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How Rupert Murdoch saved the Boston Herald — not just once, but twice

As I noted Thursday, one of the few positive contributions Rupert Murdoch can take credit for is preserving The Wall Street Journal as a great national newspaper. Another is that he saved the Boston Herald — not once, but twice. Larry Edelman of The Boston Globe writes about the first time (he interviewed me). I tell that story as well as the tale of Murdoch’s second rescue in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” which I excerpt below.

The Hearst chain, which had converted the Herald (known then as the Herald American) to a tabloid during the final years of its ownership, had run out the string by 1982. I remember one old-timer telling me that, with closure just hours away, workers came in to rip out the vending machines from the paper’s hulking plant in the South End. At the last minute, Murdoch reached a deal with the unions and the paper was saved.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, the Herald established itself as a feisty alternative to the Globe, sometimes beating its larger rival on important local stories. That continued in the 1990s after Murdoch’s protégé Pat Purcell bought it from him. To this day there are people who believe that Murdoch continued to pull the strings behind the scenes, but I never believed it. Murdoch just didn’t care that much about the Herald, and I don’t doubt that he let Purcell have it on extremely favorable terms.

Unfortunately, the Herald’s financial model pretty much stopped working in the early 2000s, and today it’s owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, famous for sucking the life out of its papers. Alden owns two other Massachusetts papers as well — The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

At one time Murdoch also owned the Ottaway chain, which included the Cape Cod Times and some small weeklies, including the Middleboro Gazette, where I grew up. Murdoch is fondly remembered by taking a hands-off approach, but I honestly wonder whether he even knew those papers were part of his empire. The Gazette was later closed by the Gannett chain, and today Middleborough is served by an independent startup, Nemasket Weekly.

Here’s what I wrote in “Moguls” about the Herald and Murdoch’s TV station, WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which he sold off a few years ago. The “endless struggle” I refer to was the Herald’s long-time ownership of Channel 5, an existential threat to the Globe that was removed when the Globe reported that its rival had gained the broadcast license because of corruption at the Federal Communications Commission. The Herald was stripped of its license in 1972, and Hearst swooped in to pick up the pieces.

The Globe’s endless struggle with the Herald’s broadcast ambitions played itself out in one last, faint echo in 1988, when Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Ted Kennedy, by then a leading member of the Senate, quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. At the time, I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle, which served Woburn and several surrounding communities north of Boston. I remember covering a local appearance by Kennedy as he was dogged by the Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief. “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?” the persistent Woodlief asked him several times.

Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald; he repurchased the TV station after selling the Herald to Purcell. But the Herald columnist Howie Carr remained bitter. He told me years later that Kennedy’s actions were worse than [Globe ally Tip] O’Neill’s, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of several papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally,” Carr said, “whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends.”

The liberal reputation the Globe developed during the Winship era was cemented during Boston’s school desegregation crisis of the mid-1970s, when the Globe wholeheartedly supported federal judge Arthur Garrity’s order to bus children to different neighborhoods in the city to achieve racial balance. It was a terrible time in Boston, as white racism ran rampant and bullets were fired into the Globe’s headquarters and at one of the paper’s delivery trucks. The Globe took the right moral stand, and its coverage earned the paper its second Pulitzer for Public Service. Winship in those years enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest editors in the country. But it was also during those years that the Globe became known as the paper of Boston’s suburban liberal elite and the Herald that of the urban white working class, a dichotomy that has persisted to this day.

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Paul Bass, a hyperlocal pioneer, talks about his national network of arts and culture reviewers

Paul Bass checks the 2021 New Haven election returns. Photo by Maaisha Osman. Used with permission.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Paul Bass, the founder and former editor of the New Haven Independent. Bass is originally from White Plains, New York, but he arrived in New Haven in the late 1970s to attend Yale, and he has been reporting on all the quirks and glory of his adopted hometown ever since.

Bass was the main subject of my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” and is one of the news entrepreneurs featured in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Bass launched the New Haven Independent in 2005 as an online-only nonprofit.

Last fall, Bass announced he was stepping aside as editor, handing the top job over to managing editor Tom Breen. But he’s continuing to play a role at the Independent and its multimedia arms, and he has just begun another venture: the Independent Review Crew, which features arts and culture reviews from all over, including right here in Boston via Universal Hub.

Ellen has a Quick Take on The Texas Tribune, the much-admired nonprofit news outlet started by Evan Smith and others in Austin. The Tribune has been a model for other startups, so it rocked the world of local news last month when CEO Sonal Shah announced that 11 staffers had been laid off.

