Breaking News - a summary of the book's arguments for Medium

In a world of fake news and information chaos, we need more journalism. That was the elevator pitch — at least, inside my own head — as I embarked on a book about the revolution in news which is still ripping through our industry with the force of a Category 5 hurricane.

We’ve now stood on the brink of this existential crisis long enough to be frightened. A society that cannot agree on a factual basis for discussion or decision-making cannot progress. There can be no laws, no votes, no government, no science, no democracy without a shared understanding of what’s true and what isn’t. Of course, a commonly agreed basis of facts is only the beginning. Societies with no independent source of challenge or scrutiny are also not to be envied.

And so, I argued to myself, it should be obvious that we need to go back to journalists for the answer. We knew you’d miss us when we were (almost) gone. Now that you know how dark the world can be without us — or enough of us — perhaps you’ll treasure us a bit more in the future?

That was how the book had framed itself in my mind. Throw in a few chapters denouncing social media, chuckle at the utopian dreams we once nursed of the internet transforming the world, and the book would write itself.

That would have been a comfortable book to produce, but the longer I kicked the ideas around in my head, the less simple it became. I started sketching it out in 2016 against the backdrop of the most consequential referendum in modern British history: the in-out decision over the U.K.’s membership in the European Union.

Like the crisis with our weather systems, this is a crisis in the climate of information. In its own way, it has the potential to be just as deadly.

By then I was a civilian, not an editor. As a reader, I wanted two things from newspapers: 1) an acknowledgement that this was an extremely complex question (as we now cannot doubt), and 2) a balanced setting out of the arguments on both sides. Thus primed, I could make an informed vote. That’s the classic role of journalism: to create more knowledgeable citizens, who, in turn, will make better democratic choices.

But that’s not what most British journalism did in the run-up to the vote. The pro-Brexit papers outgunned their Remainer counterparts at least two to one: Most of them did not trouble to either set out two sides of the question or deal with complexity. They used their front pages to bellow, cajole, mislead, and even threaten — not to explain. One proprietor gave £1 million to the main Brexit party. The biggest tabloid was forced to register as a campaign group after spending the equivalent of £96,000 on a pull-out poster.

So, no, Brexit was not a great background to embark on a book arguing the case for journalism as the antidote to information chaos. And nor was climate change — the other momentous issue of our times, never far from our minds.

Let’s suppose that global warming is the most important issue of our generation. It dwarfs all others if only because, assuming the overwhelming majority of scientists are even approximately right, excessive warming has the potential to be a calamitous, even existential, threat to our species.

That’s a big story, however you look at it. But it’s one to which journalism struggles to do justice. The amount of coverage the issue gets is, in most outlets, in inverse proportion to its significance. It’s easier to write about the royals or the latest reality TV show — and you’ll hook infinitely more readers. Some editors, even when they do find space for the subject, drip skepticism all over the evidence.

Meanwhile, on social media, I can and do find authoritative voices talking good sense on Brexit and climate change — and by “good sense” I don’t just mean people who share my opinion. I find constitutional experts, lawyers, scientists, European academics, economists, and environmental thinkers in constant debate. Their tone tends to a conversation rather than a lecture. Unlike many journalists, they listen as well as talk. They respond to each other. They supply links and sources. Their modus operandi is not “take my word for it,” but “here’s my evidence.”

So this was confusing for someone trying to write a book about the trade that had occupied 40 years of my working life. Our story ought to be simple: There’s information chaos, and there’s journalism. There’s now an unparalleled ecosystem of falsity, manipulation, and fakery… and there’s journalism.

But at the very moment when we should be proving that we were better than the internet, too many of us have been failing. And the failures of some inevitably impact the achievements of others. “Journalism” is a big, baggy word that describes Fox News as well as the New York Times. The Sun and the Daily Mail do “journalism.” So do the Financial Times and the BBC. They overlap in some respects — but they also have very different ideas of their craft. If, in many western countries, there are now abysmal levels of trust in this umbrella concept of “journalism,” then maybe we need to think harder about what the word actually means.

There is no getting away from the question of trust. You can pick your poll or survey, but you can’t escape the reality that, as the latest Edelman Trust barometer puts it, “the media are now the least trusted institution.” Even more disturbing is the widespread disengagement from the news (about half of us) — or the two-thirds of us who now say we don’t know how to tell good journalism from rumor or falsehoods.

