Part V: We Need to Fix the News Media, Not Just Social Media—Part 3

This is the fifth blog post in a series on regulating digital platforms. You can view the full series here.

Introduction

This blog post is a sequel to Fix Media Not, Just Just Social Media Part -- 2, and part of our continuing series on platform regulation. Part 1 rejected the argument that the current crisis in journalism (both the crisis of the business of news and the crisis of trust in journalism) is strictly the fault of digital platforms. To the contrary, a series of bad business decisions starting in the 1990s contributed hugely to the financial collapse of traditional print media and the general “dumbing down” and partisan fragmentation in the news. Part 2 placed the current crisis of journalism in historical context, observing that for over a century the evolution of new communications technologies has time and again dramatically reshaped both the reporting side and the business side of journalism. Social media is no exception to this cycle, and coverage of Ferguson in 2014 provides valuable lessons for how the nature of reporting news can successfully leverage social media platforms in positive ways.

This blog post addresses how the business side of journalism needs to evolve to maintain sustainable news production necessary for a healthy democracy. Below I discuss the basic business models for supporting journalism that have endured throughout the last few centuries of technological change, how these may be successfully adapted to the 21st Century, and what policies would facilitate the transition to these new models. Since no one model is likely to be uniformly successful (and the collapse of the newspaper industry provides an ample lesson on the dangers of relying on a single model), both the news industry and policy makers must experiment and support multiple approaches.

There are different combinations of revenue models that are fit for distinct needs, rather than a single model that works well for all. For example, NPR and PBS rely on a combination of spectrum subsidy through noncommercial broadcast set-asides, direct public funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, crowd-sourced contributions from the general public, and direct patronage from corporations and foundations.

As for the new models in news production, first, there is the entrepreneurial journalist who acts as his or her own brand and freelancer. A single reporter, or a reporter and videographer team, now replace an expensive news team. However, the disadvantages of this model are that 1) it entails enormous risk -- including in the current environment physical risk -- and economic uncertainty for the journalist, 2) it requires someone to be a skilled journalist as well as a skilled business manager, and 3) independent journalists may lack the necessary reporting skills they would have acquired by working with experienced journalists.

The second new model is nonprofit/advocacy journalism. The policy tools and recommendations for this model include training in good journalistic standards available to an emerging generation of citizen and freelance reporters. Although there is a tendency in the U.S. to look down on advocacy journalism, outlets that seek to persuade, rather than simply chasing popular stories and larger audiences, can make positive contributions to public debate. The business of generating and disseminating news should be distinguished from journalism itself. Therefore, what we need is a discerning eye towards advocacy journalism, neither rejecting it when it conforms to standard reporting practices, nor accepting it when it does not because it agrees with our own biases.

The third new model is government funding, which can ensure 1) production of goods necessary for the public welfare when we cannot rely on market forces to meet our needs, 2) noncommercial news services to take advantage of subsidies, and 3) governments to provide residents with direct coverage of important events such as city council debates.

The final model is returning to the old idea of subscriptions rather than advertising as the primary source of revenue. This does not need to be commercial free, and hybrid subscription/advertising models for sustaining journalism are increasingly being used to prevent dependence on a single revenue source, thereby reducing vulnerability.

While these models address the crises of solvency, they do not address the crisis of trust undermining the public’s faith in accurate reporting. Fact checkers were once thought to be the answer, but this has simply transferred distrust to the fact checkers. But the fact checker experience provides important lessons for restoring trust. People want tools to help them evaluate the news rather than someone to make a determinative statement if something is “true” v. “mostly true” v. “half true.” Media literacy tools to restore trust in media would include tools that indicate things such as how well sourced are stories and which help to differentiate fact from opinion (without evaluating the truth of the opinion). Direct media literacy to the public explaining journalistic standards, how they work, and how to evaluate news reporting is also essential.

As expanded in the following pages, overall, the public needs to have a better sense of how journalists and news outlets decide to present a coherent news story and not merely raw data. New business models and tools can only go so far unless we as a society make media literacy as much a priority as print literacy.


Entrepreneurial Journalists, Advocacy News, Public Funding, and the New Business Model Explosion.

