Breakthrough On the Web  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   June 1998

Breakthrough On the Web   

Salon’s savvy blend of old and new media strengthshas made it an online journalism pacesetter.

By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     

Related reading:
   » Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

When the editors of Salon heard the first reportsabout a White House sex scandal on the morning of January 21, their dailynewspaper instincts kicked into overdrive.

Managing Editor Andrew Ross, who caught the newson the radio over breakfast, surfed the Web for the latest developmentsand banged out a 630-word commentary from home that went up on Salon’ssite before noon.

Editor David Talbot, Executive Editor Gary Kamiyaand the rest of the newsroom went into “standard journalistic feeding frenzymode,” Kamiya recalls. By the time the exhausted staff trudged home thatnight, they had reported, written, designed and posted the following piecesfor that evening’s edition:

  • The first detailed report on the contents of LindaTripp’s tapes, based on Washington correspondent Jonathan Broder’s interviewwith literary agent Lucianne Goldberg.
  • An analysis by contributing writer Alexander Cockburnrecounting President Clinton’s history of surviving career-threateningscandals.
  • A sexually frank interview with Camille Paglia onClinton’s alleged pattern of promiscuity.
  • Beyond-the-Beltway reactions from authors, politicalobservers and think tank analysts.

  • In addition, hours after the story broke,readers were sparring in dozens of heated discussion forums on Salon’ssite.

    All in all, it was an impressive display of Webjournalism that demonstrated the vitality of the young medium: the abilityto cover breaking news as it unfolds; the compelling voice, frank languageand honest sexual discussion that mainstream media typically filter out;and the interactive component that lured readers into the dialogue.

    Such a feat would have been unlikely in Salon’searly days. In November 1995, when Salon hung out its Open sign, the fledglingliterary magazine published just once every two weeks, featuring book reviews,author interviews, cultural criticism, social and political commentary.Today, says founder and CEO Talbot, “Salon has evolved from a literarymagazine into a daily Web newspaper providing a full spectrum of editorialcontent.”

    Along the way, it has garnered gigabytes of praise:Time magazine’s Best Web Site of 1996; Advertising Age’s Online Magazineof the Year; two straight Webby awards for best electronic zine; and afat collection of flattering press clips. And, most tellingly, a loyaland growing audience. Salon attracts a half million distinct readers amonth, with more than 8 million individual page views each month, morethan a three-fold increase from a year earlier. The average reader spends35 minutes per visit on the site, far above the Web’s average—and longerthan most people spend with a newspaper.

    Salon, which has relied on three rounds of privatefunding since its debut, forecasts a profit by early next year.

    What accounts for such success? A savvy blendof the best of old and new media.

    On the new media side, Salon offers immediacyin covering topical events, and it delivers on interactivity through itspopular talk forums. But it’s Salon’s old-fashioned, low-tech brand ofhard-hitting journalism that sets it apart.

    “The op-ed piece, the column, book and music reviews—we’vefound that the traditional newspaper genres work really well online,” Talbotsays. “But newspapers have forgotten how to do those things well. They’veforgotten how to be stimulating, challenging, colorful and provocative.They’ve just become timid, dull, banal and inoffensive for economic andpolitical reasons, and that’s why readers are flocking to the Internet.”

    Salon (www.salonmagazine. com)serves upa daily stew of news and features about current events, politics, travel,the media, technology, money, books, music, television, health, education,digital culture and motherhood. And while that may resemble the contentfound in the major dailies, the difference is in Salon’s unblinking embraceof irreverent, in-your-face commentary.

    The columnists most favored by Salon’s readers?A firebrand and two taboo artists: Camille Paglia, the author, academicand bomb-thrower whose unorthodox missives seem born for the Web; sex authorSusie Bright; and relationships columnist Courtney Weaver.

    A number of well-known writers have helped Salongain a foothold in cyberspace: James Carville and Anne Lamott (now on leaveto write a book) wrote well-received columns, John le Carré contributedsome short pieces, and Erica Jong, Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and GarrisonKeillor have written essays and interacted with readers in Salon’s booksforum. But it is Salon’s regular stable of columnists—which includes conservativepolitical author David Horowitz, liberal writers Sallie Tisdale and ChristopherHitchens, cultural observer Cintra Wilson, music critic Sarah Vowell andothers—who do much of the heavy lifting day after day.

