Archive for the 'New York Times' Category

What the Structure of Content Means for Context

My hero was perched high up in journalism. The writing he left behind is deep and broad. In so many ways, to read his writing is just to think and see more clearly.

Journalists, it seems to me, fancy themselves explainers. They are great synthesizers of the world—at length. It is a wonderful calling for those who choose it.

Print was a great boon to that self-image. Print may even have allowed it. It was a fine world, mostly.

But then came the interwebs and google and adversarial search, which foisted on journalists the great tyranny of pageviews. Click.

Suddenly, it seems, the world moves faster. Its pieces are smaller. Its harried citizens’ attentions are diced or crushed or pointed only inward. We are distracted.

Chasing after readers as only they know how, cheered along by SEOs, journalists and publishers of news are looking for content that fits the new us, distracted. It’s an arms race to the bottom.

But we are not at the bottom. Nor are we at the top. For the news doesn’t so simply fit us, as we don’t so simply fit the news or so thoroughly morph our minds to information or its forms or media. Were it only that simple!

*     *     *

The Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only barely.

Here’s the contrasting picture, set up by Michael Scherer of TIME: “Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event.” Again, that was their calling, enabled by print.

What matters now, however, is “the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information.” Why? Because “a click is a click, after all.” News “is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds.”

Are the interwebs, ineluctably, making the news shallow and narrow? The answer is unequivocally yes and also no. We now have more choice, a vastly wider, and growing, array of options for publishing. Our once-private gossip, carried in spoken words from neighbor to neighbor, is now online, in text, inviting misinterpretation from strangers. This song is not about you.

As certain as humans are petty, narcissistic beings, so impressed with their own lives and confident in their supreme ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be shallow and narrow. Please don’t read it, unless its brevity is the soul of wit.

But so, too, as certain as humans are profound, altruistic beings, so inspired by the world around them and hopeful of their modest ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be deep and broad. Please do read it, unless its length is the apppetite of self-infatuation.

Here’s the nut: The news will also be deep and narrow. And it will be shallow and broad.

The interwebs give us those options too. Let’s not forget about them, or forget that they are different from their purer counterparts of longing and loathing.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, inspired by @mthomps and this and other posts at and by this post of @jayrosen_nyu‘s. Of course, the critical piece of the backdrop is a spectacular story by This American Life, called The Giant Pool of Money.

I agree with Jay that “Explanation leads to information, not the other way around.” I certainly agree that news often misses the forest for the trees. If I were a student at j-school, I’d want my profs showing me how to create omnibus stories like this. All writers—no, many writers!—pine for that awesome control over structure and narrative.

Cutting somewhat against the grain, however, I don’t think “Giant Pool of Money” should be the aim of all our ambitions. Which is certainly not to belittle it. Quite to the contrary, its status as masterwork is what makes it really, really hard for us to emulate. That’s asking too much—being a “national explainer” is too tough. Even the brightest among us, in memoriam, perform such dazzling feats of synthesis only occasionally. That’s not good enough for those of us who like important, responsible, thoughtful news all the time. And even This American Life’s story came after the disaster. Warning of the dangers of wildly complex securities and derivatives before they come crashing down is an even taller order—on the level of the GAO, for instance.

Here’s my chart illustrating why “national explainer” is really hard.


“Deep” and “shallow”? “Broad” and “narrow”? Huh? We’re talking scope here, folks.

“The Giant Pool of Money,” in the lower-right quadrant, is “broad” in its subject and “deep” in its container.

When something is “broad” in subject, it engages a complex, multi-faceted, sweeping subject. It’s a work of synthesis, taking multiple angles on and bridging between and weaving different constituent subjects. It aims to be comprehensive—the stuff of the glory days, however real or imagined they may be, of print journalism.

When something is “deep” in its container, there’s something a bit more prosaic going on. Essentially, each discrete work is thorough unto itself. One document—whether it’s text, audio, or video—aims to say more or less all there is to be said about its subject—to connect all the dots in one place. If there’s very much to be said about a subject, as in “The Giant Pool of Money,” the document will be long.