As discussed in Part 2, we should recognize two fundamental principles: a) The business models to support journalism and news production are constantly shifting; and, b) journalism, journalists, and news production/distribution are different – related, but different. We should also remember that our goal is not to ensure the ongoing success of any specific business model or enterprise but to ensure that all people of the United States have access to reliable reporting necessary for self-governance and for better understanding of our changing world. With this in mind, we can develop approaches that serve this goal rather than seek to prop up a highly concentrated news industry that has lost the trust of the public it must serve.

Historically, the most enduring models for sustaining news production break down into the following categories: 1) direct patronage/sponsorship; 2) subscription services or other crowdsourcing models; 3) public subsidy (both direct funding and other forms of subsidy such as access to resources like spectrum or cable); and 4) advertiser support. We may also include part-time or volunteer journalism as part of the package. Often these models are used in combination (for example, NPR and PBS rely on a combination of spectrum subsidy through the non-commercial broadcast set-asides, direct public funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, crowd-sourced contributions from the general public, and direct patronage from corporations and foundations). Unsurprisingly, my recommendations tend to be variations on these 4 themes.

Each of these models has its own advantages and disadvantages. In general, source of revenue always has the potential to consciously or unconsciously influence coverage to some degree -- and individuals and companies should take steps to insulate themselves from this influence. Each of these models presents challenges. They may succeed for some, but not others. This speaks in favor of multiple models, rather than reliance on a single model.

Indeed, we are already seeing a profusion of new models emerging. Additionally, models that were tried and failed in the last decade may now be more viable given the vast changes that have taken place in people’s online behavior and news consumption habits. I will therefore focus at very high levels of possible models, well aware that new models are emerging all the time. I will also suggest what steps or policies could be taken to support these new models.

The Entrepreneurial Journalist. Technology now allows a return to the 19th Century model of entrepreneurial journalism. Journalists act as their own brand and freelancer. In some ways, this model never totally disappeared, with investigative journalists and freelancers contracting for stories or books (Barbara Ehrenriech’s Nickled and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By In America is an example that predates the emergence of social media of a reporter selling a book concept and then taking a year to do the investigation).

Advances in technology now allow a single reporter, or a reporter and videographer team, to replace an expensive news team. A combination of dedicated website and social media distribution platform replace the need to own a physical network. Services such as Patreon or various ecommerce solutions allow a journalist, or small group of journalists, to sell subscriptions or solicit contributions.

The disadvantages of this model are that it requires enormous financial risk and economic uncertainty for the journalist. It also eliminates any sort of “vetting” function with regard to the trustworthiness of the journalist and the news produced. Individuals motivated for political ends may achieve patronage support and popularity for all the wrong reasons, contributing to the crisis of trust. Another problem with this model is that what makes a good reporter does not necessarily make a good entrepreneur. We want journalists focused on producing quality journalism. To require them to also be skilled business managers who can turn a profit without impacting their journalistic integrity asks a lot. Nor is it clear that the public can support enough entrepreneurial journalists to ensure sufficient production of quality news.

Finally, it is worth noting that in a period of rising violence and antagonism to the press, freelance journalists face additional risks. Police are far less likely to arrest or abuse someone with credentials from a nationally recognized media outlet, for example, than an independent entrepreneurial journalist. Association with a well-known and/or well financed news company can help shield reporters from legal harassment or even physical threats. More mundanely, even the basic details of the trade, such as getting press credentials, can be more difficult for freelancers.

Policy tools and recommendations include what I have proposed below with regard to verifying news standards and supporting trust. Additionally, schools of journalism, reporters unions, and others interested in training a new generation of reporters should include classes and training in accounting, business practices, and other tools useful for reporters to manage their business end of news creation if they so desire. Similarly, schools of journalism should make training in good journalistic standards available to an emerging generation of citizen and freelance reporters. To fully embrace the rise of entrepreneurial journalists and remain true to the mission of high journalistic standards, schools of journalism and others should rethink how to make training and support available to working, independent, entrepreneurial journalists. Such mechanisms might include hosting matching services for qualified participants looking to pool resources for specific stories or for long-term projects, webinars and other short form classes by journalism schools, certification programs that are not full degree programs, and outreach to the broader independent journalist community by journalism-related unions, journalism schools, news publishers, and news publishing trade associations. In short, we should be treating journalism training as vocational training and a re-orientation of the industry to view entrepreneurial individual journalists as a significant part of the profession and overall ecosystem.

