A Newspaper Can’t Love You Back

10 Mar
March 10, 2008

Esquire, March 2008. Reprinted with permission.

To this day, I can — if I suffer to think on it — stand apart from the moment, watching as I try to slip my own skin, to disappear myself.

I have hair and forty less pounds. I’d pressed my pants for the first time all semester, even worn a tie, though I took it off in the car, thinking it made me look presumptuous. Shit, I am in that newsroom looking like the college kid I am, a fifth-year senior anyway, surrounded by the battle-hardened professionals of a delicate, precise craft.

They know I am ridiculous.

They’ve read it, in fact.

At the four o’clock meeting in the conference room, there is revelry — at my expense no doubt. From my perch on the metro desk, I hear Phelps, the state editor, say something, his words followed by a burst of laughter. Fuck, shit, fuck.

That week — my first as a Baltimore Sun stringer — I had done something remarkable. I had managed to declare that oral sex was no longer a crime in Maryland. I felt sure of this when I wrote such and had it published in my state’s largest newspaper. Having edited the campus daily the year previous, I was confident in The Diamondback’s reporting and comfortable using it as boilerplate for Sun articles I wrote about the university. And in covering a rape trial involving a student victim, I misinterpreted an appellate decision and single-handedly liberated the blowjob from the shackles of Old Line State tyranny.

The first phone call came from a member of a gay-rights group, and while I abhor stereotype as much as the next man, I confess he lisped at me in disgust: “Check your facts, mister. When I suck cock, it’s very much a crime in Maryland..”

The second call, somewhat more restrained, came from John Bainbridge, The Sun’s man at the court of appeals and a lawyer in his own right: “Listen, I read your article today, and I’m not sure you’ve got the appeals decision correct…”

So it’s my first correction — an ugly one. And my secret, sacred, wafer-thin plan to write my way onto a major metropolitan daily had been rendered ridiculous in a solitary blow. All that remained was a Bushido-like end to it, a slow, ceremonial evisceration on the newsroom floor. Listening to my excuses, Phelps had been short and blunt: “Write the correction and call it in to rewrite.”

The rewrite man — the legendary Jay Spry — took the time to re-explain my obvious failings in the matter, all the while addressing me as Mr. Simon, as if decorum required the condemned be granted one last comic honorific. So journalism was out. And I was still about forty credits short of an academic degree. Options: I had been a busboy. I had played guitar in bad bar bands. I had edited my college newspaper, and now, given the chance to report for one of the great gray ladies of American newspapering, I was a fucking joke.

“What are you going to do?” my girlfriend asked.

“Tend bar, maybe.”

“How do you make a grasshopper?”

“Rum and coke?”

A day later and Phelps called again. Some kid had goose-stepped down the hall of a campus dormitory and fired a BB pellet into a coed’s leg a few months back. Seems he was going to be sentenced to community service in Upper Marlboro. I hung up the phone, wondrous that my shame had not been referenced, then drove to the circuit court the next morning.

And now, with about twenty-five inches filed and sent to the state desk, I have come to rest, waiting while editors in the four o’clock shape the next day’s local front. I am sweating profusely, unsure what to do with my hands, my face, my soul. A Styrofoam cup of water sits in front of me, untouched. More laughter from the conference room, and finally they emerge — Phelps and the others.

He looks at me, pulls on his mustache, frowns.

Dead. I am dead to him.

And then Phelps turns and whispers something to the tall editor beside him, something about me, clearly, because the tall guy is heading my way. I rise and actually drop my eyes. It will be fast, I tell myself. It will be fast and then I can go.

“You’re Simon?”

“Yes.”

“Good story today.”

I wait.

“I like the way you held back some of what you had, the quote from the Anti-Defamation League guy at the end. Too many people write the top of the story and then have nowhere to go.”

He extends a hand.

“I’m Steve Luxenberg. The metro editor.”

“The correction,” I blurt.

“Yeah,” he nods, ready for it. “You can’t rely on other people for your boilerplate. You need to report everything.”

He pauses.

“But that’s a good story going tomorrow.”

He leaves and I stand there for a long moment, looking around the newsroom: Phelps at the state desk, twisting that god-awful mustache, editing. Spry and Ettlin on rewrite, catching dictation from Paris or Washington. Bainbridge, Banisky, and two dozen others I couldn’t yet name banging out copy at the deadline rush. An expanse of computer terminals and battered desks so vast that it can only belong to one of America’s great newspapers.

