Mary Meeker. The two illustrate what appears not to be a blip but a trend in the money end of the news business. The one above extrapolates the advertising revenue.

You may question whether it is reasonable to extrapolate a trend from the greatest economic collapse since the Depression. I would argue yes both because it started before the economic collapse and because of the second chart, comparing where advertising revenue is spent and where consumers spend their time:

Note on the far left: People spend 7 percent of their time with print media, but print gets 25 percent of the advertising revenue. Note on the far right: People spend a combined 36 percent of their time with Internet and mobile media, but those get just 23 percent of the ad revenue. Even if print will be perceived as a better buy (not a bet I would make), at some point those numbers seem likely to come closer to equalizing.

First conclusion: The ad revenue decline of recent years seems likely to continue.

This leads to a point made by Ken Doctor at the Nieman Journalism Lab: Money coming to news organizations from readers (paid circulation/online access) is growing as a percentage of revenue. Partly this is because of declining ad revenue — if you’re total revenue is $100, then $20 is a small percentage, but if your revenue drops to $50 then $20 is pretty big – but it’s also from the growth of various kinds of paywalls. I remain convinced that an all-or-nothing paywall closes a newspaper off from the possibility of luring new customers, but the trend toward metered paywalls seems able to draw in both avid readers and those who wouldn’t pay even for the bigger headlines of the day.

What the combination seems to lead us toward, as Doctor indicates, is a model where many news organizations will be asking for subscriptions more on the basis that NPR stations ask for memberships — not because they have something every day that you want know, but because you want free access because they regularly do. Advertising, in this scenario, becomes an increasingly less important revenue source; readers drive the revenue.

One fear I have read often in the past is that a news model driven by what is popular would gravitate toward the lurid and celebrity gossip, but I don’t think the above situation would do that. The kind of readers drawn by that kind of news would not be the ones who pay for regular access. Those readers would want at least the occasional substantial bit of civic journalism or in-depth news. You might make a living (a la TMZ) if you are at the top level of celebrity gossip, but at the local level that won’t cut it.

But what also seems likely is that the new level of revenue may not support seven-days-a-week newspapers in many markets, as Clay Shirky argued will eventually be the case even with the Washington Post. If that becomes the common model, then would mere daily scarcity of news drive enough people to buy online subscriptions to get news from “newspapers”? After all, in many markets there are TV and radio stations, which already send out news for free, and in many cases there may be small sites such as Homicide Watch (cited by Shirky) that focus on certain high-interest news areas more thoroughly. What then would spur people to pay for access to the mainstream non-TV news site?

Aggregation is part of the equation — if a news organization shows that no matter the source, it will round up all the news in the community, it could gain a loyal local following. But that seems not enough, to me. If less frequency is key, I wonder whether a higher quality of writing in the reduced number of publication days will be a major factor. If that’s the case, then the frequent publishers’ first instinct of holding down news salaries when budgets constrict could be counterproductive.

The keystone of my evidence, besides any manager’s common sense, is from a story by NPR’s “Morning Edition” in early May about new research measuring human performance in groups, which found that a minority of any group typically will account for a majority of the group’s performance. In other words, a few stars get more done at better quality than a larger group of more typical people. That runs counter to my experience of what managers at all levels do in the face of budget pressures, which is to replace departing staffers with someone who costs a lot less and is deemed “good enough.” “Good enough” hires, if you extend the logic of this study, actually cost more in the long run because they are not just a little but a great deal less capable.

There’s a tantalizing hint of this thinking in the memo from Jim Amoss to the Times-Picayune newsroom about changes in New Orleans from the paper’s reduction in days of print:

“Concerning pay in the new companies, I want to dispel some rumors: There could be some salary adjustments, depending on changes in job descriptions. But most people will make what they make today, if not more.”

I will repeat the relevant part: “most people will make what they make today, if not more.” In a world where the competition for eyeballs is not just local, the need for writers who can catch a reader’s attention is heightened, and it would make sense that if you find you have someone who can both produce the daily bits of news needed to keep a news site relevant while also producing stories worthwhile to the remaining partial-week readership, you would pay that person better than someone who could do only one of the two functions.

For that reason, I would reach back all the way to the early 2000s for a piece of advice I heard an executive repeatedly give (mostly in vain) to publishers: You get what you pay for. If you cut the size of your staff but increase the pay of the remaining people, so that your payroll overall is the same, you might be able to attract and retain the people you need. It is guaranteed that if you cut the staff size and hold the line on the pay – or, worse, cut it – you will never have the people you need, and who would want to pay to read your sorry rag at that point?

6/12/12 UPDATE: I’m gaining some hope about the above from an INMA article about the Star-Tribune boosting reader revenue closer to 50 percent:

“We’re asking users to pay more of the freight. But for that strategy to work, we knew we needed to focus on high-quality customers who see value in our products and have low churn. And to get those high-quality customers, we’ve focused on three areas: our core print audience, pricing/retention, and accessibility.”

If you’re going to focus on high-quality customers, you have to have high-quality staff to provide the value needed to hold onto those customers:

“The content we provide isn’t available anywhere else. This is local reporting — business, local sports, city council meetings. You are doing that, and you are relevant. Differentiate yourself from your competitors. Once you do that, you’re going to get people and you’re going to get them to pay.”

But it’s beyond content to a smart strategy on pricing and marketing. Those are not my areas of expertise, but the article’s points sound good to this journalist.

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Stijn Debrouwere helps explain “the mess the news industry is in,” going over tangible examples of how the way people — primarily young people, but not just them — have changed the way they look for information and where they look. It’s a post solidly in the mainstream of examinations of industry disruption, which continue to be useful for helping traditional journalists look past their immediate source of distress: layoffs/buyouts and budget cuts (the latest example, from AdAge about a situation at the Washington Post). Those problems are just symptoms resulting from what Stijn calls the “death by nibbles.” He also does address the issue of what journalists should be doing, including stressing storytelling and personality; “joining the revolution” by considering alternate ways of distributing information, ways that you would not call journalism; become less boring (seriously, that is a huge issue); and “Do stuff that does still matter.”

5/8/12 UPDATE: It’s interesting to compare the above with what the CEO of the Deseret News Publishing Co. — which is seeing circulation gains — says are big ideas changing the media industry. One of the two he cited for content can, I think, wind up getting dismissed:

“Differentiate your content: Invest where you can be ‘the best in the world.’”

Don’t let “best in the world” send you off a cliff, particularly if you run a small newsroom. No one is saying a 20,000-circulation paper or small website needs to compete with the New York Times — or even the Deseret News. But what exactly is it your audience expects you to be best at? Probably not the food page. Town council coverage? Local youth sports? Much more likely. Put your efforts where they can make a difference.

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