Various Forms of Non-Profit/Advocacy Journalism, and Journalism as Loss Leader. Again, we must distinguish between the business of generating and disseminating news from journalism itself. Sustained journalism depends on the ability to pay reporters and fund investigative journalism – but this does not mean that the structure requires profit motive or that the news be the primary business of the enterprise. ProPublica is an example of modern non-profit reporting (I will discuss government funded non-profits such as NPR and PBS separately). Consumer Reports is a long-standing news and reporting service focused primarily on product safety and consumer issues, but also providing related news through its website. Another approach is when news distribution is an adjunct or loss leader to a larger service. Bloomberg L.P. for example makes nearly 80 percent of its revenues from Bloomberg Professional Services. Bloomberg News was begun primarily as an adjunct service to contextualize its customer terminal business, and now includes business radio, a cable network, and numerous print and online publications. Indeed, network and local affiliate broadcast news initially began as add-ons to basic entertainment.

Additionally, there is a tendency in the United States to look down on advocacy journalism. But advocacy journalism has been a staple of a free press in many countries with strong democratic traditions, and used to be far more common in the United States. What makes advocacy journalism valuable and reliable is a combination of disclosure (clear identification of the policy or political positions or community for which the news outlet advocates) and strong journalistic standards. Outlets that compete in the marketplace of ideas because they seek to persuade, rather than simply chasing popular stories and larger audiences, can make positive contributions to public debate.

Of course, it is also the case that advocacy-oriented journalism can reinforce divisions in society. But this comes not from having a particular perspective or even pursuing a particular agenda, but from either deliberate efforts to distort news to serve the agenda or from shoddy reporting. But it is equally wrong to reject advocacy journalism when it conforms to standard reporting practices as it is to blindly accept it simply because it agrees with our own political orientation or general sympathies.

Government Funding and Government Seeding. The question of government funding for media is always somewhat fraught. We value media for its independence—particularly when it reports on government activities or the activities of powerful politicians. On the other hand, we recognize the importance of news as a public good. We often turn to government funding to ensure that someone produces goods necessary for the public welfare when we cannot rely on market forces to meet our needs. The solution in the United States has traditionally been either direct or indirect subsidy.

For example, the Post Office long maintained a lower, subsidized rate for magazines and newspapers. We have had non-commercial set asides for broadcasting, for cable, and for Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS). Although concern about control of content prompted these subsidies to be available for non-commercial educational and government programming rather than directly mandating news, the expectation in all cases was that non-commercial news services would take advantage of these subsidies, and that governments would use access to provide residents with direct coverage of important events such as city council debates.

Perhaps the most well known example of government-subsidized content is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) with its radio branch (NPR) and television branch (PBS). Since its creation fifty years ago, CPB has provided news and educational programing using a mixed model of spectrum subsidy, federal subsidy, crowdfunding, and direct patronage. CPB was structured from the beginning to avoid direct government influence. Although critics maintain that CPB has at times failed to cover controversial stories that might impact either its major corporate funders or lead to cuts in federal funding, CPB has generally provided news and educational content that commercial outlets do not cover. Indeed, providing more funds for CPB to develop new models of journalism (or to support new models and new journalists) is one straightforward policy recommendation that could be implemented immediately.

More recently, we have seen interest in state and local funding of local news. Local news has been hardest hit by the loss of advertising revenue, and by the unfortunate tendency in media consolidation which combined hundreds of independent local news operations into a handful of national conglomerates saddled by massive debt. Local funding can take two forms, either with the intention of long-term subsidization or with the goal of providing some initial capital to create a sustainable local news operation. The state of New Jersey recently allocated $5 million for one-time grants to local news operations with the idea of “seeding” a number of local news operations. Hopefully, this model will encourage the production and dissemination of local news, filling an important gap in existing journalistic coverage.

Subscriptions Aren’t so Bad After All, and Can Be Mixed With Other Models. Finally, it is useful to note that models which had previously been considered unworkable or unprofitable online, such as subscription-based models, have enjoyed a comeback. An increasing number of news outlets have moved from free access to a limited number of available articles per month, followed by a paywall for additional access. This arguably promotes “try before you buy” and does not require total dependence on one particular model.