I have a story in The Baltimore Sun tomorrow. At five that morning, I drive to an all-night drugstore, buy six copies, return to bed wide-eyed, alert.

“Good?” my girlfriend asks.

“Local front. Stripped, with art.”

She gives a small sound, buries her face in a pillow.

“The metro editor knows my name.”

I had read my Mencken. I knew what he said about newspapering, what he claimed for the profession. “The life of kings,” he called it. And for an adolescent growing up in the mid-1970s, it appeared exactly that.

Emerging from childhood, I had seen Halberstam and Hersh take apart the fraudulent premises and practices of Vietnam, then followed daily as my hometown paper brought down Nixon for stealing an election and lying about it. My father, a public-relations man with latent ambitions as a newsman, took all the local papers and The New York Times on Sundays, as well as every newsmagazine. When I was twelve, he took me to Arena Stage for a Front Page revival. “Who the hell’s going to read the second paragraph?” wailed Walter Burns.

I laughed until I hurt and left the theater oversold. I would be a newspaperman. I would join the great gray line of ink-stained hacks, a character of the kind that my father knew and loved. From the Swopes to the Runyons, from Broun to Pegler to Mencken, then back again to Hecht and MacArthur, Homer Bigart and Meyer Berger.

I was an angry kid, by and large, with a cynic’s wariness of authority that was in harness with a good newspaperman’s contempt of cant and hyperbole. I loved a snide turn of phrase. I edited my high school paper, pissed off the faculty advisor, who thought about firing me, won some awards. I edited my college rag, pissed off the media-board chairman, who thought about firing me, won some awards.

I spent the fifth year of college pulling more than a hundred bylines in The Sun. They hired me to fill in for a reporter on leave, and when that reporter returned, Luxenberg gave me a permanent position. At twenty-three, I was the youngest reporter on staff, covering ghetto murders, drug raids, and four-car fatals. And while The Baltimore Sun might not be the greatest name in major dailies, it was a solid, serious enterprise, a second-tier paper with a national presence. It was carrying seven foreign bureaus, a twelve-reporter Washington bureau, a national desk with its own general-assignment staff. And here was the thing in 1983: The Sun was going to get better. Most all of America’s newspapers were going to improve, except maybe for those afternoon editions already being butchered on the altar of television news. There was some consolidation still to come, a shaking out of the weaker rags in multipaper markets, but on the whole, the big market dailies were monopolies, providing the only serious, consistent coverage of their cities.

Watergate and Vietnam had shown how essential a sophisticated newspaper could be, had proven that while the daily chase of sirens might belong to television, the examination of real issues would demand smarter, comprehensive coverage. Television would be the new tabloids, but newspapers would hire more and better writers and transform themselves into the new magazines. And magazines? Shit, they were going to be publishing masterworks if they wanted to compete with the best newspaper writing. Twenty-five years ago, newspapers — the big ones at least, those controlling their markets — were unrivaled in their relevance.

So The Sun would also rise. This much I knew.

I am sitting in a car on the 900 block of Baylis Street in southeast Baltimore, engine off, watching a door and waiting. Zorzi is beside me, checking his notes.

“Black family? On this street?” He shakes his head.

“Doesn’t seem right, does it?”

It didn’t. Baylis ran through Highlandtown, an all-white working-class neighborhood. But the address is all we have left on the string.

“You want to hit the door?”

“I don’t want to go up there cold,” I say. “Let’s wait and watch. See what’s up.”

And so we settle in. The address has come from the police computer, listed as the last location on a twenty-something black guy with a particular name. I got that much by convincing a plainclothesman to sign into the system and do a search for me.

The name itself? That came from an old court case, a file Zorzi dug from the courthouse basement. Not satisfied with the docket alone, he’d found the court reporter and had the full proceedings transcribed, and sure enough, a kid named Dontay Carter had used this name and D.O.B. as an alias, pretending to be someone else at his sentencing on a gun charge.

So on a hunch, my plainclothesman runs the alias, and we come up with a minor arrest eight years back on Greenmount Avenue and a request for a gun permit to work a security job. The permit request gives us this Baylis address.

