In newsrooms, failure is often caused by faulty systems, not people

As a manager, you may ask yourself “why aren’t my employees doing what I want them to do.” Let me just caution you against the knee-jerk reaction most of us have – it is rarely because they are “lazy.”

There is a truism in systems theory that says that 85 percent of failures within a company are the result of problems with the system itself, and only 15 percent of the problems come down to the people involved.

I would contend that in the majority of the cases that we assume the problem is with our employees, the problem actually comes down to one of two issues:

  • Your employees don’t know what is expected of them; or
  • Your employees do know what is expected of them, but they don’t know HOW to do those tasks.

Last year I wrote about the case of the “broken car” and why it is wiser to fix the system than to address the symptom. That is precisely what I am talking about here.

To illustrate this, let’s draw upon two images that my mentor in the MBA program, Jerry Goolsby, often invokes.

 

The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.

The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.

 

First, imagine that these six arrows represent your team. Imagine that the different lengths represent the level of motivation each person has, and imagine the direction it is pointing represents the goal that each team member is aiming to achieve.

As you can see, everyone is obviously working to their own end, rather than your desired destination.

If you as a manager never set a clear, easy-to-visualize goal from the outset, then you are wasting your time increasing your team’s motivation. Push each of those arrows as hard as you can and you can see that none of them will ever reach that goal.

 

Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn't matter.

Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn’t matter.

 

It doesn’t matter that YOU know what they are supposed to be doing. If they don’t know that you expect them to reach that goal, even if you are sure that you made it clear, no amount of motivation will get them to do the right thing.

The buzzword here is “alignment.” You want to make sure everyone knows where you are trying to go.

Rather than trying to "motivate" your workers, instead make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Rather than starting by trying to “motivate” your workers, instead first make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Now, once you have made that goal clear, then you can focus your attention on that motivation. You can start pushing on those arrows, and instead of scattering, they will start moving in the right direction.

As for that second bullet point – simply telling someone to do something also isn’t sufficient. You need to break each task down to its elementary pieces.

In my newsroom we went through a multi-year process of “decomposing” each of the newsroom jobs to a granular level. We wanted to truly understand the role each position was supposed to play in our system. It took us a while, but boy was it worth it.

Now that we have a comprehensive task list for each position, we have written massively detailed work flows and job descriptions that anyone who takes that position can follow.

What was a monumental amount of work on the front end is now paying massive dividends in training and in employee satisfaction. There is much less of a feeling that we are just dropping new hires into the deep end without training or orientation.

When we hire someone, we can tell them “here is what you need to do. Please look through this list and let us know which of these tasks you know how to do and which you do not.”

And then we go step by step and re-explain each step to make extra sure that they understand.

Yes, I am sure you explained it once. But remember that the first time anyone hears something, the majority of it falls right back out of their ears before soaking into their brain.

Sure, in 15 percent of cases, you really are dealing with someone who is willfully trying to game the system. But call me an optimist. I really do think that, at their heart, most people truly want to do a good job — as long as we as managers make a system that lets them succeed.

So, next time someone in your newsroom falls flat, step back and ask those two questions: do they truly know what you expect them to do, and do they truly know how to do it.

It may just open your eyes.

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Bringing the Phoenix Cycle under control: how college media can avoid a boom-and-bust cycle

 

A common phenomenon plagues many college media companies. I have come to call it the “phoenix cycle.”

The phoenix cycle plagues newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, yearbooks, magazines — pretty much any student-run media entity. And I would venture to bet that a similar ailment plagues small community newsrooms that have high turnover.

Just as the mythical bird does, the media companies grow into beautiful, impressive, powerful and enviable entities. Then, as if out of nowhere, that entity bursts into flames and annihilates itself.

All the wonderful work becomes a memory of what was, and the current material just doesn’t live up to that previous standard.

Then, after a number of years, another beautiful group crawls from the ashes, and is back to producing wonderful journalism.

I spent years studying this puzzling boom-and-bust cycle in college media. I was determined to discover what was driving this cyclical pattern and whether we could design a system to counteract that cycle and smooth out some of those downturns.

I worked with several student-run publications at the collegiate level, at the high school level, in private schools and in public schools, and each one suffered from the same cycle.

But the puzzling thing to me was that the cyclical curse wasn’t endemic to ALL student media companies. Some of the industry’s shining stars seemed to have gotten that cycle under control. What were they doing that the rest of us hadn’t figured out?