I report on another acquisition by Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that has earned scorn for the way it manages its newspapers. Alden acquired four family-owned newspapers in Pennsylvania. Worse, the family members who actually ran the papers wanted to keep them, but they were outvoted by the rest of the family.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Two Alden papers, the Boston Herald and The Denver Post, will end commenting

Royalty-free photo via Wallpaper Flare

At least two daily newspapers owned by Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group will end reader comments on July 1.

The Boston Herald announced the move earlier today, saying that the change was being made to “dramatically speed up the performance of the website” as well as on its mobile platforms. The Denver Post took the same action last week, although editor Lee Ann Colacioppo cited bad behavior rather than technology, writing that the comment section has become “an uncivil place that drives readers away and opens those trying to engage in thoughtful conversation to hateful, personal attacks.”

Both papers emphasized that readers will still be able to talk back at them through social media platforms.

Wondering if this were a MediaNews-wide action, I tried searching about a half-dozen papers in the 60-daily chain and could find no similar announcements. I found something else interesting as well. The eight larger dailies that comprise the Tribune Publishing chain, which Alden acquired a couple of years ago, are now included as part of MediaNews Group, although they are still listed separately as well. (A ninth, the Daily News of New York, was split off from Tribune and is being run as a separate entity.)

The moves by the Herald and the Post represent just the latest in the long, sad story of user comments. When they debuted about a quarter-century ago, they were hailed as a way of involving the audience — the “former audience,” as Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen put it. The hope was that comments could even advance stories.

It turned out that comments were embraced mainly by the most sociopathic elements. Some publishers (including me for a while) required real names, but that didn’t really help. The only measure that ensures a civil platform is pre-screening — a comment doesn’t appear online until someone has read it and approved it. But that takes resources, and very few news organizations are willing to make the investment.

The best comments section I know of belongs to the New Haven Independent, where pre-screening has been the rule right from the start. Keeping out racist, homophobic hate speech opens up the forum for other voices to be heard. The New York Times engages in pre-screening as well.

So kudos to the Boston Herald and The Denver Post — and I hope other news outlets, including The Boston Globe, will follow suit.

How the for-profit/nonprofit model is bolstering coverage at The Berkshire Eagle

Fredric Rutberg. Berkshire Eagle photo by Ben Garver and used by permission.

One of the more interesting business models for local news that Ellen Clegg and I have encountered in our work is what you might call the hybrid for-profit/nonprofit. For-profit organizations such as The Mendocino Voice in Northern California, The Colorado Sun, the Storm Lake Times Pilot in Iowa and The Provincetown Independent have either set up nonprofit arms or are working with existing nonprofits to raise tax-exempt money that can be used to support certain types of public interest journalism.

This past Monday, Fredric Rutberg explained how that model is working at The Berkshire Eagle, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based paper that he and several other business leaders rescued from the hedge fund Alden Global Capital back in 2016. A retired judge, Rutberg is now publisher and president of the Eagle. He spoke at the spring conference of the NorthEast Association of Communication Executives, held in Meredith, New Hampshire.

After Rutberg and his partners acquired the Eagle, he said, they considered — and rejected — the nonprofit model. Among other things, they wanted to maintain the paper’s editorial voice, and nonprofits aren’t allowed to endorse political candidates or specific pieces of legislation.

“Our editorial page is very important to us,” he said. “We were very proud to be among the first five or six papers in the country nationally to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.” And though he conceded the impact of that endorsement was “marginal,” the paper’s editorial voice really matters when it comes to candidates for local office. “We think we have something to say,” he said. “We don’t want to give that up.”

But with advertising on the wane, the paper faced a dilemma — especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, wiping out the Eagle’s nascent events business. Just before COVID, the paper raised four times the $10,000 it asked for in order to hire a Report for America corps member to cover the Statehouse. With that in mind as “proof of concept,” the Eagle set about looking for a more comprehensive way of seeking donations to bolster its news coverage.

What it hit upon was the Berkshire Eagle Local Journalism Fund, in partnership with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The nonprofit foundation, Rutberg explained, accepts donations to help the Eagle pay for coverage of education, health, economic development, and arts and culture. The Eagle held back from a public campaign during COVID, with Rutberg saying he thought that would be “impolitic” given that the pandemic had forced the paper to cut back the number of days it appears in print (from seven to five).

Last November, though, the Eagle launched its first public drive, raising nearly $80,000 from the community as well as a major gift of $150,000. The Eagle is planning a second public drive this October and has established an endowment fund, as well, although Rutberg said that’s gotten off to a slow start.