And the Carter kid? He’d killed a guy, carjacked and abducted a couple others — a salesman, a Hopkins physician, taxpayers, white people. For a week or so, he was a one-man crime wave until police finally ran him down and charged him, identifying him as simply Dontay Carter, of no fixed address.

And so this was journalism. A scavenger hunt — from A to B to Z on a patchwork of known facts and guesses. It was not the most important story I’d report on, nor my best work. There were stories to be written that would argue for social change, stories that might challenge the institutional status quo, stories that might win prizes. Many of them would be legitimate and some would be manufactured, and, yes, there is stuff in my yellowed clip book that creeps into those categories. But when I think back on what I love about newspapers, I think of sitting in that car, waiting with Bill Zorzi.

For me, the religion was in the chase, the pursuit of accumulated fact and quote, the rush to deadline, and the arrogance of standing up like the village griot at the campfire and running down a story that hadn’t yet been heard. And then the next day, maybe, doing it again.

For that alone, I can have no regrets. Nah, son, fuck law school. And fuck the M.B.A. I’ll never have. And fuck all that Chaucer and Cervantes and Proust I might never get around to reading. On a given day, I learn something that you didn’t know and then, my authority drawn only from scrawl on pages of a pocket notebook, I write it up clean so the rest of you can get your hands filthy with ink, reading my righteous shit. In the less fevered lobes of my brain, it was as pure as that. I swear it was. Never mind the clouds on the horizon. Never mind that the paper was sold by the Abell family after a century and a half of local ownership. Besides, everyone in the newsroom is congratulating one another on having gone to the L.?A. newspaper chain, rather than, say, Gannett. If you had to get bought, everyone says, Times Mirror was the way to go.

And yes, there’s talk of some buyouts, but the rumors were talking about no more than twenty or thirty positions across the newsroom. If that happened, it wouldn’t cut too deep.

And then there’s the new management coming in. Fresh faces with great reps and résumés — John Carroll from Lexington, a Sun veteran, and Bill Marimow from Philadelphia. These guys were ascendant, their reputations preceding them. Would they be signing on in Baltimore if the future here is anything but bright?

When the first buyout offer was finally on the table — a year’s salary to anyone who left the Sun voluntarily — I interviewed with the Washington Post and was offered a job on their metro desk’s investigative unit. I turned it down before talking money with anyone, telling the Post M.E. I was staying in Baltimore.

“I actually resent the notion that everyone thinks there are eventually only going to be four papers worth reading.”

He was polite: “Let us know if you change your mind.”

And even after the first buyouts, there was still a lot of talent in the newsroom, a reservoir of beat knowledge and institutional memory and ethical ballast. Beside me in the car that night, Bill Zorzi is the most dogged, most wonderfully neurotic reporter I know. To work a story with him is to double your reach, and if there is a fact that needed to be known and could be known, he would eventually bring it back and lay the notebook page in front of you like a house cat offering up a murdered mouse.

And while we sit on Baylis Street, I know that Eileen Canzian — having covered social services and poverty for years — is quietly working sources, pulling Dontay Carter’s juvenile files and copying each relevant page.

If I needed mayoral quotes, I had Banisky, who owned City Hall. And Warmkessel is over at the city courts if we needed anything else from the clerk’s office there, just as Ettlin or Jane Smith is on rewrite if we need to throw last-minute calls.

And when it finally comes together and it’s time to write, it would be Rebecca Corbett moving it to the desk, and she will protect the copy. Shit, she’ll make it 20, 30 percent better — graf by crafted graf.

We are good and we are still getting better. And good things come to the patient and faithful, to those who sit and wait. Like the black guy rolling down the street — age, height, and weight to match the police-computer readout. Sure enough, he’s pulling on the screen door, using his key.

“Bill, I have an erection.”

“Me too.”

At the door minutes later, I use the guy’s name as if I’d known him my whole life, talking fast, leaving no spaces for him to argue or usher us out. Dontay Carter pretended to be you in court some years back, using your name and D.O.B. Why?

“I’m his half-brother.”

Of course you are.

“Do you happen to know where his mother lives?”

“No, but my mother might.”

“Can we call her? Right now?”

And after rushing across town and interviewing the stepmother, we learn more about the life of a violent young man but that, no, she has no idea where Dontay had been staying or where his birth mother can be found.