Additionally, hybrid models for sustaining journalism are increasingly being used to prevent dependence on a single revenue source and thus reduce vulnerability. The Guardian, for example, relies on both advertising revenue and contributions from readers who support their mission as an independent news source. Many of the subscription services combine a paywall with advertising, similar to the way traditional newspaper publication combined subscription and advertising. What is different is that moving content behind a paywall allows these news publishers to adjust the balance of subscription revenue and advertising revenue. For advertisers, news publishers offer a means of controlling the type of content with which their advertising is associated in a more reliable way than with targeted advertising by Google and Facebook.

Profitable v. Profitable Enough and the Problems of Corporate Media. Finally, it is important to remember the difference between profitable models for the production and distribution of news and models profitable enough to attract the support of major corporations that currently dominate the traditional news media. As noted at great length in my earlier post, the 1990s and early 00s were marked by intense and rapid consolidation, followed by a quest for “synergies” to drive up profits and pay down debt. When considering the complaints of some companies that proposed new business models are not sufficiently profitable, we must not take this at face value. We must ask whether these new models viably produce high-quality news, not whether they are profitable enough to rescue news conglomerates from decades of bad decisions and poor investments.

How Do We Restore Trust? Beyond Fact Checkers, New Tools and Real Media Literacy.

None of these models addresses the crisis of confidence that is part of the overall crisis in journalism. After all, one reason for the current crisis in trust is that the most extreme journalism – regardless of trustworthiness – attracts the most attention and the greatest “engagement.” (Again, some of the solutions to this must involve changes to platforms and their algorithms, but I will cover those separately in blog posts dealing expressly with platform content moderation.) Worse, those who want substantive and reliable news – even if they disagree with the editorial perspective or presentation – have no idea how to find it. Even traditional media outlets make mistakes. Furthermore, even stories where reporters employ high standards of journalistic conduct may be subsequently contradicted as new facts come to light.

Indeed, it is one of the purposes of aggressive and competitive journalism to track developments and subject stories and the claims of various parties to rigorous investigation. That further investigation reveals, for example, that bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers originated from a mentally disturbed Jewish teenager of dual U.S./Israeli citizenship, does not make previous reporting or concerns about rising anti-Semitism “fake news.” It does, perhaps, caution against drawing conclusions too quickly from incomplete facts. But too many people are taking the fact that further reporting undermines initial theories as proof that news reporting generally is unreliable rather than demonstrating the need to distinguish between what reporters can verify and what qualifies as speculation or opinion.

The Problem With Fact Checkers. In response to growing cynicism about news coverage, fact checkers sprouted up -- with the idea being that these neutral news outlets would investigate and rate the claims of politicians or news outlets or various internet rumors and help people sort out truth from fiction. Instead, the fact checker cottage industry has now itself become part of the problem. Fact checkers face the same crisis of trust that newspapers face. Those who dislike the conclusions of fact checkers either try to discredit them or try to silence them with death threats. But the failure of these first generation fact checkers such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org to stem the growing distrust in the media does not make the effort to develop tools designed to enhance trust in news sources pointless. To the contrary, understanding why the first generation of fact checking services failed informs the creation of better tools.

There are certainly objective facts, such as “Hurricane Florence made landfall on September 14th in North Carolina.” There are statements that are provably false, such as “Hurricane Florence killed 10,000 people.” There are statements that most people would regard as false or even offensive but are not amenable to proof, such as “God sent Florence to punish people who disagree with me about something.” In the middle are a range of statements where lie the heart of political debate. How much and to what extent does man-made climate change impact extreme weather events such as Hurricane Michael? It is in this last part that the public needs vetting of the studies and evidence that undergird the debate so that they may draw their own conclusions, but where they resent and resist the effort of authority to pronounce on the ultimate truth of the conclusion. The majority of the public in a democracy wish to decide, rather than be told. The goal of fact checkers and other tools must therefore be to help people evaluate rather than to dictate the conclusion by correcting those facts that are verifiably false, while helping the reader evaluate facts that are much more complicated.