It seems to me that this is not so much a symptom of being a college media company as it is the result of some characteristics that many college media companies have in common.

  • Leaders with strong personalities
  • High turnover
  • Inconsistent recruitment plans, often drawing from just one social group
  • Inconsistent training plans
  • Lack of professionalization in many organizational processes

The curse of the strong leader
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of that list is the strong leader element. But be assured, in every case of the phoenix cycle that I have observed or that I have helped a newsroom recover from, that strong leader element was there.

The typical narrative was that the organization had crumbled and so someone, usually an adviser or the strong leader in question, scrambled to fill the staff positions of an organization.

Like manna from heaven, a particularly committed group stepped across the threshold and into the organization’s top leadership positions. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The staff rallied around the strong leader. People were drawn into the organization to work with the strong leader. And the organization performed better than it had performed in recent memory because of the heroic efforts of that strong leader.

And then that leader has the audacity to graduate.

Without the savior, the organization doesn’t burst into flames – yet. But like a forest without rain, it begins to dry out and set the stage for those flames.

Usually it is two years later that something sparks the fire and the phoenix is engulfed. And because irony is cruel, that is about the time that those awards would be rolling in from all that work that the heroic leader inspired.

The problem wasn’t that there was a strong leader. The problem was that the organization relied solely on that strong leader, rather than take advantage of that leader’s energy and vision for long-term change.

Turnover trap
The real heart of the phoenix cycle is the turnover inherent in college media. Best-case scenario, we get to keep our employees for eight semesters. And in most cases, it is more like four or five, depending on when they step into a mature role. Community colleges obviously have it even worse, and the saints who advise those have my eternal admiration.

The fires come when more than about a third of the staff leaves at one time. Up to that tipping point, the institutional memory can withstand the shock, provided the rest of the elements I listed above are in order.

But even with the best training program and the most professional operation, a 50 percent turnover is going to cripple an organization.

I often liken a college media organization to a college sports team. There are a lot of similarities. If you aren’t constantly recruiting and constantly anticipating the holes created when the senior influencers leave, you are bound for disaster.

You can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid the turnover. If we do our jobs properly in college media, our best students leave us – they either graduate or find awesome internships or jobs.

The trick is to put training and recruitment and professionalization in place to counteract it.

Recruitment
Continuing with the sports analogy, you always need a good farm system. If you don’t have a pipeline of solid prospects always flowing into your newsroom, you are doomed to the boom-and-bust cycle.

For my newsroom, that pipeline is the journalism program at Loyola. I’m blessed. And this is the case for other strong programs, such as The Reveille at LSU, and the Daily Texan at the University of Texas.

I have a strong program from which to draw my recruits, and the classes built into the journalism curriculum serve as a great foundation onto which I can further train.

What I don’t have is a built-in pipeline for my business office.

Loyola doesn’t have a professional sales major. We do have an advertising degree, but it is focused on the creative end of the field. Our majors want to design ads and be the next Don Draper. They don’t want to do the front-line sales work.

I have tried many different methods of keeping my business office staffed up. One of the easy solutions, in the short term, is to bring in an established social group.

Bringing a bunch of women from the same sorority, or bringing in a group of friends from the honors program always seems like a brilliant idea. But unless you do that as a stop gap while continuing to do the hard work of building a staff one hire at a time, you are doomed to a phoenix collapse when that group graduates or just gets bored and leaves.

The pipelines I have found that work, but require a lot of effort are:

  • The federal work study program: I am an approved work study employer at Loyola and I am always at the job fair publicizing my openings.
  • Established social groups: Places like sororities, the entrepreneurship club, the economics club and the ad team are terrific to find the students who have self-selected as involved. You just need to make sure they aren’t the only people you bring in and that you don’t lean on them for too large a proportion of your staff.
  • Related majors: Sure, I don’t have a professional sales major, but I do have some that are closely related. Marketing, advertising, management, and even chemistry serve as fertile ground for sales reps, provided I do the footwork of spreading the word about our opportunity. (Chemistry was a surprise, but it turns out, a lot of people who are interested in pharmaceutical sales are chemistry majors, and our sales training is a valuable resume line for them.)

What you should NOT do is to show up to a class and pass out a sheet to everyone to “sign up if you are interested.” That always ends up with a sheet of names of people who might be interested, or who might have just signed out of peer pressure.

If you don’t contact them all immediately, then they will be resentful — “he never called me.”