Like the crisis with our weather systems, this is a crisis in the climate of information. In its own way, it has the potential to be just as deadly.

Most people will be familiar with the economic side of the story: the flight of advertising from print to the giant tech companies that worked out there were billions to be made from mining personal data and in accurately matching sellers with potential buyers. Newspapers struggled to get with that act but were hopelessly outgunned on scale and technology.

Readers were — initially, at least — reluctant to pay for online news. The math suggested that publishers needed to reach much larger digital audiences to have any chance of retaining even a fraction of the revenues print used to pull in. Unless you were selling specialized or financial information, you couldn’t hope to grow or push into new markets by charging people for general news.

What once was scarce was now ubiquitous. The old world — in which a few billionaire individuals or corporations owned printing presses — was arranged vertically. Those of us lucky enough to have a printing press almost literally handed down the truth — or a version of it — from above. But now the world was rearranging itself horizontally, with 4 billion people able to publish, distribute, talk, and respond.

There will not be a simple answer — but the current tsunami of simple-answer populism should be enough to convince us of the need for more complex solutions.

The economics didn’t take long to affect the journalism. The saddest stories are about once-great titles where the business managers effectively took over the newsrooms — with calamitous consequences for reputation and trust. More commonly, historic ideas of profit drove short-term thinking, which usually began with cuts and demands for ever greater productivity. Journalism morphed into what my colleague, the investigative reporter Nick Davies, described as “churnalism.”

People spot churnalism when they see it. They don’t much value it or trust it. And they don’t see why they should pay for it. And so a destructive cycle began in which decent journalists have been prevented from doing the excellent work that would make the most eloquent case for the craft the world needed.

My book, Breaking News, sets out to describe that era from the inside: It does its best to capture what it was like to be in the eye of a storm with no route map. Part of the story is, inevitably, about the Guardian, a paper I edited for 20 years, from 1995 to 2015, more or less exactly the dates of the most violent stage of the great transformation.

Most of it is a universal story. The Guardian had shallower pockets than most, but in one respect it was unusual. The paper is owned by a trust that, with a $1 billion endowment, exists solely to preserve the news organization and its editorial values. Since its foundation after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 — now memorialized in a new Mike Leigh film — the paper has never placed profit before journalistic seriousness or integrity. Mission before money.

That, in theory, helped us devise a slightly more long-term strategy to transition into the world of digital. We would innovate at the speed of digital — or attempt to. We would expand to serve the new audiences digital distribution was reaching: By 2001, two-thirds of our readers lived outside the U.K. We would try to remain open — that is, without a paywall — as we tried to reach a scale that our commercial colleagues felt could sustain us into the future.

Finally, we would invite readers to become “members.” This was a term that grew out of a conversation between NYU digital guru Clay Shirky and me in 2012. A meeting of readers we convened one weekend found they were willing to pay, but they were overwhelmingly drawn to the notion of contributing as a form of philanthropy — the Guardian available to all — rather than purchasing an exclusive right to read something to which others were denied access.

We also had help from bigger philanthropists. An Australian entrepreneur, Graeme Wood, funded our initial push into Australia. Bill and Melinda Gates subsidized our commitment to reporting on Africa. The operation we developed in the United States was more straightforwardly commercial. The membership scheme was launched in September 2014 and could, we predicted in January of that year, make £15 million in profits by 2019–2020. Not enough to make up for the drop in print advertising, but a significant contribution.

And then we held our breath. There were, to be sure, rocky bumps along the way, and 2016 was a particularly bad year for all publishers. But gradually — with great skill and commitment from the present team in editorial and commercial — the plan appears to be working. There are now 1 million Guardian readers contributing to the cause. Reader revenues — including subscriptions — have now overtaken advertising receipts. Australia is in profit, with the United States predicted soon to follow. The whole organization says it will break even next year. The Guardian, which sold just 400,000-odd print copies in 1995, is now accessed by almost 160 million browsers a month worldwide. And there’s still more than $1 billion in the bank.

That’s one model of potential sustainability into the future. It wouldn’t work for everyone. There is, almost certainly, not one single template that can be adapted across a multitude of different publishers and titles.