Fact checkers approach all of these statements in the same way, despite the fact that only a relatively modest subset of claims about Florence are actually amenable to a “true/false” determination. Opinions can be rated in terms of whether they hold up logically, but this does not tell us whether or not they are true. Nor is it the job of supposedly neutral fact checkers to tell us that a claim that opinions about global warming and storms like Florence are “half true” because they are or are not overstatements based on scientific consensus. While it is important for people to know what claims and opinions are based on – whether religious belief about God striking down people I personally don’t like (absolutely no supporting evidence) vs. whether existing levels of greenhouse gases impacted Florence (always impossible to tell with certainty for any specific event, but the models suggest this sort of thing should occur with increasing frequency) – it is for the reader to make a determination on matters of opinion. This is especially true for complicated events where ratings on some imagined scale of “truth” (or worse, using cutesy names like “Pinocchios” or “Pants on Fire”) are more a reflection of how the fact checker weighs the evidence than of a fair presentation of evidence to readers.

This is particularly true for a number of high profile cases where people have made claims that are literally true, and fact checkers have rated them as not true for reasons that seem good to the fact checker. Consider a recent controversy over a study by Mercatus Center analyzing a specific “Medicare for All” bill proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT). As reported in this story, the study showed that while the Sanders bill would result in an increase in direct government spending on healthcare to $32.6 trillion, it would reduce overall spending on healthcare by $2 trillion. Whether reducing overall cost by switching to a single-payer system constitutes good policy or not is obviously a matter of considerable debate -- and precisely the sort of debate fact checking should facilitate. Nevertheless, PolitiFact rated the claim by Sanders that the report showed an overall savings of $2 trillion as only “half true.” Why? Because PolitiFact accepted the speculative claim of the Mercatus report that the Sanders bill would be amended in a way to negate this savings. Supporters of single payer called foul, given that Sanders’ statement was in fact true -- the study showed that if his bill passed, it would save $2 trillion in spending.

This illustrates how fact checkers undermine their credibility by making judgments that should be reserved to the reader. Whether or not to support Sanders’ proposal, for example, is based in part on whether it would, indeed, lower spending on healthcare as claimed. It is then for the reader to decide if the proposal is worth supporting. Whether a bill passes, and if so with what modifications, is the debate citizens wish to have for themselves. If the study showed what Sanders claimed, then his claim was “true,” not “half true” because the author of the study (and PolitiFact) made an additional assumption about how the Sanders bill might change before passage.

It takes only a few highly publicized examples of conflating verifiable fact with editorial opinion to undermine fact checking by providing “proof” of bias. This is not to say that political predictions are not fair game in reporting. But predictions about the future and the political process need to be clearly identified as such. It is, perhaps, not improper for a paper opposed to single payer to downplay total savings and argue that the Sanders bill would never pass without considerable change. But that does not make it any less true when the author of the bill calls out this fact as proof that passage of the bill as introduced would save $2 trillion in spending over the period of the study. It is for the public, not the fact checker, to decide which prediction about political reality is correct.

Finally, fact checkers deal with a snapshot in time, and do not generally indicate when more data may switch a rating from “true” to “false” or vice versa. For example, when Russian interference in the 2016 election was first breaking as news, many people spoke of Russians “hacking” the election in a colloquial sense. Fact checkers were quick to point out that there was no truth (or at least no evidence of truth) to the claim that Russians had actually penetrated any state voting records. Later, however, evidence emerged that some states may have been hacked in the sense of someone gaining illegal access to their voting records or database of registered voters. The fact checkers previously rating these claims as “false” had actually undermined future reporting by casting doubt on a vital matter subject to ongoing investigation by insisting on rating claims based on what was known at the moment.

Building Better Tools. Better tools would investigate the nature of the reporting standards (and the sources) and potentially provide helpful background, but would not necessarily make a statement of “true” or “false” unless the facts clearly fall into something provably true or provably false. Ratings such as “half true” to “2 Pinocchios” should be avoided.

An example of such a tool is NewsGuard. NewsGuard uses trained journalists to investigate stories and news websites to determine whether they conform to journalistic standards and whether their history or conduct should raise alarms. In addition to a simple “red light/green light” plugin on one’s browser, NewsGuard also offers a self-described “nutrition label” detailing how a news website or story matches up to journalistic standards across nine criteria. While this provides the convenience of a “true/false” for those willing to trust the judgment of NewsGuard and its staff, it also allows users to make their own evaluation of trustworthiness about any specific story or opinion based on research and evaluation done in a reasonably transparent manner. Rather than take the ultimate decision about truth or falsehood out of the hands of the subscriber, NewsGuard enables the subscriber to make a nuanced judgment based on multiple standardized criteria.