Consider the alternative: shallow containers. They’re not an insult! When we say something is “shallow” in its container, we mean simply that one document doesn’t attempt to say all there is to be said about a subject. Josh Marshall’s reporting, especially on the US Attorney Scandal, is a high-profile example that bloggers invented.

“We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end,” Marshall said, talking to the New York Times about the Polk Award. “Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Each dispatch isn’t comprehensive. They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.

The point is that the containers are small—shallow in the sense that they’re often only exposing a few dots at a time and not necessarily always trying to connect them all up as they go along. These posts don’t feign omniscience the way some, though certainly not all, traditional journalistic pieces do; they admit doubt and highlight confusion. The goal is to isolate facts, issues, and relationships, not always synthesize them.

But a critical characteristic of the form is that Josh Marshall’s dispatches on fired USAs compose a series. Each post extends previous ones or adds more to the same canvas. They’re all part of some bigger picture; they’re cumulative. And that is why, taken together, they amount to journalism that’s broad in subject. The bits of content may be fractured over author, space, and perspective, but they’re one work—one “text” in the fancy sense. Josh Marshall’s infusion of himself and his joys and outrages into his blog do the human work of pulling together the moral logic that invites readers to be patient while he unfolds the political logic one small piece at a time.

The last of the three interesting quadrants contains Wikipedia. Here again, “narrow” is not an insult. More than anyone, Wikipedians know “What Wikipedia Is Not.” It’s not for original research or reporting. It’s not for opinion or analysis. It’s for documenting these things. It’s domain is facts—but not nearly all facts. It’s not a directory or a guidebook or a textbook. Wikipedia works because it factors out, as much as possible, the kind of human reason that we colloquially call “wisdom” or “insight.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in his Slate piece, “perspective and style don’t scale.” So you may “learn much more from David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of the star athlete than from the Wikipedia entry” on Roger Federer, but “writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths.” Metaphorical reasoning, subtle thought, subjective analysis, and artful synthesis—these are happily banned from Wikipedia.

For Wikipedia, NPOV is hard enough to enforce. Disputes over NPOV erupt every day, probably many times a day. Multiple people collaborating, mostly strangers, often anonymous, are woefully inefficient writers of an encyclopedia. Revert wars abound. So does self-promotion. Vandalism is rampant. All manner of muddy, crummy, and scattered contributions insist their way into Wikipedia, every day, thousands upon thousands of times a day. There is a popular myth, too, that Wikipedia is a flat organization that reaches consensus among co-equal members. In fact, Wikipedia has a wildly complex hierarchy of admins, mediators, and an arbitration committee. It’s not hard to get lost extraordinarily quickly poking around the various administrative, advisory, and community groups, like the now-inactive Esperanza.

And yet, as Manjoo writes, the Wikipedia whose fluid articles we know so well “works amazingly well.” I hope that’s not controversial. Wikipedia is a profoundly inspiring testament to human knowledge, warts and all. Hierarchies haven’t vanished, squabbles have multiplied, and all the messiness may be incredibly salient to the average person who pays a bit of attention to Wikipedia. Aside from the inventing a technology that makes cleaning up vandalism cheaper than to creating it, Wikipedia’s central success is discovering both that its subjects must be wickedly narrow and that wickedly narrow articles are wildly informative. As we’ve found with twitter, sometimes constraints set us free.

*     *     *

It’s extraordinarily important to remember the virtues of the deep and narrow and the shallow and broad. The Politico’s snack-sized news may be cheaper than the New Yorker’s longer fare. But the Politico can’t compete on price with Wikipedia or on community with Josh Marshall. It turns out, as well, that there’s more than one way to put an explanation on offer to the world. The fact that we associate the role of the “great expainer” with the long-form narrative, contra the Least Publishable Unit, grows out of the fact that we overlook hybrid forms.

Josh Marshall’s won’t be the last shallow and broad news. Storymaps and the Las Vegas Sun’s topic page on water are experiments. Wikipedia won’t be the last we hear of narrow and deep news and content.

Super Simple Behavioral Advertising Made Easy

So simple it hurts, from Yahoo by way of the New York Times.

The gist? The seemingly simple ability to remember the higher-value pages a user views lets you serve that user those higher-value ads on all pages. Tada!