Plus, you can’t differentiate between any of those names – who is going to be a go-getter and who just mails it in.

My trick is to show up, give a quick presentation, and then put up a hurdle. I give out my business card and I ask them to come to our next meeting.

The ones who actually call and show up are the ones who I want selling for me.

When it comes to recruiting, you have to be constantly doing it. Even when you have a full staff, you need to be visiting those clubs and classes and collecting resumes.

Training Trouble
Getting warm bodies in seats is just the first step in avoiding the phoenix cycle. Properly training them is a whole other thing.

Unfortunately, the best-case scenario of training in many newsrooms consists merely of the outgoing editors sitting down with the incoming editors and “showing them the ropes.”

And on the surface, that is an admirable effort at training. Hands-on training is certainly one of the best practices coming out of the professional world. The problems come in when bad habits or partially understood pieces of a process come into play.

Ed Deming, a 20th century management guru, called this problem “taking a random walk.” If you are interested in the fallacy, this is a nice video called the “Funnel Experiment” explaining the theory behind it.

 

The short version is that on-the-job training is too often a game of telephone — you understood a piece of the message, passed it on as if it were the entire process, and then she understands a smaller piece, until the message being delivered bears no resemblance to the original intent, and the message has taken a random walk off into the wilderness.

Professionalizing your organization
I have found that the key to fixing the training problems, your recruitment problems, and most all problems that lead to the phoenix cycle is for someone to professinalize:

a) Understand every aspect of the organization and how it should work (often drawing from conferences and other best practices in the industry), and
b) Write out those processes in some permanent way for future staff members to look back at as a reference, and
c) Constantly update that knowledge bank.

Every process must be decomposed into its base parts, explained, and then given to a specific person to accomplish. And that has to happen at EVERY transition — any time anyone turns over a position, you need to go through this process.

And definitely don’t hesitate to reach out to other people in your field who have already invented those wheels. I have a terrific partnership with LSU where I will bring my sales staff up to meet with their sales staff for a day during our summer orientation, and those groups get to share best practices (and common pitfalls.)

Final thoughts
I’m not sure I can say that I have cured the phoenix cycle here at Loyola. What I can say is that we have had the luxury of having four years in a row of very stable, high-performing staff members. We were named to Princeton Review’s list of best college papers this year – a first for our newsroom. So, I do feel good about what we have been doing.

That said, I am always looking around the corner for that damned phoenix and hoping I can put out the day-to-day fires before they engulf the whole organization.

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Can TV continue to be live?

NBC’s live showing of “Peter Pan” is more than just a delight to the nation’s children. It might also be signaling the beginning death throes of an industry.

The question now is whether that dying industry is the traditional cable companies that deliver TV live, or the companies that produce that content.

Although it is common knowledge that printed media are in financial trouble, less commonly known is that network TV’s business model is quickly facing the same issues the newspapers were faced with back in the ‘90s.

According to Nielson’s Total Audience Report issued Dec. 3, 2014, viewership of traditional live TV by the typical American adult fell by 12 minutes in 2014 from the previous year. That is a decline of 4 percent. And that is after a similar 2 percent drop from 2012.

We are now watching 18 fewer minutes of live TV than we were two years ago.

Along with those falling viewership ratings, network TV advertising revenues were also down nearly 4 percent last year.

The thing is, total “TV” consumption time didn’t fall. In fact, we are spending more minutes consuming “TV” content than we have in the last few years. So where are those minutes going?

It turns out, we are watching more time-shifted TV (which is an industry term to mean we are using digital video recorders such as TiVo to record a show and watch it later.) We are using our DVD/Blue-Rays a bit more. We are using our game consoles to stream video a little more.

But the real growth has been in smartphone usage to consume video. We are spending more than an hour and a half each week on average watching video content on a smartphone.

And as it turns out, we are spending less time watching live TV than we are spending watching it through some alternate delivery.

So what? What does this all mean? It means that as consumers continue to demand more control over delivery methods and timing of their television programing, it is the providers of live programing who are ultimately losing out.

They are now facing the smaller audiences, and the dilemma of “trading real world dollars for digital dimes.”

It seems that the last bastions of live TV are sports, and the reemerging genre of live television events, such as “Peter Pan,” and last year’s “Sound of Music.”

The question now is whether audiences will bite and watch those shows live, or whether “Peter Pan” will sit, recorded on a DVR until we are ready to watch.