Following several cutbacks during COVID, the Eagle is expanding, Rutberg said. Though print circulation continues to shrink, paid digital circulation has risen from 2,700 pre-COVID to about 7,200 today. An arts reporter was hired recently, and the Eagle has started a quarterly magazine — The B.

Some of the largest for-profit papers in the country, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, accept grant money to cover certain beats or publish journalism produced by nonprofits like ProPublica. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit, is owned by a nonprofit, the Lenfest Institute, which helps pay for coverage at the Inquirer and other news outlets.

What makes smaller for-profits like the Eagle unique is that they’re making use of nonprofit money to help pay for their journalism on an ongoing basis and not just for a few narrowly defined beats. After all, the four areas Rutberg identified comprise a substantial part of his paper’s coverage.

Nonprofit journalism has emerged as a leading solution to the local news crisis. But it’s important for there to be a viable for-profit alternative as well — even if they are bolstered in part by nonprofit funding.

Five years after the Denver Rebellion, local news is surviving in Colorado

The Buell Media Center, home of The Colorado Sun. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

Of all the alarms that have been sounded over the decline of local news, perhaps none was louder than the one in Denver, Colorado, five years ago this month. In what became known as the Denver Rebellion, editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett wrote a front-page editorial calling for the Post’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, to sell the paper to local interests. Plunkett wrote:

We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.

Unfortunately, Alden did not sell; after all, there were still profits to be squeezed out. At one time, the Post employed a newsroom of about 300 people, and its competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, had another 300. But the Rocky was shut down by a different chain owner years ago, and by the time that Plunkett wrote his manifesto, Alden was in the process of downsizing the Post again, from about 100 journalists to 60.

But journalism in Denver survived. Earlier this month, Plunkett wrote an opinion piece for The Colorado Sun looking back on the past five years. The Sun grew out of the Post: 10 senior people left after the rebellion and launched a digital-only news project that has grown to a couple of dozen people. This time around, Plunkett, now at the University of Colorado in Boulder, took a more optimistic view:

So much new talent has bubbled up around us as a result it’s difficult to keep track. The legislature’s got more reporters than you shake a stick at. Who could deny the excellence and the ambition of presenting and covering Denver’s recent mayoral debates?…

Hey, it’s heartening to see media companies banging around like they want to fight. Think of how bad off we’d be if we didn’t have such energy.

What’s happened in Colorado led Ellen Clegg and me to include it in our book, “What Works in Community News,” which will be published by Beacon Press early next year. I visited the Denver area in September 2021 and learned that the metro region is being well served. The Sun, the Post, Colorado Public Radio and another startup, The Denver Gazette, were all doing good work.

The problem, though, was in those places that weren’t within commuting distance of Denver. The news deserts that exist in the rural parts of the state were why The Colorado Sun was trying to provide some statewide coverage rather than merely focusing on Denver. So it was heartening to see that several papers whose owners wanted to move on have been acquired by a small chain. The indefatigable Corey Hutchins of Colorado College reports that O’Rourke Media Group, based in Arizona, is the new owner of Colorado papers in Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, Park County and Fairplay.

“I feel like I’m taking over newsrooms that are well resourced,” the chain’s CEO, Jim O’Rourke, told Hutchins. “I like that, because that gives us an opportunity to come in and work with this team on things that we can do differently moving forward — things that we could do to help. And it’s better starting from a position like this versus going into a totally distressed situation where the previous company gutted the place.”

The news desert problem is real. But what’s happened in Denver and, now, in rural Colorado demonstrates what I’ve seen since I started reporting on the local news crisis some 15 years ago: Where there is failure there is also opportunity.

More: Ellen and I recently interviewed former Denver Post editor Greg Moore on our podcast, “What Works: The Future of Local News.” And in June 2021, I wrote about how 24 weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs were saved through an effort that included The Colorado Sun.

Maine publisher Reade Brower says he’s ready to move on. So what comes next?

Portland Harbor. Photo (cc) 2021 by Paul VanDerWerf.

Maine newspaper publisher Reade Brower is getting ready to move on. Michael Shepherd and Lori Valigra of the Bangor Daily News, the only daily in Maine that Brower doesn’t own, reported on Thursday that the publisher is seeking to wind down his stewardship of the Portland Press Herald, four other daily papers and a number of weeklies.