But there are some obvious pointers at the heart of what we learned at the Guardian. The first is that, in a revolution, you can never hope to be right all the time. The second is that you will almost certainly have to be more patient than the old historic vertical models. Long-term thinking (ask Jeff Bezos) beats short-term profits.

The third is that you have to start with the mission. If we want to make the case that journalism deserves to survive because it is ultimately a form of public service, then we have to begin with that aim. Make the journalism as good, as meaningful, as relevant, as truthful, as serious as we can. If we can make profits as well, even better.

What does that look like in business terms? Again, there will not be just one model. The Scandinavian market differs from the Indian sector, which is considerably unlike the British or American. Some publishers can doubtless continue to build sustainable businesses off the back of subscriptions and advertising.

But it’s wise to think of a Plan B in case the 200-year-old association between advertising and journalism eventually begins to dissolve. Can we make people believe that more journalism is indeed the answer to information chaos? Can we create new kinds of social enterprises — even nonprofits or charities — that could benefit from incentives to supply the factual basis for good societies?

There is still wonderful journalism all around us. Donald Trump has, in a way, provoked many to think harder about whether journalism is the enemy or the friend of the people. We’ve been forced to ask difficult questions about what we do and to up our game.

The revolution is still in its infancy, as is the remaking of journalism. There will not be a simple answer — but the current tsunami of simple-answer populism should be enough to convince us of the need for more complex solutions. The horizontal world is not going to be wished away. Journalism needs to find a way of finding its place in the new conversations that are being born.

[Posted on November 28 2018}

The money question

Breaking News is mainly a book about journalism, but there’s also quite a bit about money. Most of the reviews so far have concentrated on what it has to say about journalism – and have mostly been very kind. But one or two reviewers can’t get beyond the money question.  “He may have been a good editor,” runs a certain line, “but he was crap business manager. Brought the Guardian to its knees, almost bankrupted itself.”  Never mind the quality, what about the bottom line? That sort of thing.*

So I thought I would blog briefly about the money question – just the once -  to save you having to read every passage of the book.

So this is the tl:dr version.

1)    Firstly, editors edit. They do not run the business. That’s entirely as it should be.  There is, for instance, almost nothing in Ben Bradlee’s memoir about business models. He didn’t have to think about such niceties: the money washed in and he could get on being a great editor. Life today is different and editors can’t escape having to think about the changing financials even as they try to concentrate on the words and pictures. But they do not – and should not – run the commercial side of the company.  Their work - especially in these times of perpetual change - is to decide where journalism is going - or even, what journalism is. And to do it. I was amused to read one commentator accusing me of being terrible at forecasting revenues. The truth is I have never forecasted revenues in my life. Not an editor’s job. There were two commercial boards full of very clever commercial and financial people who looked after predicting revenues and operations. The building swarmed with forecasters. I wasn’t one of them.

2)    The Guardian has never been run for profit – which is just as well, as it has rarely made one in recent times.  That’s not its point: it is owned by a Trust  and run in order to produce the best possible journalism. That much has been clear since CP Scott’s remarkable 1921 essay about news and how he saw the [Manchester] Guardian.  Alastair Hetherington was a great editor between 1956-1975, and, later, Chair of the Trust. His own memoir includes an appendix showing the Guardian lost - growing - sums of money every single year under his editorship from 1961 to 1975. The paper almost merged with the Times in 1966 it was so in debt.  He was still a great editor: he did the best possible job with the resources available to him.  

3)    The Guardian did have at least one serious crisis while I was editing: after the Lehman crash of 2008 the plans we had collectively drawn up were blown up by the collapse of advertising and the deepest recession in memory. It looked dangerously as though we could run out of money within a few years. We didn’t.  Great commercial colleagues and wise board members got us through.

4)    By around 2013/4 we – that’s the Guardian board and the parent GMG board  – had drawn up a strategy based on five things:

* The best possible editorial operation we could sustain.

* A commitment to digital innovation, investment and growth.