    “In some ways a lot of Salon is very old-fashioned,”says Managing Editor Ross, 52, a hard news type who served as foreign/nationaleditor and assistant metro editor of the San Francisco Examiner. “Thereused to be a lot more voices in newspapers: Herb Caen, Mike Royko, AmbroseBierce. But newspapers today tend to limit the range of debate. So we’retrying to bring back that kind of strong voice. People enjoy frank expressionsof opinion, which is why talk radio has become popular.”

    Of the 27 editorial employees who staff Salon’soffices in downtown San Francisco, all but one have a background in print.Part of the reason is that Talbot, a former arts and features editor atthe Examiner, brought with him a small cadre of refugees from the paper—journalistswell acquainted with daily publishing under tight deadlines.

    For example, Ross points to Salon’s quick turnaroundon the Clinton-Lewinsky story. “The speed of our response had a great dealto do with our coming from a daily newspaper background. This was whatyou did—jump all over a story, especially coming from an afternoon paperon the West Coast with three to four editions a day, where you remake thepaper throughout the day.”

    If the online world seems biased in favor of speed,it’s because immediacy is the lifeblood of the Web. “A lot of the lessonswe’ve learned online are the same lessons we all learned in the newspaperworld,” Talbot says. “It’s good to be topical. It’s good to react quicklyto major news on major events. The Web came of age with Princess Diana’sdeath and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sites that reacted quickly withinteresting and intelligent reporting and commentary saw their page viewsgrow enormously, as we have. And we have a built-in advantage over newspapers:We don’t have to wait for the printing presses to run.”

    A solidly built man of 46, Talbot finishes editinga story at his desk, his smooth, almost boyish face locked on the screen.Then he turns from the computer and begins to fire off thoughts on a rangeof subjects: politics (“I’m a liberal, but I abhor party-line journalism”);advertiser influence (“We believe strongly in the division between churchand state”); and Salon’s competitors (“I don’t know why Slate felt compelledto start charging for a subscription”). There’s no trace of the insiderhigh-tech jargon that peppers the speech of many Web CEOs, and it’s clearhe’d rather discuss ideas or books than engage in techno-babble.

    Talbot has become not only an evangelist for newmedia but one of the most celebrated luminaries on the Net. Yet he refusesto indulge some of the Internet’s quirkier rules of the road.

    Multimedia? You won’t find it on Salon, exceptan occasional sound clip on a music review. At the outset, Talbot’s onedirective to his design director was: Keep it simple. Indeed, Salon’s designis revolutionary in its simplicity—stylish and understated, with sleek,modern typefaces, legible body text, fast-loading graphics and none ofthe multimedia bells and whistles that play havoc with slower modems.

    Story length? Articles and columns generally runshorter than in print. But Salon occasionally runs interviews, as withauthors P.D. James and Martin Amis, that run thousands of words. An in-deptharticle on the roots of the Whitewater investigation stretched to nearly5,000 words. Salon also snapped up a 6,000-word nonfiction piece by novelistDenis Johnson about born-again bikers in Texas that was rejected by TheNew Yorker because it was too long.

    Technology coverage? Yes, but not cheerleading.Unlike the crop of Web zines that claim that the Net represents a utopianleap for humanity, Salon believes the medium is not the message. Says Talbot:“We think of digital technology as an exciting means to an end, but notthe end itself.”

    Adds Kamiya, the former book editor at the Examinerand senior editor at the paper’s Sunday magazine: “Good journalism is goodjournalism, and good writing is good writing, no matter what medium you’rein.”

    Talbot agrees. “The kind of writing we want onour site works well in print, too: incisive, emphatic, colorful, clear.The only kind of story that really doesn’t work well is the long, leisurelyfeature story that takes a long time to build, the old-style New Yorkerwriting.”

    Salon’s genesis can be traced to the NewspaperGuild strike in November 1994 at the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner.Guild members hit on the idea of using the Web to publish a strike paper.Scott Rosenberg, the Examiner’s new-media writer, learned the basics ofHTML virtually overnight and, with the help of three union colleagues,launched the San Francisco Free Press, a joint effort by reporters andeditors for the two competing papers. The strike lasted just 14 days, butsome staff members saw something in their grassroots cyber-effort thatwas missing from their demoralizing routine in the newsroom.