So travel pages often fetch the highest rates from advertisers. Let’s say a user checks out some travel articles about Nicaragua and surfing, where you serve some awesome ad from some awesome hotel chain. Then the user reads about President Obama. It turns out—by virtue of the great good blessings of technology—that you can still serve the same awesome hotel ad, not some barrel-bottom trash, even though, all else equal, advertisers don’t care so much for the attention of users who care about civics.

Who knew, right?

Why I dislike micropayments, don’t mind charity, but really have a better idea

A sure-fire way to think up a great idea for the future of the news is think about the fundamentals. “What’s news?” That’s a good place to start. Dave Winer gets at the fundamentals really well.

Let’s ignore most of the fundamental components of the news and focus on a couple: users and creators. Very roughly, those map to readers and writers. But “users” and “creators” emphasize that readers are active and don’t simply passively consume the news. Users want to re-purpose the news, get more out of it. We also don’t want to forget that creators aren’t just writers; they’re also photographers and editors.

inverted_jennyOne pretty important fact is that users and creators are all people. And people can trust one another. Obvious? One would think so, but there’s been a big corporate wall between them for decades now. The publication has overshadowed the writer. We viewed newspapers as the creators. Writers and photographers were faceless bylines most people ignored.

For example, we once trusted the New York Times to give us all the news that’s fit to print. It’s an awesome slogan, containing a slant rhyme and some serious alliteration, sure, but it now works much less well as a promise. I doubt its author ever intended it to be strictly accurate, but now it’s no where near artfully true anymore. Only the internet can make that promise now. It is the great disintermediator.

And so creators of news are re-emerging as real people to their users, who are also real people. That relationship, however attenuated, is a better place to locate trust. Let me put it another way: there’s greater potential trust in user-creator relationships than in reader-newspaper relationships. Humans are built to trust other humans, personally.

Now, we certainly also have relationships with groups. I’m no anthropologist, but it would certainly seem that, as humans, the concept of group identity runs deep. We can trust a person because he’s part of a club or a tribe. It’s a good thing, then, that appreciating user-creator bonds doesn’t demand that we deny the existence of reader-newspaper bonds. The internet may erode—but it doesn’t destroy—the concept of a traditional brand, anchored in a group of people who share a common purpose. The internet supplements, or unlocks, the concept of a personal brand.

Why all the fuss about brands and user-creator relationships and, ultimately, trust? Simply put, trust is an economic good. It’s worth something. It makes markets work more efficiently. As a trader might say, trust is positively accretive to value. This is not just about peace, love, and harmony. Trust creates value. Value gets monetized. Money pays journalists. Journalists save the world.

So if there’s trust to be created, there’s money to be earned. Trust is the foundation for a value proposition. All else equal, it stands to reason that users will pay more for the news in which they have more trust. If so, then it follows that users will pay more for the news they use based on a relationship with creators, in whom they can place more trust than they can in newspapers as brands.

Whew, so all that was wildly theoretical, blurry stuff. Before moving on to something more concrete, let’s sum it up. Shifting the news relationship from reader-newspaper to user-creator increases potential trust, an economic good, and unlocks value, which people may pay for. But even the strongest value proposition does not a business model equal.

So let’s move to the concrete: the business model. How do we monetize this theoretical value tucked away in user-creator relationships?

You do it with an idea I’ve been flogging the past couple weeks. You do it with Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea, in which users pay creators for “added convenience or increased interaction.” Note the elegant fit: increased interaction between one person and another is what fosters relationships and trust. Giving paying users otherwise exclusive twitter access to the creator could work. SMS updates could work, as could a permission only room on friendfeed. Even something as simple as a gold star on paying users’ comments—a symbol that they support the creator financially—would provide incentive for the creator to reply. Tiers of stars—bronze, silver, gold—are possible too.

There’s a social network lurking not too far below the surface. Because we’re in the business of fostering trust, transparency is paramount. So this social network would do best to require real identities. Users would have to be clear about whom they support, and creators would have to be clear about who supports them. Both users and creators would have personal pages of their own, identifying whom they support and who supports them and what dollar levels are being exchanged for what levels of interaction. This way, creators would have the ability to avoid potentially conflicted supporters. (Of course, a person could be both a user of some news and a creator of other news, paying for some and receiving too.)

