An ugly week of cuts at The Washington Post, CNN and — of course — Gannett

It’s an ugly week for cuts in the media, including two news organizations that had been flying high in recent years and one that just keeps sinking lower and lower.

First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.

Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:

Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.

In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.

Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.

***

I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.

Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.

Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.

CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.

One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?

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Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.

Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.

Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.

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Nancy West talks about her entrepreneurial journey and the state of journalism in N.H.

Nancy West of InDepthNH

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Nancy West, executive editor of InDepthNH.org. 

Nancy was an investigative reporter during her 30-year career at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Nancy founded the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism in 2015, and has taught investigative reporting at a summer program for students at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ellen has a Quick Take on a recent article by Dan Froomkin in Washington Monthly. Froomkin, who is now editor of Press Watch, used to work for The Washington Post and has been critical of owner Jeff Bezos. Froomkin is taking aim at the content management system developed by the Post under Bezos. The Post licenses this system to other news outlets around the country. That kind of market power worries Froomkin.

My Quick Take is on the state of journalism in Vermont, a subject we talked about on a recent podcast with Anne Galloway, the founding editor of VTDigger, a well-regarded digital startup. Dan’s topic is about a good piece of media criticism. Bill Schubart, a journalist who writes a column for VTDigger, wrote a column critiquing a recent New Yorker piece by Bill McKibben on Vermont journalism. But Schubart also looked inward and wrote that Digger itself is having problems.

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Some smart questions about Jeff Bezos and the Post. But what’s the alternative?

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Should one of the world’s most influential billionaires own one of our most influential news organizations? That’s the question Dan Froomkin asks in the Columbia Journalism Review about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post. It’s an important article, and you should read it. But I have some reservations, which I detail below.

Headlined “The Washington Post Has a Bezos Problem,” Froomkin’s piece argues that the situation has changed since the early years of Bezos’ ownership, when the Post’s news and editorial pages were edited by Graham-era holdovers (Marty Baron and Fred Hiatt, respectively) and the paper returned to glory with deep investigative reporting on Donald Trump, both before and after the 2016 election.

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Now, Froomkin writes, Bezos tweets critically about President Biden’s economic policies while the Post’s news coverage, whether coincidentally or not, appears to track with those tweets. Bezos also had a hand in hiring Baron’s successor as executive editor, former Associated Press executive editor Sally Buzbee, and editorial page editor David Shipley, a Bloomberg journalist who was hired following Hiatt’s sudden death. Froomkin writes:

Throughout history, newspapers have frequently been owned by moguls — and readers were at times appropriately apprehensive. In this era, Rupert Murdoch has created a powerful media empire, which includes Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, and his influence has been considerable.

But Bezos is in a different league even from Murdoch. The world has never seen wealth like this before, and it has never been so interconnected.

As I said, Froomkin makes some good points. We ought to be concerned about that kind of power concentrated in one of our leading news outlets. He quotes Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, as saying that Bezo’s dual role as a master of the universe and as the Post’s owner as being “not compatible with the kind of independence we normally associate with independent news organizations.”

But I think we have to dig a little deeper. When I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” I could find no evidence that Bezos interfered with the paper’s news coverage or even its opinion operations. (The latter would be perfectly acceptable for an owner, and in fact John and Linda Henry are known to have their say in the opinion pages of The Boston Globe.) Nor did Froomkin find any evidence to the contrary.

What I have found as a reader of the Post is that though the paper will offer tough coverage of Amazon when warranted, it hasn’t gone out of its way to do any in-depth enterprise reporting on Amazon, as The New York Times has. As I told Froomkin, “I suppose nothing would answer the question more thoroughly than if they suddenly unveiled a real ass-kicking story about Amazon — a real in-depth piece of enterprise reporting that reflected pretty harshly on their owner.”

But every newspaper owner has conflicts of interest. Before Bezos bought the Post and took it private, it was a publicly traded company owner by the Graham family, who also owned the Kaplan testing company. The Grahams were often criticized for the Post’s soft coverage of the education testing industry. Of course, John Henry is the principal owner of the Red Sox. Glen Taylor, who revived the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, is a sports owner as well. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. And on and on.