* An imperative to be truly global – including operations in (and advertising from) the US and Australia

* A membership scheme by which readers would give money to the Guardian to support its journalism and keep it openly available

* The interest from a £1bn endowment which GMG had – rather brilliantly - established as a fund to support Guardian journalism. On a 3-4 per cent draw down that could generate £30 to £40m a year to subsidise the editorial operation. With wise investment advice it should grow at up to 10 per cent a year. [All credit to (Lord) Paul Myners, ex-Gartmore investment, for this part of the jigsaw.]

5)    The boards knew this period of investment would involve short/medium term losses – perhaps considerable ones.  It would entail painful cost cutting both then – and in the future.   But the Guardian did not have shareholders: it could afford to think long term. We have seen enough of what short-term thinking can do to newsrooms.

6)    Once a strategy has been agreed an editor’s job (see above) is to get on and edit, knowing his commercial colleagues will shout if there’s trouble. That’s what I did. No-one shouted. Quite the opposite

7)    By the time I announced I would step down in December 2014 all three of the then main commercial executives and directors said that everything was pretty much on track.

8)    Neil Berkett, Chair of GMG, then and now, said: ”Alan’s successor will inherit a media organisation in very strong health and with clear prospects for future growth.”  (December 2014 – emphasis added)

9)    Andrew Miller, CEO of GMG, said: “I'm pleased that the Guardian is delivering on its promises: to increase revenues, invest for the future and maintain a disciplined financial approach. 2014 was the year we secured the financial future of the Guardian.” (March 2015). He also said: “My successor will inherit a business with very strong commercial foundations in place…[it has] a sustainable financial future, securing the unique contribution made by the Guardian to national and international debate for many years to come.” The respected Enders media analyst, Douglas McCabe, said of Miller as he stepped down in March 2015: He has unambiguously backed the digital strategy and secured The Guardian’s financial footing while not breaking its culture. “

10) David Pemsel, my colleague as commercial director, on becoming CEO of GMG in June 2015 said: “I am hugely excited at the prospect of managing the next phase of growth.” [The Guardian is] “global digitally-focused, financially secureWe are perfectly poised to …capitalize on the many commercial and digital opportunities.”

11) So, by the time I stepped down in May 2015,  the most senior commercial executives and directors all said as plainly as possible - on the record -   that they considered  everything to be fine. Of course, they had anxieties: no modern media company can ever relax. But the Guardian was, in their view, not an organisation “on its knees” or on the verge of bankruptcy. Rather, they said they considered it financially secure and well-placed to reap the rewards of the way we’d collectively decided to negotiate the howling digital disruption all around. We had spent the best part of 20 years trying to ready the Guardian for the digital age. We weren’t there yet - who, among general interest newspapers, was? - but they were pleased with the progress. I had no reason to doubt them.

12) But then came 2016. It turned out to be a sticky year for everyone. Facebook was suddenly eating everyone’s lunch. Even the Buzzfeeds of the world were way out in their financial predictions. So – by miles - was Facebook. And so, it turned out, was the Guardian.  The £100m digital revenues David and Andrew had forecast – and which Neil had signed off on – didn’t arrive. The digital income remained stuck on £80m. Still a huge sum, given where we had come from – but not enough.  From a £40m-odd loss, which the GMG considered sustainable (because the endowment was there to mitigate that), the losses spiralled to £70m-odd loss. That was not sustainable. The Guardian was not the only news organisation to have a sweaty time in 2016.  A good many start-ups and legacy companies went to the wall. There were redundancies and closures everywhere.

13) I, by then, had no connection with the Guardian and would not have been amazed if the new team had ripped up the strategy, built a pay wall and abandoned the international plan. They didn’t. They stuck with, and revised, the strategy – alongside implementing a painful and necessary programme of cost reduction. They have managed very well. I’m sure they – like everyone – would have preferred to live in a different age of more financial certainties.

14) Jump two years. The Guardian still has flourishing international operations. The Australia business – once derided by some as a vanity project – has just turned in a profit of AU$700k.  The US operation is reported to be moving into the black and is said to be “on a sound financial footing..and become more important to the Guardian in future years.”

15) There is still no paywall. The boards will, I’m sure, have carefully investigated the idea of putting one up and have – it appears, and at least for now – decided against. Instead, the membership scheme first devised in 2012/3 now has 800k Guardian readers paying for content (570k paying supporters and 320k one off contributions). In a world of fake news, readers pay for the Guardian’s journalism to be openly available as an antidote to falsity. That seems to be tremendously enlightened. The world needs as much good journalism out there in the open as it can. [UPDATE: The Guardian announced in November 2018 that the six-year old membership model now had the support of one million readers.]