    For Talbot, who had clashed with upper managementabout the direction of the paper’s arts and features coverage, the strikeprompted an epiphany. “I came to realize that the newspaper business wasno longer the fun, creative, growing industry I had entered.” He gatheredsome of his coworkers at his house for clandestine meetings to discussthe idea of creating a Web-based arts and literature magazine. They settledon the word “salon,” with its allusions to a gathering of informed guestsand its linguistic kinship with “saloon.”

    “The name Salon was chosen,” Talbot says, “toemphasize that this would be a lively dinner party where not only writersand editors and cultural figures would be guests, but readers from allwalks of life and all nationalities.”

    With $60,000 in seed money from Apple, Talbot,Ross and award-winning art director Mignon Khargie resigned from the Examiner.A few weeks later, Kamiya, Rosenberg, TV critic Joyce Millman and contributorLaura Miller (now Salon’s book editor) quit the Examiner and joined them.After Salon’s first issue, the software firm Adobe Systems and venturecapitalists Hambrecht & Quist put in the first of three rounds of funding,giving the electronic zine firmer financial footing.

    From the start, Salon did many things right. Khargiesettled on a clean, elegant design. The editors embraced the Web’s credoof interactivity by conversing with readers in the discussion forums ofTable Talk. But it was the high quality writing and fresh takes on issuesthat captured people’s attention.

    “I heard people saying the Internet would be thedeath of good writing,” Talbot says, “and I thought that was just absurdbecause, after all, here’s a medium where you are reading words on a computerscreen. So I felt that columnists who would succeed would be those withthe liveliest voice—colorful, opinionated writers who aren’t afraid tooffend readers.”

    In the beginning, Salon’s small staff operatedout of a dingy, cramped space in San Francisco’s marginal China Basin area.Kamiya recalls the staff groaning at the “killer pace” of publishing anissue every two weeks. Within five months, Salon went weekly, and in February1997 it began publishing every weekday. Immediately, traffic shot up 40percent.

    Kamiya, 44, says Salon tapped into the public’sappetite for daily news and current events. “To some degree, we serve thefunction of being an office water cooler for our readers. If somethinghas broken in the Clinton investigation or if there’s some hot new bookor movie or New Yorker article that everybody at the dinner party you wentto on Saturday night is talking about, these are the kind of things youcan and should respond to very quickly online.”

    Today, Salon’s offices take up the second floorof a handsome brick office building, built in 1905, on the fringe of SanFrancisco’s Multimedia Gulch, the center of the digital publishing revolution.

    The newsroom resembles a magazine office, withstaffers busy in their beige cubicles or darting from one department toanother. The large number of twentysomething workers ratchets up the energylevel a notch—a contrast to the many big-city newsrooms barren of youngvoices. But Salon’s staff also boasts a fair amount of seasoned talent—anadvantage missing in the workplaces of nearby e-zines and other high-techstart-ups, where many offices don’t employ anyone over 35.

    The Salon culture also draws from several mediums.“It’s a very interesting hybrid of daily newspaper experience, magazinethinking, distinct columnist voices like those found in alternative weeklies,a strong dose of Web community and interactivity, and even elements ofradio,” says Senior Editor/ Technology Rosenberg, who compares Salon’sNewsreal reports to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Often,Newsreal goes behind the day’s headlines to explore the larger social consequencesof an issue, as when Ross interviewed Dr. Ian Wilmut, the embryologistin Scotland who cloned Dolly the sheep, on the same day that Wilmut madehis startling announcement to the world.

    If Salon is a media hybrid, it is also an unorthodoxmix of journalistic traditions: political muckraking, enterprise and investigativereporting, hell-raising commentary—and tabloid journalism.

    In the past several months, it has done originalreporting on a number of hard-news fronts. One of its writers interviewedthe Pakistani terrorist who was sentenced to death for killing two CIAemployees in a 1993 attack outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.The New York Times and CNN reported Salon’s scoop.