All of these billionaires have improved their papers at a time when corporate chain owners and hedge funds like Gannett and Alden Global Capital are hollowing out their newspapers by the hundreds. Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the LA Times has been controversial, but he’s invested in the paper and he hired a fine newsroom leader, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country now that Dean Baquet has retired from the NY Times. Needless to say, none of these billionaires wields the sort of clout that Bezos does. But you have to ask: What is the alternative? Who is Dan Froomkin’s ideal owner?

In fact, I asked Froomkin that on Twitter. His answer:A local foundation or a local philanthropist or a civic-minded billionaire or a union. Anything but the (near) richest guy in the world. This broken system is working for him just great.

Hmmm. Certainly the Henrys, Taylor and Soon-Shiong qualify as civic-minded billionaires — maybe even as local philanthropists. Presumably the only thing that rules out Bezos is scale. I’m not familiar with any unions that own newspapers, although it’s a great idea and there are some historical examples.

A local foundation? There are a few. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times are for-profit newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations — the Lenfest Institute and the Poynter Institute, respectively. But that came about because the billionaires who owned those papers donated them. The Salt Lake Tribune is a nonprofit that was donated by yet another billionaire.

Frankly, I think the biggest worry about the Post is that Bezos might be losing interest, which — if you read between the lines of a recent NY Times story — is a real concern. If that’s the case, would Bezos donate the Post to a foundation, as Gerry Lenfest did in Philadelphia and Nelson Poynter did in Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg? I’d like to think he wouldn’t preside over the revival of The Washington Post only to turn around and deliver it into the arms of Alden Global Capital. But who knows?

It could well be that the only thing worse than the Post under Bezos is the Post under a different owner.

One way forward for the sputtering Washington Post: Reconnect with local news

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.

What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.

Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.

Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.

In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.

The Post’s recap about the 10-year-old rape victim omits a significant detail

Elahe Izadi has an excellent account (free link) in The Washington Post on how two Gannett papers got the story about a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim right while elements of the national media expressed skepticism — or worse.

One shortcoming, though: The story plays down the role of Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler (who’s not even named) in mainstreaming the right-wing talking point that Dr. Caitlin Bernard might have been passing along a rumor she heard, or even lying. As we later learned, Bernard was the doctor who actually cared for the victim. Right from the start, though, the Indianapolis Star had Bernard on the record, and Kessler didn’t have enough information to call her account into question.

As we also know, the story was confirmed when The Columbus Dispatch reported that an arrest had been made. Overall, as I wrote several weeks ago, it was a fiasco for the media — especially on the right, but in the Post as well.

How the very real story of a 10-year-old rape victim turned into a media fiasco

Experienced media critics know — or should know — that you don’t try to knock down a story based on an on-the-record source unless you’ve got the goods. But that didn’t stop Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler from wading in over an article published on July 1 in the Indianapolis Star by Shari Rudavsky and Rachel Fradette. They reported that patients were traveling to Indiana, where abortion is still legal, following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Kessler’s interest was sparked by the lead anecdote. Dr. Caitlin Bernard, an OB/GYN in Indianapolis, said she’d been contacted by a doctor in Ohio and asked if she could help arrange an abortion for a pregnant 10-year-old rape victim. Noting that Indiana might soon outlaw abortion as well, Bernard was quoted in the article as saying: “It’s hard to imagine that in just a few short weeks we will have no ability to provide that care.”

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By the time Kessler decided to weigh in, the story had gone viral, cited by President Biden and criticized in anti-abortion circles for its lack of verifying details. Kessler wrote:

The only source cited for the anecdote was Bernard. She’s on the record, but there is no indication that the newspaper made other attempts to confirm her account. The story’s lead reporter, Shari Rudavsky, did not respond to a query asking whether additional sourcing was obtained. A Gannett spokeswoman provided a comment from Bro Krift, the newspaper’s executive editor: “The facts and sourcing about people crossing state lines into Indiana, including the 10-year-old girl, for abortions are clear. We have no additional comment at this time.”

Kessler also reported that Bernard declined to provide any additional details when he contacted her by email, and that he could find no evidence that a criminal investigation might be under way. Here is Kessler’s conclusion:

This is a very difficult story to check. Bernard is on the record, but obtaining documents or other confirmation is all but impossible without details that would identify the locality where the rape occurred.