16) Digital revenues  (£108m) have overtaken print revenues and have overtaken the £100m David Pemsel forecast for 2016. He was, it transpires, about right – and, in a world of crazy disruption, as accurate in his predicted timing as it is reasonable to expect anyone to be.

17)The company says it will break even in 2019

18)There is still £1bn in the bank – the endowment explicitly there to sustain the Guardian’s journalism. The idea that the Guardian has been bankrupted by any part of the digital strategy is laughable. The opposite: the Scott Trust has more money to sustain the Guardian’s journalism than at any time in its history.

19) There have, of course, been plenty of bumps along the way. We made mistakes, as well as getting many things right. (The same is true of every single media company I know. Look them up). All praise to David and Kath for managing through tough times. Every Guardian editor and manager in history has been through such lean, even scary, periods. The present team deserves all support.

20) In an age of such disruption it would be foolish to claim final “success” for any media business strategy. Doubtless the future will laugh at us all. In two years time it may all be about Blockchain. Or not. But the Guardian planned a strategy to support quality journalism in a digital age. It has stuck with it through painful and, I dare say, alarming times. It’s revised it, developed it and tweaked it. The evolving strategy is gradually, and hearteningly, bearing fruit.  And the Scott Trust still has a £1bn endowment to support its journalism into the future.

21) To be clear: I am not claiming this is a miracle model that would work for everyone, nor that it is an unrivalled triumph of business acumen. But nor has it been a disaster. The digital revolution has splintered and fractured very many bigger and more hard-nosed “commercial” news organisations. Just now the Guardian’s strategy over the past five years or so doesn’t look too bad.

 *[UPDATE, November 5, 2018, the former Mail Editor, Paul Dacre said much the same in a valedictory speech he made to crown his 27 years of editing]

Ugly heckle disrupts the idyll of Austria's Schubertiade

One of the points of the Schubertiade – the music festival held in a tiny Austrian village each August – is that little about its ethos changes from year to year. So when, this week, an audience member shouted at a British singer that he should “learn German” it made headlines across Europe.

The festival is a staid affair. Gone are the days when Schubert’s were the only notes allowed within the walls of the pretty wooden concert hall in Schwarzenberg, in the Bregenzerwald region of Austria. But the audience – quite a few dressed in traditional dirndl and leather – are a sober crowd. They clap, they don’t shout.

And then, out of the blue, a stoutly built member of the audience did just that, bellowing at the British tenor, Ian Bostridge: “Bitte lernen Deutsch.” Bostridge continued with his final encore and then did something equally unprecedented at Schwarzenberg – jumping off the stage to confront the heckler before marching him on to the platform and inviting him to speak. The man did not get very far: his own performance was drowned out by boos.

Mental illness or ugly nationalism? The festival organisers discouraged the latter as a motive. Which one hopes to be the case, if only because the Schubertiade is such a winning melting pot of international musical talent.

The following evening the Russian-German pianist Igor Levit hobbled onto the stage having twisted his leg hiking in the surrounding mountains. His performance of the last three Beethoven sonatas showed a performer who had thought deeply about every note, every phrase, arc, section and movement of these towering, mysterious works.

That careful intellectualism – coupled with his ability to conjure such hushed sounds from the keys – made one wonder whether he could also rise to the passionate peaks of the music. It turned out he could.

The next afternoon came a Schöne Müllerin of understated charm and intelligence. The formula at Schwarzenberg may change little each year, but its presiding organising intelligence for more than 40 years, Gerd Nachbauer, has an undoubted eye for spotting developing talent.

Mauro Peter, a reasonably local boy making very good, managed the innocence of the first half as effectively as the suspicion, jealousy and anger of the second half. The pianist, Helmut Deutsch, was hunched, precise and sensitive.

The Minetti Quartet played the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets with Jörg Widmann. The Brahms was compelling: alternately sharply intense and darkly sensuous.