    While many of its stories would be right at homein a mainstream newspaper or magazine, Salon is decidedly a creature ofthe Web, where readers expect a more provocative package and editors lookfor edgy material to hook their audience. A sampling of hyperlinked coverlines, or teasers, on Salon’s front page gives a taste:

  • Famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi on the stunningstupidity of the Supreme Court’s Paula Jones ruling.
  • Kathleen Willey interview: The bra-snapping hypocrisyof the old goats at “60 Minutes.”
  • The strange life and pathetic death of James McDougal.

  • “Unless you get readers in the door—clickyour home page cover lines—you go out of business,” Talbot says.

    In the past year, three quality literary zineshave shuttered their doors: Total New York, Word and Urban Desires (whichreopened in April). Salon’s chief competitor, Microsoft’s Slate, had beenlosing money with its advertising-only model. In March it went toa subscription model and signed up more than 20,000 members at a charterrate of $19.95 a year.

    Salon’s achievement is all the more impressive,then, for showing that engaging, original journalism does have a chanceto succeed online. In attracting readers, Salon’s editors make no bonesabout borrowing from the playbook of Hearst, Pulitzer and other old masters.

    “I’d describe Salon as a smart tabloid,” Talbotsays. “Tabloid in the sense that we want a popular readership, we wantto engage and entertain and provoke them. We’re not just an advertisingvehicle. We’re something that is meant to be read and argued with. Andso Salon often tries to use all those visceral kind of ways that tabloidsconnect with people. Our cover lines try to be sexy, and we tend to runa lot of stories about sex and crime and scandal, all the things that arethe meat and potatoes of the tabloid press. And I see nothing wrong withthat.... And those stories can be approached in an intelligent fashion,without pandering.”

    The term “tabloid” carries so much baggage, hesays, that today’s journalists have forgotten its populist roots. “I wasinspired working for a Hearst paper [the Examiner]. There was a lot thatwas fun and invigorating about that kind of journalism before it becamecorporate and very professional, with people from journalism schools andlaw schools and business schools filling up newsrooms. It was more freewheeling,more crusading, more populist and colorful. We knew how to grab readersin the opening paragraph and hold them, and knew how to cause scandalsand controversies, and I think all of those things are coming back intofashion now in the Internet world. That kind of freewheeling, independentspirit is the spirit that should be alive within the mainstream press—andisn’t. And that’s why they’re in trouble.”

    Talbot quickly adds: “In turn, new media can learna lot from the mainstream press: basic journalistic crafts and ethics andthings that are too often ignored in the online journalism world.”

    One tabloid staple—sex—appears in the pages ofSalon. “Sex is a big part of most people’s lives,” says Talbot, who coauthoredthe book “Burning Desires: Sex in America.” “But it’s too often coveredin this country in an adolescent way. The media’s obsessed with it, butthey write about it in such a trivial, absurd, tittering and immature way.”

    Talbot recruited sex author Susie Bright, whoseliberal use of genitalia references would send some print editors intocardiac arrest, and Courtney Weaver, whose mating and dating column, “Unzipped,”chronicles the sexual and romantic escapades of the twenhysomething generation.Their columns are consistently among the most widely read articles on thesite.

    Salon’s assigning editors tend to favor storieslikely to generate wide interest. Because Salon’s mission is to provideunreported, original angles on a story or trend rather than try to be comprehensivein its news coverage, its editors have the luxury of picking the most alluring,provocative topics.

    ?oss, who assigns or approves the bulk of hard-newsstories, acknowledges, “If it’s a choice between a story on Kosovo anda story on Clinton and Lewinsky, I know which story is going to sell better.It’s hard to get the public interested in foreign news…. Salon needs tosurvive by driving our circulation numbers upward, so I make no apologiesfor giving our readers what they respond to.”

    Yet the editors don’t always shrink from solid,unsexy foreign news despite knowing the subject is unlikely to “drive eyeballs,”i.e., attract readers. Salon ran a story by an Australian journalist aboutwar criminals in Bosnia who were said to be untracÂable, though thereporter tracked down one in a coffeeshop and another in a pub. “You knowin your gut this was a good story,” Ross says, “but it was disappointingthat it really didn’t sell.”

    Far from pandering to tabloid tastes, Salon hasintroduced content that has elevated the level of writing and discourseon the Web. Two sections that debuted last year, Wanderlust and MothersWho Think, have won large, devoted followings.