As the 2018 midterms approach, dozens of new tools are being developed and deployed to empower users to determine the relative trustworthiness of stories. You can see a list here. Broad dissemination of such tools by private sector sources, journalism schools, or trade associations of journalists could do much to restore trust in media by providing information about a story or source without directly attacking the story or source itself as false or deceptive. Studies around persuasion show that direct contradiction of a deeply held belief is likely to backfire, but that providing information in a way that does not directly attack the individual’s belief can have persuasive effect over time. In addition, individuals looking for ways to evaluate unknown news sources can use these tools to have confidence in their judgment.

Similar tools can be developed for broader use to detect efforts by individuals or groups to manipulate social media. Social media platforms have been reluctant to provide public information on how they conduct such analysis from fear that it will help those intent on circumventing detection. But the same problems exist for cybersecurity, and the cybersecurity industry has worked hard to find a balance between sharing information to promote confidence and developing security standards versus providing too much information to bad actors. Similar mechanisms can be used to provide an appropriate balance for detecting efforts to manipulate social media.

What Would Real Media Literacy Look Like? Finally, we should recognize that the United States does nothing to promote real media literacy – in the sense of evaluating how media report and influence. As a result, it becomes all too easy to denounce “media bias” because there is no generally understood definition of what media bias is, or looks like, or way to refute it. Indeed, arguably all news media are “biased” in the sense that journalists and news outlets engage in efforts to present a coherent news story and not merely raw data. This is not in itself a bad thing – indeed it is a necessary thing. But the public need a better idea of how these decisions are made.

Space does not permit even a preliminary analysis of what a media literacy curriculum might look like, and whether to incorporate it into traditional K-12 curricula or promote it through more voluntary means. A study by Pew Research Center from June 2018 found that the majority of Americans have difficulty distinguishing between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion in a news article, even when no effort is made to portray opinion as fact. At a minimum, even before delving into more complicated questions of how to evaluate a story that uses unnamed sources, readers need to understand when a story is reporting an objective fact (e.g., water boils at 100 degrees Centigrade), eyewitness testimony (e.g., “I saw the water boil,” said Smith), conjecture (“possibly steam from boiling water obscured the view of the accident”), and opinion (“we should finally switch to Centigrade rather than continuing to use Fahrenheit”). If readers mistake statements of opinion for statements of fact, or cannot distinguish between verifiable facts and witness statements, it impairs not only the comprehension of the individual news consumer, but significantly hinders civic debate as even people with the best of intentions work from differently understood “facts” and “opinions.” Before we can even hope to tackle the problems of information silos and willful refusal to engage with those who disagree, we must first make it as easy as possible for those who genuinely wish to remain informed and engaged to do so.

Conclusion

To tie all three parts of this series together, we agree at Public Knowledge that the current twin crises in media -- the financial crisis which requires rethinking how to support journalism and the crisis of trust in the news and reporting -- are real. As we have recognized in public policy around electronic media for the last 100 years, production and distribution of news from diverse sources is critical to creating an informed citizenry and a healthy democracy. Government plays a role in ensuring that the electronic media serve this vital public interest.

But government does not play this role by preserving a particular business model. To the contrary, the business models for production and dissemination of news have repeatedly undergone dramatic shifts in response to changes in technology. It is therefore not the place for governments to require digital platforms and news aggregators to subsidize existing media conglomerates. Any effort to address the underlying crisis of solvency and the crisis of faith in modern news media must frankly acknowledge the role that news conglomerates have played in creating these crises, not merely point fingers at platforms.

In this vein, looking to the positive ways in which platforms can enable new and successful models of reporting, we can make some basic recommendations as to policy responses. These responses are not limited to federal policy. As described above, journalism schools, trade associations, and state and local governments all potentially have a role to play in successfully transitioning journalism to thrive in a platform-based economy. These proposals range from distributing skills training and tools to help entrepreneurial journalists, to direct subsidies, to tools and education to empower the public to identify and support quality journalism.

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