“I know she was in the hospital. She got burnt with lye.”

“Burnt?”

“Someone threw lye on her. Dontay said so.”

Rebecca is telling us that we have to start writing, that the piece needs to be early if it has any chance at the Sunday front. I go back to the newsroom, where a full take of Carter’s history in foster care, along with careful, annotated notes from Canzian, greets me. I leave Zorzi on the street, telling him we have to locate the mother, that the piece can’t run without quotes from the woman who brought Dontay Carter into the world. He calls every area hospital. He asks for a computer check on ambo runs for burn victims going back weeks. He checks with the patrolmen working the neighborhood where she’s last seen. Nothing.

Eventually, he remembers that the city fire department had started billing for ambulance runs. The communications unit has no record of ambo calls for service going back more than a few weeks, but did the billing unit, by chance, keep records for longer?

He pulls a name and an address on Lennox Street.

“How the hell did you find me?” asks the mother as Zorzi comes through her door, notepad and pen akimbo.

“We got the mother,” I tell Rebecca minutes later, doing my best to make it sound inevitable. We were Baltimore’s newspaper, and we were writing about a kid who had terrorized Baltimore. And that kid had a mother. In Baltimore. Of course we got her.

As I say, it was not an important story or the best story. It doesn’t much matter to anyone past the Sunday when it ran. But it sits in my mind today as the moment when I was, if not living the life of kings, then at least among the princes of my city.

I am at lunch with the new managing editor as I prepare to return to the newspaper after a second book leave. The first book, Homicide, had done well and been made into a television show.

I cowrote a script for the drama, won a screenwriting award, and was offered a television gig for more money than The Sun could ever pay. Instead, I returned to the newsroom and, employing everything I’d learned about crime, violence, and nonfiction narrative from the book project, managed to become a better reporter.

After two years, I’d gone back on leave to report a second book, a year in the life of a city drug corner. I now had an even better sense of the city, of the drug war and its frauds, and I was saving string to write a four-part series on what ailed the city police department.

It was complicated: The B.P.D. was caught in a crossfire of bad practices, bad policies, and simple circumstance. But complicated was what could make the series strong and fresh; complicated was the good part. I try to explain, but the M.E. wants to ask instead about newsroom morale.

“What are people saying?”

“About what?”

“About me.”

“About you? I guess they’re waiting to see where you go with it. The new hires certainly believe in you and John. You hired them. The veterans are waiting to see.” I take a breath, venture further: “You and John came in and said a lot of things publicly about the paper being weak, and naturally that’s taken to heart by the people who were here, working hard. There is some deadwood, I know. But there are people doing fine work, and I guess they’re worried that this isn’t acknowledged.”

“Who is saying this?”

I tell him that he’s asked me for a general sense of what was being said in his newsroom and I had provided such.

“Who is saying these things?” he asks again. “You can tell me, and I won’t reveal the source.”

“Bill,” I reply, “I’m not a snitch.”

We finish the meal in near silence. On the walk back to the newspaper, he asks me again, and I tell him that it is unfair of him to ask me to betray the confidence of coworkers.

“It’s not personal,” I add.

He cites Mario Puzo’s Godfather, the passage where Tom tells Michael that it’s business, it’s not personal. “Everything,” he assures me, “is personal.”

And for the most part, he will be proved right.

No, it won’t be personal when The Sun closes its evening edition and combines staffs, making it a one-newspaper town. And it isn’t going to be personal when Times Mirror puts together a couple more buyouts to reduce the number of reporters and editors on the paper that remained.

To most, the staffing reductions of the 1990s will seem inevitable, almost sensible given the loss of The Evening Sun. But in retrospect, this would be the moment when we finally gave up the pretense of being even a great regional entity, of transforming The Sun into a newspaper with enough resources and authority to truly address modern complexities.

At the very edge of being rendered irrelevant by the arrival of the Internet — at the precise moment when their very product would be threatened by technology — newspapers will not be intent on increasing and deepening their coverage of their cities, their nation, the world. They will be instead in the hands of out-of-town moneymen offering unfeeling and unequivocal fealty to stockholders and the share price. And when the Chicago Tribune Company buys Times Mirror and more buyouts follow, the tipping point will be reached. Instead of a news report so essential to the high-end readers that they might — even amid the turmoil of the Internet — still charge for their product online and off, American newspapers will soon be offering a shell of themselves in a market unwilling to pay for such and then, in desperation, giving the product away for free. The window will close; newspapers will not be getting better, stronger, more comprehensive. Not ever again.