    Wanderlust, Salon’s travel section, strives forpassionate prose that captures and celebrates a sense of place. Skilledwriters such as Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, novelists Isabel Allende, CarlosFuentes and Peter Mayle have graced the section since its March 1997 launch.

    That’s largely due to Wanderlust editor Don George,a former Examiner travel editor, who chafes at the formulaic articles thatdominate most travel magazines and many newspaper travel sections. “Tome, the best travel writing is about an experience of otherness where youmeet somebody and you have this intense encounter,” says George, “and thatopens up a whole new way of looking at life or of understanding a culturethat’s very different from your own. Our stories are really about the connectionsand adventures that happen to you when you make a left turn instead ofa right turn, and something really amazing happens to you.”

    When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Salonsent a reporter there who sent back daily dispatches for Wanderlust. “That’ssomething a weekly travel section or magazine couldn’t do, and I thoughtthat was very cool,” says George.

    Salon’s Winter Olympics coverage also was centeredin Wanderlust. IBM sponsored the trip, the first such advertising arrangementSalon has made. In return for IBM’s ads on those pages, Salon receiveda fee that more than covered the expense of sending two writers to Nagano.Kamiya and columnist Cintra Wilson filed not articles about the medal results,but first-person, idiosyncratic accounts of the pandemonium, the globalevent’s impact on Nagano and the small moments when people from differentcultures came together and interacted memorably.

    The popularity of Wanderlust has allowed Salonto set up a “virtual travel marketplace” that lets readers buy airlinetickets, reserve rental cars and hotel rooms, order travel merchandiseand check weather conditions and currency exchange rates worldwide.

    Another section that takes an untraditional approachis Mothers Who Think. Section editor Camille Peri, a former print editorand writer who is married to Talbot, says, “In the mainstream press, onceyou become a mother you’re not a woman anymore; you’re a potty-trainingvessel. Women are tired of being talked down to—they do still have a brainafter they have kids.”

    Mothers Who Think deals with everything from thebig issues of parenting, families and education to the lighter side ofmotherhood. Some of the essays and articles are ripped from the headlines:Louise Woodward, Susan Smith, doctors prescribing Ritalin to children.Others are more unusual: a former Boy Scout’s account of scouting’s dangerousinfluence on youth; an essay touching on the myth of loving all your childrenequally; and an article slamming the “notorious womanizers at ‘60 Minutes’” after the show aired an interview with Kathleen Willey, who accused PresidentClinton of groping her in the White House.

    Today, Mothers Who Think is one of Salon’s mostpopular reader forums. Among the topics: To Spank or Not to Spank; Readin’,ritin’ and Ritalin; Considering tubal ligation. While most Web sites treattheir interactive features as an afterthought, Salon was committed to communitydialogue from the get-go.

    “Our trump card is the interactivity,” Kamiyasays. “We’ve had to painstakingly build this community of trust, and that’snot something you do in a day. Table Talk benefits by being attached toa site that has a lot of lively, controversial content on social, politicaland cultural issues. This is not the AOL chat room, where someone says,‘Hey, baby, I bet you’d look great in a red bra.’ Those people will betossed out. Truly, it’s astonishing how intelligent the level of discussionis. You go in there and you say, ‘Gosh, these people are smarter than ourwriters.’ ”

    Table Talk ranks as the second most active readerforum on the entire Web behind only the Utne Reader, according to ForumOne Communications, a firm that measures Internet conversation areas. TableTalk participants have created a thriving community of 85,000 registeredusers who debate more than 2,500 topics, each of which draws anywhere froma handful to hundreds of postings. Table Talk now receives one-third ofthe traffic on Salon’s site.

    “There are people in Table Talk who never readSalon and others who read it every day,” says Mary Elizabeth Williams,the 32-year-old host of Table Talk, who moderates the forum from her homein Boston by dipping into threads and occasionally deleting a post thatviolates the site’s standards.

    Half of Table Talk’s members are women, a muchhigher percentage than in most online forums. “When I see other women hangingout in a forum,” Williams says, “I know I won’t be constantly hit on ortalked down to.”