In a follow-up by the Press Herald’s Eric Russell, Brower sounded like he isn’t in any hurry, and that he was not yet sure what the transition might look like. Brower put it this way in a memo to the staff:

The truth is I am beginning the search for what’s next, whether that be a new steward or perhaps partners willing to join me in carrying the torch. We are watching new ownership models emerge across the country from B-corporations to nonprofit efforts. Transparency has always been a pillar of journalism, and it’s important to me personally. That said, people will speculate because it is human nature. Over the past couple of years, I have been approached and looked at different pathways for the future but did not pull the trigger — either I wasn’t ready, I still felt my job was not completed, or the path just didn’t feel right.

A B-corporation is another name for a public benefit corporation — for-profit that is under no obligation to maximize earnings, allowing revenues to be reinvested in the mission. In the news world, some well-known B-corps include The Colorado Sun, Lookout Santa Cruz and, closer to home, The Provincetown Independent.

Brower, by all accounts, has been a decent steward of his Maine properties. More important, he’s kept the national chains out of the state, and he may well have outlasted them. Gannett is getting rid of papers, as Sarah Fischer of Axios observes, so it would be unlikely that the company would bring its special brand of looting and pillaging newsrooms to Portland The hedge fund Alden Global Capital hasn’t acquired anything for quite a while, so perhaps we can hope that its executives are content with their current holdings. As I told Russell, “Whether this has a happy ending or not depends on who steps forward as buyer.” If Brower’s memo is any indication, he cares about his legacy.

Brower came in after a tumultuous period at the Press Herald, which I recounted in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” In 2008, the paper’s then-owner, The Seattle Times, sold it to a businessman named Richard Connor, who promptly ran it into a ditch. Four years later, the paper was nearly sold to Aaron Kushner, a wealthy Boston-area tech entrepreneur who had previously been spurned in his bid to purchase The Boston Globe.

Union leaders at the Press Herald rebelled at Kushner’s demand for concessions. Kushner moved on, buying the Orange County Register in Southern California and steering it into bankruptcy after a massive, ill-advised expansion failed to produce the revenues he was hoping for. The Press Herald’s fortunes, meanwhile, began to improve. First, billionaire Donald Sussman stepped forward and ran the paper for a few years. Then, in 2015, Sussman was succeeded by Brower, a printer who lacked Sussman’s deep pockets but who cared about news coverage and kept cuts to a minimum.

The Press Herald and its affiliated newspapers have a reputation for doing things the right way, and Brower surely deserves credit for that. I hope this week’s news means the continuation of what he has accomplished — and not the beginning of the end.

 

The Boston Globe leads in pocketing money from Facebook’s news project

A new study by the Tow Center at the Columbia School of Journalism has found that The Boston Globe was the top recipient of Facebook’s miserly efforts to help fund local journalism.

The study found that the Meta Journalism Project, announced in 2018 and now winding down, provided 564 news organizations with $29.4 million spread across 17 programs. Nearly half of them got the minimum of $5,000. The Globe, though, did considerably better, receiving three grants totaling $390,000, of which $240,000 was for assistance with building and retaining digital subscriptions.

No. 2 on the list is Long Island’s Newsday ($375,000) and No. 3 is The Seattle Times ($355,000). Coming in at No. 4 is a real head-scratcher — the Chicago Tribune, under the chaotic ownership of Tribune Publishing for many years and, since 2021, the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Rounding out the top five is the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

The Globe, Newsday, the Times and the Star Tribune are all independently owned — although Newsday has received some unwelcome attention recently for being asleep at the switch while George Santos was lying his way into Congress last fall.

Veteran editor Greg Moore on local news, diversity and life after Alden Global Capital

Greg Moore. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

On the new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Greg Moore, former managing editor at The Boston Globe and longtime editor of The Denver Post. During his 14 years at the Post, the paper won four consecutive Pulitzer Prizes. He’s led coverage of major stories, including the Aurora movie theater shooting in Colorado and the case of Charles Stuart in Boston. Greg is now editor-in-chief of The Expert Press, which helps connect specialists with media. He’s still in Denver.

As one of the most senior Black journalists in the country, Greg has been at the forefront of advocating for more diversity in the media and for a new path forward for local and regional news. In fact, Greg resigned his position at The Denver Post in 2016 after he decided he couldn’t tolerate any more cuts to his newsroom at the hands of the Post’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. As he put it in an essay for the Pulitzer Prize board, of which he is the former chair:

Local journalism is where accountability journalism matters most. It is focused on how dollars are spent and how priorities are set on the local level. It is often that base level reporting that becomes the seed corn for bigger national stories with datelines from the heartland and the tiniest suburbs.