With news reports around the globe and now a presidential imprimatur, however, the story has acquired the status of a “fact” no matter its provenance. If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.

I tweeted at Kessler last Saturday:Glenn, you say you asked Dr. Bernard for the name of her colleague and the city where they’re located, and she declined to answer. But did you press her on her conversation with her colleague and what convinced her that the anecdote is real?

Kessler did not respond. I later found out that Kessler doesn’t reply to tweets but will respond to DMs or emails. It’s in his Twitter bio, but I hadn’t looked. Why would I? I know who he is.

I’m trying to be as clinical as I can here and give Kessler his due for leaving himself open to the possibility that the story might be proven true. But keep in mind that the Star had Bernard on the record telling them that she had been contacted directly by another doctor who wanted to know if she could help with the 10-year-old rape victim. Bernard was not passing along a rumor she’d heard. She had direct knowledge. The story was a little thin since the Star didn’t (and probably couldn’t) verify this horrifying anecdote. But we see thinner stories than this on a regular basis, including in The Washington Post.

Well, you probably know what happened next. On Wednesday, The Columbus Dispatch reported that “a Columbus man has been charged with impregnating a 10-year-old Ohio girl,” thus vindicating both Dr. Bernard and the Star, a sister newspaper. Kessler tweeted:The last line of this fact check was: ‘If a rapist is ever charged, the fact finally would have more solid grounding.’ Now, a rapist has been charged and the story has been updated. Getting lots of angry emails but journalism is an accumulation of facts.

Yes, journalism is an accumulation of facts. The problem here is that Kessler lacked sufficient facts to go with his original story, to which an update has been appended. A fair reading of his original piece was that he thought there was a good chance that Bernard’s story wasn’t true, and that the Star reporters were being credulous for passing it along. He wasn’t able to prove it, so he should have just let it go, regardless of what lingering suspicions he might have had.

I’ll repeat — yes, it was a little thin, but we see worse every day. Also: We have no way of knowing whether Bernard might have provided the Star with some confirming details on an off-the-record basis. The Bottom Line, to borrow Kessler’s rubric: He shouldn’t have gone there without convincing evidence that the story wasn’t true.

Now, I’ve gone on at some length about Kessler’s misjudgment while saying nothing about the outrageous rhetoric that played out on the right. That’s because Kessler is a respected journalist working for a careful, highly regarded news organization. It’s fair to hold Kessler and the Post to a higher standard than propaganda outlets — but we also need to acknowledge their toxic, corrosive effect.

Among the worst was the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal, which published an editorial headlined “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm.” The subhead is a howler: “Biden told a tale of a 10-year-old rape victim that no one can identify,” blowing past the reality that the media don’t identify rape victims, let alone those who are 10.

“The tale is a potent post-Roe tale of woe for those who want to make abortion a voting issue this fall,” the Journal wrote. “One problem: There’s no evidence the girl exists.” The shameful editorial, which actually cited the far-right website PJ Media as an authority, has since acquired an editor’s note, and the paper has published a separate, defensive never-mind editorial.

Finally, Laura Hazard Owen of Nieman Lab has written an exceptionally good overview of the whole sorry episode. The headline: “Unimaginable abortion stories will become more common. Is American journalism ready?” The early evidence is not encouraging.

New on ‘Beat the Press’: The media and the mass shooting dilemma

Photo (cc) 2013 by Maryland GovPics

The new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, and this week we have a single-theme program: the mass murders in Uvalde, Texas, and what role the media play — and should play — in covering what has become a long string of such incidents.

Also on tap are our panel’s Rants & Raves. Mine is on the social media meltdown at The Washington Post, recorded after reporter David Weigel was suspended for retweeting a homophobic, sexist joke but before Felicia Sonmez was fired for continuing to criticize the Post after she’d been asked not to.

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, along with Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Joanna Weiss of Experience magazine and me. You can listen here and subscribe in your podcast app.

A good overview of the mess at The Washington Post

If you’ve only caught bits and pieces and you’re wondering what the hell is going on at The Washington Post, Tom Jones has an excellent overview at Poynter Online. It’s broad and deep, exploring Post reporter Felicia Sonmez’s tortured relationship with management over the past few years and how that figures into the current drama over fellow reporter David Weigel’s retweet of a pretty horrendous sexist and homophobic joke. That poor decision by Weigel led to a month-long suspension without pay. Jones writes:

And so here we are this week with the paper known for the kind of dogged reporting that uncovered the Watergate scandal swept up in a quagmire that has included a suspension, two memos from the executive editor, countless contentious and accusatory tweets and a narrative that the Post has a hostile and toxic work environment.