In Baltimore, the response will be to drop beats, to abandon the pretense of actually covering the city in detail, to regard institutional memory and the need to look at the city’s problems systemically as, well, quaint. The newsroom culture will instead emphasize impact.

No longer would the journalism be rooted in the organic work of reporters sent into the streets to learn new things and then pull smart, balanced stories through the keyhole. Impact means prizes. Now you pick a target and, to the exclusion of all complexity, you hammer on that target, story after story. Most especially, you write additional accounts highlighting the “impact” that The Sun’s coverage has achieved — covering your own coverage — the better to show that the newspaper has effected change.

If the newspaper cares about something in December, it cares nothing about it in January; the prize cycle follows the calendar year. If you can source something to The Sun’s reporting — to documents obtained by The Sun or The Sun has learned — it reads better than to simply cite the facts, even if they are from the public record. If a politician fails to respond to your reporting by scheduling a hearing or issuing a position paper, you bang on him until he does so.

And worse still, in the newsroom where I grew up — a semi-intellectual environment where everyone once seemed to be arguing about everything all the time without actually impairing their careers — dissent will become problematic.

This is the personal part.

Because the new way of doing business apparently leaves no place in the newsroom for fundamental disagreements about content, about reportage, about the substance of what we are doing or not doing. Arguments over quotidian matters such as the slant of Mideast coverage, or an ethical debate over attribution, or the use and overuse of a stylistic device will soon bring transfers and demotions until, finally, an exodus begins. And it will not be the deadwood; those taking the buyouts or simply leaving outright will be the ones with options: Struck, Alvarez, Robinson, Zorzi, Thompson, Wooton, Lippman, among far too many others — the departures will be the veteran voices of a good newsroom. When they come for Littwin — our best columnist — it will involve their anger at a Guild bulletin written during contract negotiations.

“Bill,” he tells the managing editor, “it’s not personal.”

And in response: “Have you ever read The Godfather?”

The divide between new hires who embrace the prize culture and the old guard, many of whom find it a little shameful, will be exacerbated. And old against new is senseless. For the paper to get better, it needs to retain the talent it has and add more. They won’t be chasing the weaker reporters; they’ll be alienating the core of the institution, leaching as much talent as they hire.

So I write a memo to the top editor, arguing this privately, urging him to reconsider this self-defeating mythology in which no one here knew a thing about newspapering until the new regime. Old and new together can build this paper into something greater than the sum of its parts; new set against old cannot.

No response, not a word, except the editor manages to spike my next story without explanation or comment. I go to see him.

“I was disappointed in that story,” he says.

“How so?”

“It was trying too hard not to be a newspaper article.”

“John, I happen to know the feature editor you brought in here to encourage narrative writing — she read the story in the kill basket and then came in here and told you she couldn’t see why you spiked it. She told you that was the kind of story you brought her here to do.”

He says nothing to that, so I press him: “That’s some of my best work, John. If you spiked it because you were mad at my memo, we can talk about that. But if you spiked it and you’re telling me that kind of journalism has no place at The Sun, then I guess I have no place at The Sun.

“That,” he says, “may be the case.”

I get up to go, feeling as if I’d cut my right arm off with a butter knife. Before I leave, though, I do one last thing: I speak up for some people in the newsroom, honest players who had watched as standards had changed and who are too scared to complain openly. You’ve hired a lot of good new people, I tell the editor, and I’ve happily worked with many of them.

But there’s a fellow here who is cooking it. He’s trying too hard to write impact stories and he’s making it up and John, we’ve retracted a couple stories already. “You might win a Pulitzer with a guy like that. You might also have to give it back.”

“Who?” he asks.

I give him the name.

“Well,” he says, “one bad hire out of twenty-five is a pretty good record, don’t you think?”

I allow that it is. Then I go to see Rebecca, who is editing one of my last stories. It’s about a couple of homicide detectives — smart, competent players — who are working a last week before taking retirement.

Her cursor rolls down the screen and she highlights a quote from one: “My friends are all gone now and the place doesn’t seem the same to me. It’s just time.”