    Sometimes the most powerful threads arise fromsmall, personal experiences. “A father whose baby was stillborn createda topic to talk about grief and feeling cut off,” Williams recounts, “andthat created an enormous outpouring of support and sympathy. Someone elseposted a message saying, ‘Today I quit my job,’ and people came in andoffered advice about job counseling and how to find another job, and somebodyasked to see his resumé.”

    All of the key editors and writers dive into threadsto let readers know that Salon hears them. Says Talbot: “Table Talk isreally a living, breathing letters to the editor section 24 hours a daythat’s controlled not by the editor but by the readers the…selves. Ourbook area is one of the most interesting ongoing book discussions in theworld. That’s quite a tribute to our readers.”

    Salon is by no means a perfect new media vehicle.Its search tool is clunky, its navigation a bit unwieldy, and its richarchive is largely hidden from view. It provides almost no e-mail linksto columnists and writers who aren’t listed in the staff box. It containsa negligible number of outside links that take readers away from the site—apractice common in many commercial Web sites.

    In its haste to cover breaking news, Salon sometimestakes the predictable old media route of quoting the usual grab bag ofpundits and think tank specialists. The quality of editing on the site,while far above the norm in cyberspace, is still uneven. And, on occasion,“a few of the pieces are muddled or sophomoric,” says Howard Kurtz, theWashington Post’s media writer.

    Lewis Perdue, a new media publisher, author of17 books and an investigative journalist who worked for Jack Anderson andhelped break the Koreagate case as a freelance reporter for the WashingtonPost and other papers, suggests that Salon needs to rise to the next levelif it’s to become a reliable vehicle for investigative journalism. “Theproblem is they don’t dig far enough. If you’re afraid you’ll lose peoplewith more than an 800-word article, then hyperlink to the details and archiveall the background information.”

    Perdue would like to see Salon tackle some unsexytopics like rent control increases, interest rate gouging by credit cardcompanies and levels of public funding on education. Still, he gives Salonhigh marks as “a refreshing site with a contrarian point of view. It remindsme of the Washington Monthly at its height, with its philosophy of screwthe conventional wisdom—sacred cows make good hamburger.”

    Some critics have berated Salon for linking tothe Borders Books Web site from its book review pages, just as the NewYork Times on the Web has come under fire for its links to Barnes &Noble. To critics, such a quid pro quo—Salon and the Times receive a smallfraction of the profits from every online sale—smacks of conflict of interest.But Talbot waves off that concern, pointing out that most of its book reviewsare critical or negative. “Contractually, and in every other way, Bordershas no say in how we cover those books.”

    Today, Salon’s hybrid business model combinesadvertising, corporate sponsorships, electronic transaction fees (largelythrough Borders Books and Wanderlust travel partners) and a syndicationdeal with United Features in which Salon editorial content is availableto more than 50 newspapers. Other potential revenue streams on the drawingboard include a print version of Salon; the Salon Club, where members receivepremium content, gift items, discounts at Borders Books and other benefitsfor about $29.95 a year; and a content licensing deal with an investorwho wants to start a Salon Japan.

    Talbot expects Salon to increase its readershipand advertising income and turn a profit by early 1999. Salon also plansto increase its staff from 42 to 56 people during the current fiscal year.It opened an office in New York in April to increase its visibility.

    “We don’t plan to go out and compete head to headwith the New York Times,” Kamiya says, “but it’s good to be doing moreoriginal reporting and substantive newsgathering.”

    Talbot suggests that Salon already competes withthe major news operations on the Web. “It’s one big media world now,” hesays. “This may sound arrogant, but I’d say we’re competing with Time Warnerand the New York Times and the Washington Post, and lately we’ve been buttingheads with the Post and the Times in particular in our coverage of theClinton scandals.”

    The Post’s Kurtz, for one, is impressed on thewhole. “I’ve become a Salon addict,” he says by e-mail. “It seems to combinethe immediacy and irreverence of the online world with some of the sharpestwriting this side of glossy magazines.”

    Tomorrow, Salon is likely to figure even moreprominently in the media landscape. By cultivating strong, distinct voicesand championing a style of aggressive, independent reporting, Salon hassculpted a brand of journalism that could set the standard for other onlinenews sites.

    “I look for the talents of tomorrow to emergeonline,” Talbot says. “I think words will always matter in the brave newworld.”

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