What a mess.

Earlier:

A Washington Post reporter is suspended after his sexist retweet blows up

Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2022 by the World Economic Forum.

The use and misuse of social media platforms — especially Twitter — continue to torment newsrooms. The latest news organization to have a mess on its hands is The Washington Post, which is no stranger to past Twitter controversies.

Let’s start at the end: political reporter David Weigel was suspended for a month without pay after retweeting a horrendously sexist joke for which he had already apologized. The joke — and yes, God Almighty, Weigel should have known better: “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy has a good overview of the entire controversy, which included pointed criticism of Weigel by a fellow Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez (on Twitter, naturally) and criticism of Sonmez by reporter Jose Del Real, who was upset that Sonmez had unleashed the Twitter mob on Weigel.

Post executive editor Sally Buzbee weighed in on Sunday, writing an internal memo calling on Post journalists “to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.” That might have been the end of it, but obviously Buzbee thought she needed to make a statement about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We are all tempted to push the envelope on Twitter to get attention, measured by like and retweets. But at this late date, you’d think a reporter for a respected news organization would have figured it out. We don’t always know where the lines are, but it was pretty obvious in this case.

Twitter has its uses in journalism — mainly to follow people and organizations who are useful for your beat. If you read 10 times more frequently than you post, you’re probably doing it right. I’d say that journalists ought to restrict their Twitter activities to posting links to their work and that of their news organization; sharing other work they think is worthwhile; and engaging in light banter, because we’re all human. But if light banter is what Weigel thought he was doing, maybe he needs to take a long, long break from Twitter.

Weigel, by the way, lost an earlier gig at the Post back in 2010 after it was revealed that he’d been disparaging conservatives on a private forum called Journolist. And Sonmez was suspended after she took to Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death to remind everyone of his past sexual assaults.

As they say: Never tweet.

The New York Times is about to kill off its Today’s Paper web app

Some will mourn. Most probably didn’t even know it existed.

The New York Times is sunsetting its Today’s Paper web app on May 16. A simple listing of every story in that day’s Times, with a minimum of distractions, the app — which works on computers and tablets, but not on phones — has been a solid platform for readers who like to view the paper as it was published that day without a steady stream of updates and extra, non-print content.

I use it occasionally, but it’s been obvious for a while that no development resources were being put into it. The app looks pretty much the same (OK, exactly the same) as it did when it was unveiled in late 2013. The photos are muddy, too. There are better ways to access a listing of today’s Times — here’s one way, and there’s a section in the tablet and mobile apps as well. (There’s also a really bad replica edition that’s almost impossible to access.)

Here’s part of what Dante D’Orazio wrote at The Verge when the Today’s Paper app made its debut:

The web app seems designed for readers who appreciate the benefits offered by digital but miss the experience of reading a definitive daily edition. By limiting itself to content that’s selected to go into the paper each day, Today’s Paper should appeal to those who feel a bit overwhelmed by the full breadth of The New York Times‘ reporting. And for purists of the print edition, the app brings the Times‘ true sections, like the once-weekly “Sunday Styles” and “Science Times,” to the fore (the paper’s website and traditional apps are split into many generic sections). As a nice touch, users are presented with an image of each day’s print edition when they open the app, and select one to download for offline reading. Each section, meanwhile, offers a small glimpse at what the print layout looks like.

I believe there’s great value in offering that day’s paper, fixed in time. The Boston Globe offers two — count ’em! — replica editions, one accessible from the website and one as a standalone app. I’d give both of them a B-plus; they’d get a higher grade if you got a better view when you tapped on a story to read it. The Globe’s got a Today’s Paper listing on its website as well, but I never use it because it’s always missing things, like corrections.

The best Today’s Paper replica edition is offered by The Washington Post on its mobile and tablet apps — it’s smooth, and when you tap on a story, it opens up into a beautifully rendered article with photos. I wish every paper would do something like it.

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