Paying users of different authors would eventually form their own communities, if creators nurtured them well in the context of a supportive information architecture within the social network. Done right, membership in a community, which could suggest and debate tips for the creator, would represent its own value proposition for which users would be willing to pay up. Creators could have multiple communities, populated by groups of users characterized by different interests, areas or expertise, or even locations.

Creators would set their own prices, reaching their own equilibria between cost and numbers of paying users. Users would tend to pay less to a creator who offered less-value-added interaction by ignoring more questions and comments. But there would tend to be more users willing to pay a smaller amount than a larger amount. Users and creators would have to think about their elasticities of supply and demand. Over time, individual users and creators will find a balance that strikes her fancy. On the one hand, some creators might prefer a smaller set of users who pay more money and enjoy more interaction. Other creators, concerned about possible undue influence, might prefer a larger set of users who pay less money for a thinner relationship. And on the other hand, some users might prefer to be among a small community with better access or thicker relationships to the creator, while other users might prefer spreading themselves around and having thinner relationships with more creators. I don’t see any obvious reasons why a basically unfettered market wouldn’t work in this case.

Note that this represents an end-run around the problem that news is an experience good—you don’t know the value of an article till you read it. (New is not like buying a pair of pants.) This solves the problem that news itself is often nearly worthless the day after its published—yesterday’s news is today’s fishwrap. (It’s not like buying a song from iTunes. Also, ed. note: please, please, please follow that link to Doc Searls. The VRM parallels are clear and profound.) Finally, this also solves the problem that any given news article has myriad relevant substitutes—articles about the very same topic, event, or person and articles about equally interesting topics, events, or persons. (News is not like the Inverted Jenny. Yay philately!)

As with Kachingle, recently blogged by Steve Outing, this kind of freemium news doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s certainly compatible with advertising, though another feature might be a lack of it, just as it’s compatible with charity.

The point is that this idea and the business model on top of it are inspired by deeply human phenomona. Personal interaction and trust are constitutive of what it means to be human. They’re a large part of what makes the world go around generally, and we should look to them to save the news too. The right tools and insights can help right this airship called journalism.

News Is an Experiential Good; Or, Why it’s not like buying a pair of pants

When you buy a pair of pants, you try them on first. You want to make sure they fit. So clothing stores give up scarce retail space to enclose little spaces that are no good for displaying their trendy threads. They’re called dressing rooms, of course. If there were a store that rejected the idea that we should be able to try on our pants before we buy them, we’d reject the store. We’d protest that we’re worried about wasting our money on pants that we don’t like, and we’d threaten to go elsewhere. “Sizes and cuts and feels are too hard to predict,” we’d complain. “I really like your Sevens, but I’m not sure I’ll love them. What if I my hips are too big?”

One really seriously unfortunate fact about the news is you can’t very well try on an article before you read it. Sure, you can read the teaser, the first paragraph, or the pull quotes. Maybe there’s a cute sidebar or attractive graphics with catchy captions. But you don’t really know whether you and the article will make a great match till after you’ve already read the thing.

This is an age-old case study in brands. That’s why every issue of the New Yorker or the Economist or Cosmo or Men’s Health or Maximall seem vaguely, surreally the same, issue after issue, cover after cover, or cartoon after cartoon. High brow or low—the economics are the same. It’s their way of informing their reader that reading the last issue is a little bit like trying the new issue on for size. If you liked our work before, you’ll like it again. It’s different, but it’s really the same.

That’s one reason why Steve Brill’s “secret plan to save the New York Times and journalism itself” is flawed. I don’t have the resources to offer a top-to-bottom critique, so I’ll focus on one point. One the one hand, “All online articles will cost 10 cents each to read in full, with simple, one-step purchases powered by an I-Tunes-like Journalism infrastructure.” And on the other, “There would be a five cent charge to forward an article to someone else. Paying customers would get a license to do that” when they set up their accounts.