She moves on to some of my own verbiage: “.?.?.?it isn’t the casework they plan on remembering; it’s the time spent doing that work — the camaraderie, the banter, the strange things that a cop sees every time he goes out on the street?.?.?.”

Rebecca Corbett gets it. She starts to cry and I am secretly delighted. It’s always good when you get your own editor.

“You wrote a goodbye,” she says. “Didn’t you?”

I tell her that I am, in my mind, a newspaperman still. I just don’t work for a newspaper anymore. I tell her that I will go to television on a lark, learn a new skill set, but I’ll eventually get back to what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

Four years later, I am in an editing suite in New York, working on an HBO miniseries. And I get a call from an old friend, a veteran of a newspaper that once lacked for impact but gave good weight to getting it right.

“He did it again.”

“Who?”

He gives me the name. And immediately I know.

This time, the newspaper had been required to apologize privately to the governor. A story — part of a series of articles tailored for a prize campaign — claimed that the governor visited with black ministers in Baltimore, solely in response to the power of The Sun’s coverage.

Except it hadn’t happened. Not any of it. The meeting was about something else entirely. The ministers — one of whom was quoted at length about the righteous things he told the governor about The Sun’s Pulitzer-worthy issue — had uttered nothing of the sort.

I am a free agent at that point, clear of any newsroom politics or careerist worries. Fuck it, I call the publisher and leave a message. But it’s the editor who returns the call.

“An honest mistake,” he explains.

“John, there’s nothing honest about it. This bullshit about having impact and winning prizes? It leads to shit like this. The guy’s making up meetings that never happened. There are quotes that no one ever said.”

“It was a misunderstanding.”

“It’s the third time you’ve retracted one of this guy’s stories. Not corrections — I’m talking about the very premise of the story having to be retracted.”

“What were the other two?”

It took me a long moment to regroup.

“John,” I said finally, “if I was the editor of a major metropolitan daily and I had to retract three stories by the same reporter, I would remember it until the day I fucking died.”

I’m not prescient. At that moment, I can’t yet fathom all the still-to-come Tribune Company cost cutting at The Sun, the Kafkaesque reductions in staffing, the slow-motion demolition of the Washington bureau, the shuttering of the foreign bureaus.

And I am still as clueless as the captains of the newspaper industry when it comes to the Internet, still mistaking the Web as advertising for the product when, in fact, it is the product. I don’t yet envision the steep declines in circulation, the indifference of young readers to newsprint, the departure of display advertising to department-store consolidation and classified space to Craigslist.

Admittedly, I can’t even grasp all of the true and subtle costs of impact journalism and prize hunger. I don’t yet see it as a zero-sum game in which a serious newspaper would cover less and less of its city — eliminating such fundamental responsibilities as a poverty beat, a labor beat, a courthouse beat in a city where rust-belt unemployment and crime devour whole neighborhoods — and favor instead a handful of special select projects designed to catch the admiring gaze of a prize committee.

I have no way of knowing that for all of its claims to renewed greatness, The Sun will glean three Pulitzers in twelve years, as compared to, uh, three Pulitzers awarded to The Sun and its yet-to-be-shut-down evening edition during the twelve years prior — a scorecard that matters only to a handful of résumés and means nothing to the thousands of readers soon asked to decide whether they need a newspaper that covers less of their world.

I can’t yet see that what ails The Baltimore Sun afflicts all newspapers, that few, if any, of the gray ladies are going to be better at what they do, that most will soon be staring at a lingering slide into mediocrity.

I only know, as I hang up the editing-suite phone, that I’ve lost my religion, that too much of what I genuinely loved is gone. I turn to David Mills, my coproducer on the HBO project. He’d worked with me on the college paper, then at The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Washington Post. But we wrote that first television script together, and when I returned to the metro desk, he went to Hollywood, never looking back.

“Brother,” I say, “we got out just in time.”

True enough. But the other day, I saw a column of black smoke due east of I-95 just above Eastern Avenue — dark and thick enough that I drove there. It was a roadside car fire, no injuries. Nothing worth a call to the desk. Good thing, too, because Spry is long dead, and Ettlin retired last year. Who I was gonna call it in to, I have no clue.

 

1 reply
  1. tom hyde says:

    Fuck.

    Reply

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