In the Quick Takes portion of the podcast, I’ve got some bad news: people don’t like us. There’s been yet another survey showing that public trust in the news media is at an all-time low. But there are some problems with the survey, as there usually are — and those problems underline why the trust issue isn’t quite the steaming pile of toxic waste that it might seem, especially for local news.

Ellen has some good news for folks in Akron, Ohio. A local news startup called the Akron Signal has launched with a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

You can listen to our latest podcast here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A wild tale about a news war in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, Calif. Photo (cc) 2005 by Coralie Mercier

James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times has a pretty wild story about the trials and tribulations of Lookout Santa Cruz, a news outlet in California launched by the longtime media analyst Ken Doctor. In Rainey’s telling, Doctor is a demanding, dictatorial boss who’s had trouble holding onto talent, and he’s angered his competitors with claims that they regard as dismissive.

On the other hand, it sounds like Doctor has pretty quickly established Lookout as the news source of record in Santa Cruz, even though the Santa Cruz Sentinel, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, reaches more readers.

As it happens, we’ve had both Doctor and another of his competitors, Kara Meyberg Guzman, co-founder of Santa Cruz Local, on the “What Works” podcast, and we asked them both about each other. Please give them a listen.

A bill to force Google and Facebook to pay for news moves closer to passage

Photo (cc) 2008 by Nick Ares

A controversial measure that could force Google and Facebook to pay for the news they repurpose has suddenly been revived in the last days of the lame-duck Congress. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow news organizations to skirt antitrust law and band together so they can negotiate with the two giant platforms over compensation. If negotiations fail, an outside arbitrator would be brought in to impose a settlement.

On the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I recently interviewed U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., one of the co-sponsors of the JCPA. Cicilline spoke of the measure in terms of breaking up Google and Facebook’s monopoly on digital advertising, which is certainly real enough. According to Statista, the two tech titans control 52% of the market.

I last wrote about the JCPA in August. And though I described the bill as having lurched back to life, there hadn’t been many signs since then that it was going anywhere. That is, until this week, when the measure was added to a “must pass” defense-funding bill. House Republicans oppose the JCPA, and with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on the verge of taking the speaker’s gavel, right now is the last chance. Sara Fischer and Ashley Gold have the details at Axios.

In August, I expressed some reservations about the JCPA but thought it was worth passing to see what would come out of it, especially since it was time-limited to four years (since doubled to eight). You often hear simplistic claims by proponents that Google and Facebook are republishing journalistic content without compensation. In fact, they’re not republishing anything. There’s no stealing and no copyright violation taking place. But there’s also no question that Google is far more valuable and useful because users are able to search for news content, and that some not-insignificant portion of Facebook’s traffic comes from users linking to and commenting on news stories. It does not strike me as unfair to insist that the platforms pay something for that value.

And yet the JCPA carries with it the possibility of some real downsides. Greedy corporate owners like Gannett and Alden Global Capital would benefit without any obligation to invest more in journalism. And though the legislation excludes larger news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, a similar law in Australia has served mainly to line the pockets of the press baron Rupert Murdoch.

A better bill, in my view, is the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide for three tax credits: one for consumers who pay for a local news subscription; one for advertisers; and one for publishers that hire or retain journalists. As Steve Waldman of the Rebuild Local News Coalition told Ellen and me on “What Works,” that last provision, at least, would only benefit the corporate chains if they actually invest in journalism. But the LJSA has been seemingly stuck in congressional limbo for several years. If the JCPA passes, I can’t imagine that the LJSA will do anything other than disappear.

Facebook is threatening to eliminate all news content if the JCPA becomes law, a threat similar to one that it made and backed away from in Australia. The company, formally known as Meta, also ended its program of supporting local journalism recently, which will remove millions of dollars from what is an already shaky revenue stream.

I have to say that I was struck by a letter of opposition to the JCPA issued Monday by a coalition of 26 public-interest and trade organizations including the ACLU, the Internet Archive, LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, Common Cause, the Wikimedia Foundation and the United Church of Christ Ministry (!). Among other things, the letter claims that the money will mainly benefit media conglomerates and large broadcasters without setting aside anything for journalists. The coalition puts it this way: “The JCPA will cement and stimulate consolidation in the industry and create new barriers to entry for new and innovative models of truly independent, local journalism.”

We’ll see how it works out. There’s no question that many local news organizations are in difficult straits, and that a guaranteed source of income from Google and Facebook may be the difference between thriving and just barely getting by. If the JCPA is approved, I just hope it doesn’t become one of those government programs that become a permanent part of the landscape. If it works, fine. If there are problems, fix them. And if it’s a disaster, get rid of it.

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