If the pants analogy suggests that it’s hard to charge for content before the consumer experiences it, what does it say about paying for it after? That’s essentially what this recommendation feature would be, after all. And I think it’s far from obviously crazy.

Maybe many people would be willing to pay five cents to forward the full text of an article to a pal. But it’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you recommend an article to a buddy. You’re trying it on, testing it out. You’re decreasing your pal’s risk that he’ll read the article and conclude he wasted his time. In short, you’re adding value, helping both the publisher and presumably your pal too.

This is of course ultimately why people are so hot to trot about linking, curating, aggregating, filtering, etc. It’s the economics of attention in a world of blooming, buzzing, atomized media. (UPDATE: It’s “superdistribution.”) So it would be awesome if a newspaper could get people to pay in order to add value to their content. But to the extent that charging for the ability to make recommendations will actually disincentivize them from adding that value, there’s an important bit of cost-benefit analysis to do.

Of course, people could still recommend the article without paying the five-cent fee, leaving their pals to sign up and pay ten cents if they’re not already customers, but I wonder whether that wouldn’t turn out to seem just rude in light of the fact that you and your pal probably have basically the same purchasing power with respect to five- or ten-cent articles.

Finally, I’ll repeat that this is why I’m so bullish on the proposition that journalists need to find in-demand scarce goods and services whose value is relatively easily quantified before the point of purchase. This is what I was thinking about in my recent post “Freemium News,” which was itself a reaction to Mitch Ratcliffe’s excellent thoughts on “the economics of great journalism.” My sense is that forwarding articles for free might be the kind of discrete, non-experiential feature for which someone might be willing to pay a flat upfront fee.

Getting in metadata game: Oh, money, that’s why!

Who’s mentioned in your article? What organizations does it talk about? Or what zip codes?

Answering these simple questions—in ways notoriously inflexible computers understand—can be like putting handles on your articles. It means aggregators and filterers like EveryBlock can grab on and give readers one more way to find what you have to say.

That’s what the New York Times is doing—in two stages, it appears. First its librarians encode the elected officials mentioned in its articles; mentioning them in the regular text of the article doesn’t cut it. Then its newly built web service, called Represent, figures out the geographic locations those officials represent. Meanwhile, Represent is also taking a computerized look at Congressional votes. When a politician votes, Represent says something like, “Oh, a person just voted in geographic area Y, and that person’s name is X.”

EveryBlock isn’t built for understanding much about people or names, but it is built for understanding locations and geographic areas. So Represent’s job is to translate from X to Y—from names to places.

Which brings us at long last to the metadata game. The historical problem is the way you have to answer these questions has been interminably dull and technical. So the historical result has been one big shoulder shrug: “Why bother?”

Well, people like Adrian Holovaty are starting to envision on answer “We have a number of ideas for sustaining our project,” he writes, “like building a local advertising engine.” That kind of engine might share ad revenue with the newspapers whose articles it incorporates. In order to claim a share, each newspaper must diligently prepare its articles for EveryBlock: there much be location handles that EveryBlock can grab. It’s highly unclear how much money EveryBlock’s hyperlocal ad targeting could generate, but if it’s enough, it will provide the kind of incentive publishers need to make boring metadata worth their while. EveryBlock might just unlock the ‘R’ in ROI. That could very well be a great reason to bother.

Epilogue    It’s notable that grant monies have helped solve this chicken-and-egg problem. I may have personal issues with the Knight News Challenge—I didn’t win and didn’t receive feedback promised on multiple occasions—but EveryBlock is quite justifiably the darling of the news innovation set.

News Is Not the End

Consider entertainment on television. People watch sitcoms or dramas, more or less, as ends in themselves. People want to laugh, cry, or just ogle the actors and reality-show personalities. Not much more, not much less. Seinfeld is an end. America’s Next Top Model is an end. Again, more or less.

Quite the opposite, however, news is the beginning—and always has been. People watch the news or read the news to learn about something else. People want to know about the war-torn country, the gridlocked school board, or a high-flying stock. News is a means to something else.