Finally, the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gave an operatic account of Schubert’s Winterreise with the self-effacing pianist, Wolfram Rieger. She has a big voice and the performance grew in dramatic effect as the cycle progressed. I can’t speak to her German pronunciation, but there was only enthusiastic applause at the end.

With that – the final evening recital – the festival packs up and moves to its other home, Hohenems. And the cows come down from the mountain pastures and reclaim the streets of Schwarzenberg.

Schubertiade 2017 Review

Out in the fields, little changes from year to year. Farmers are still drying their hay and collecting their wood. The cows are still tinkling and clanging in the high alps, waiting their turn to come down to the valley. There is a kind of bustling beauty all around.

And at the Schubertiade festival in Schwarzenberg, in the middle of all this bucolic loveliness, little changes either. The formula works: bring the best musicians in the world to this little village in southern Austria in late August and an audience will magically appear each evening.

They will have spent the day walking in the hills and mountains. They may have had an early evening bowl of soup and glass of grüner veltliner. But at 8pm sharp they will be sitting hushed and attentive for the music. Nor does the music change much from year to year. Unless I’ve missed someone, the most contemporary composer to feature all week was Roger Quilter (1877–1953), who wrote evocative Edwardian art songs.

It would be easy, in other words, to criticise the Schubertiade. But it is what it is – and what it is, is rare and rather wonderful.

This year I arrived in time for the first of two recitals by the Russian-German pianist, Igor Levit: two Schubert masterpieces sandwiching the Eroica Variations of Beethoven. The Schubert pieces were studies in contrasts: the Allegretto D915 sounding almost like a fantasy, such was its freedom and looseness; the penultimate sonata, D959, more rhythmically structured. The second movement was heart-tuggingly tender.

Tuesday brought a brio-filled Dvořák quintet and a beautifully executed Schubert Octet with velvety playing by the French clarinettist Paul Meyer.

On Wednesday it was the turn of the Emerson Quartet and two late Beethoven string quartets, Ops 132 and 130. There is so much unresolved pain and questioning in these works that they need to sound raw and unsettling as well as sublime. In Op 132, the Emersons sounded a little too polished and polite. They changed gears for Op 130 and by the time they reached the wildest and most tortured fugue in history – the Grosse Fugue – they sounded possessed.

On my final night, Igor Levit was back for the Goldberg Variations. The opening Aria was played in poetry rather than prose, and with such ever-changing ornamentation that we could almost have been listening to improvisation. Levit plays with liquid delicacy and thoughtfulness. By the time he reached the end of the painfully intense Adagio 25th variation he looked utterly drained. Somehow he dug deep to find the energy to finish the work off.

The variations demand complete concentration for an audience, never mind the pianist. One measure of a great performance is how completely the figure sitting at the keyboard can spellbind the listeners. For the best part of an hour and a half Levit did just that. He is on his way to becoming a great pianist.

And so another Schubertiade visit drew to a close. The conservatism of the environs is deceptive. Look carefully at the landscape around the villages and you’ll see strikingly contemporary design and craft. Eat in the surrounding hotels and restaurants and you’ll become aware this is an area with much small-scale organic food production. Many of the villages in the Bregenzerwald are powered by renewable energy. Small-c conservatism blends with rather contemporary conservation. And, while the repertoire is hardly experimental, young performers such as Levit are finding new ways of playing and thinking about the greatest of all music



My friend Claus Moser died on September 4. Many obituaries and tributes have tried to do justice to a remarkable life. He arrived as a refugee - fleeing persecution - in this country in 1936. He rewarded this givingof sanctuary wth a career of extraordinary public service to the UK. What irony in the timing of his death, with the current British Government so stubbornly mean-minded in giving refuge to the Claus Mosers of today.

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This year, for the first time in several years, I'm not going to be migrating south in June to attend the annual Lot piano camp. At the time the redoubtable Anne Brain was taking her bookings last winter there was too much uncertainty about the future shape of my working life (much clearer now: I step down as editor of the Guardian after 20 years and became both Princple of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in October as well as the chair of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian. 

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Was back for this year's piano camp in the Lot Valley - with a new tutor, the chamber musician, Susan Tomes.  A few changes this year: instead of the course taking place at Anne Brain's house, we moved into a local hotel, Le Vert - a really sweet hotel surrounded by its own orchards and run by Eva and Bernard Philippe. 

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