But to reflect on the history of the news broadcast or the broadsheet—or to see the news media’s foray into the interwebs—you’d never think it. The poised anchor with a firm grip on reality comes to mind. “The first draft of history” does too. Current exhibits A, B, C are undoubtedly the embarrassing lack of outbound links. Journalists want to have the last say, and the historical lack of comments further illustrates the point.

It may be loosey-goosey at best, or unfair at worst, but it’s nevertheless my sense that the public’s twenty-odd-year-old sense of the news media’s “self-aggrandizement” and attempts to hand down opaque (bogus?) neutrality from on high underscore the point. Walled gardens are haughty.

News appears to be an end. In a dead-tree world, in which craigslist was a far-off cyber dream, cultivating that appearance may have made sense. Scarcity, borne by high production and distribution costs, prompted the temporary mirage.

But, in a digital world, that’s largely why Google is running away with all the interwebs’ advertising dollars. Google realized what seems like long ago that advertising sitting idly on a page that has attracted the user for unrelated reasons isn’t valuable. If you’re already where you want to be, you’re not going to click to go elsewhere. The valuable ads actually help you get to your end; they don’t greet you, or blink and scream from the periphery, once you’re already there.

So it is in this context that a very grave report (PDF) has concluded, “The crisis in journalism…may not strictly be loss of audience. It may, more fundamentally, be the decoupling of news and advertising,” which “isn’t migrating online with the consumer.”

And it is, furthermore, in this context that the same report exhorts the news media to shift away from being a product and toward being a service. “How can you help me, even empower me?” This vision “broadens the agenda” from “story telling.” Instead, “journalism must help citizens find what they are looking for, react to it, sort it, shape news coverage, and…give them the tools to make sense of and use the information for themselves.”

The report says, news web sites “must move toward also being stops along the way, gateways to other places, and a means to drill deeper.”

Ultimately, the first question is whether you can put your ad in places where users are hunting for something, and the second question is whether you can make your ad relevant to what the users are hunting for. For google, a search engine is the obvious answer to the first question, and looking at the content of the user’s search is the obvious answer to the second.

For the news media, the answer cannot be quite so simple. But neither must it absolutely be so hard. Journalists must remember that people come to their work because they want something else. Journalists can help them on their way, helping them figure out where they’re going, informing them about the facts en route.

Of course, it will still be harder for the New Yorker to monetize an in-depth article about Abu Ghraib than it is for google to monetize a search for “new camera.” But the point is that maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that News As A Service is extraordinarily valuable.

Sell me tags, Twine!

How much would, say, the New York Times have to pay to have the entirety of its newspaper analyzed and annotated every day?

The question is not hypothetical.

The librarians could go home, and fancy machine learning and natural language processing could step in and start extracting entities and tagging content. Hi, did you know Bill Clinton is William Jefferson Clinton but not Senator Clinton?! Hey there, eh, did you know that Harlem is in New York City?! Oh, ya, did you know that Republicans and Democrats are politicians, who are the silly people running around playing something called politics?!

Twine could tell you all that. Well, they say they can, but they won’t invite me to their private party! And maybe the librarians wouldn’t have to go home. Maybe they could monitor (weave?) the Twine and help it out when it falls down (frays?).

I want to buy Twine’s smarts, its fun tags. I’d pay a heckuva lot for really precociously smart annotation! They say, after all, that it will be an open platfrom from which we can all export our data. Just, please, bloat out all my content with as much metadata as you can smartly muster! Por favor, sir! You are my tagging engine—now get running!

What if Twine could tag all the news that’s fit to read? It would be a fun newspaper. Maybe I’d subscribe to all the little bits of content tagged both “Barack Obama” and “president.” Or maybe I’d subscribe to all the local blog posts and newspaper articles and videos tagged “Harlem” and “restaurant”—but only if those bits of content were already enjoyed by one of my two hundred closest friends in the world.

I’d need a really smart and intuitive interface to make sense of this new way of approaching the news. Some online form of newsprint just wouldn’t cut it. I’d need a news graph, for sure.

See TechCrunch’s write-up, Read/Write Web’s, and Nick Carr’s too.

PS. Or I’ll just build my own tagging engine. It’ll probably be better because I can specifically build it to reflect the nature of news.

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