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Differentiation is key for a media company to survive

The key to keeping a competitive advantage in news is to think about milk. Yup, the white stuff at the supermarket.

Here’s why: milk is a commodity. In economic terms, a commodity is something people will choose based purely on price. It is available from many different sources, and what is in the bottle is the same, regardless of what that source might be.

Sadly, information can also be a commodity. And, for most information, the lowest price is free.

(Just think about that often-misquoted phrase: “Information wants to be free” … the real phrase by Stewart Brand goes like this: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it is so valuable … On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.” Everyone seems to forget that whole “expensive” piece. But I digress.)

So, how do you get people to pay a premium for a commodity? Let’s look at that dairy aisle to find out.

Rise above the commodity level with unique, targeted content.

Rise above the commodity level with unique, targeted content.

If you head to the grocery store and the one thing you were looking for was 2 percent milk, then when you walk up to that daunting wall-o-cow-juice, you will turn your eyes to one thing and one thing only – the price.

If all you want is 2 percent milk, then you are not going to buy the expensive name brand with the pretty picture of the cow. You are going to buy milk, and you are going to buy it cheap.

But there is a selection there at the dairy aisle.

Surely it isn’t there as some obscure modern art piece. People must be buying all different kinds of milk in order to justify its spot on that oh-so-valuable grocery store shelf.

How, then, can grocers ask you to pay different prices when you are essentially getting the same exact thing just in different bottles?

The grocer does it by offering something that you can’t get in that generic bottle. In the case of the brand name, you are buying a story. You are buying image. You are buying status – even if it is just a status that you hold in your own mind.

To you, the story that begins with you buying milk that is 20 percent more expensive ends with you being a better parent or a wealthy person, or however your version of the story goes. You pay for the best milk after all.

The thing is, most people don’t care about THAT story. So, they grab the generic milk.

But if you look closer at the milk aisle, there is more there. There are other tricks to get you to pay more for milk. As you look up on the higher shelves, you see different kinds of milk that appeal to different people and that, most importantly, are not available in generic.

You have soy and organic. But now even those are becoming commoditized. So, now you have almond and acidophilus, and even hyper local milk that fits into our new narrative about who we are.

You even have other things that are made out of milk but are not the actual commodity – cheese, yogurt, whipping cream, butter.

So, what does this have to do with news and the business of journalism?

Everything.

We need to learn how to take our product – news, information, entertainment and community resources – and we need to package them so we are not lumped in with the commodities of BuzzFeed and the click-bait digital sweatshops.

We need to find new and different ways to tell our stories that may not be the traditional forms of news.

What does news yogurt look like? We better find out if we want a future for our industry.

We need to get up on that higher shelf. Information is only valuable if it is scarce – that is, rare and desired.

Some news outlets can do this by being hyper local. Others do this by specializing in a niche area. Still others do it by commenting on the news with comedy, snark or pundit-fueled yelling.

The bottom line is that the profitable news outlets are the ones that are reporting on news and information that they are able to create better than anyone else in the world. And they are also choosing to cover areas and topics that have interested and engaged audiences.

Their product is not a commodity. It is scarce – rare and valued.

They moved up onto the top shelf. Now they need to just figure out how to actually get paid.

photo 3

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Where is the PR in the news media?

PR

Photo by Nieuton May

One of the hypocrisies that always amazes me is how seldom media companies use public relations and advertising campaigns to promote themselves to potential audiences.

Newspapers may be the worst, but by no means are they exempt.

The sales teams from these media companies go out to businesses all across America and preach the gospel of promotion: “if you aren’t promoting yourself, then the next ad you run will be for your going out of business sale” was one of the favorite lines used by Kodi Wilson, one of the most gifted salespeople I have ever worked with.

But when it comes time for media companies to promote themselves, the tactics they do choose are often sad, bordering on incompetent.

TV stations dedicate unsold ad time for internal promotions. That’s great, but who is going to see these ads, if not people who have already chosen to watch? Newspapers preach the power of mass media, but then when it comes time to sell subscriptions what do they do, but telemarket and solicit one-on-one in public places, like grocery stores.

The most progressive media companies serve as sponsors of events and festivals. And while that is great, we need our media companies to step up even beyond that.

Media companies need to practice what they preach and start buying ad space to promote themselves to potential audience members who have not chosen them — and not just house ads in their own space. Those are worthless, because think about it, who is going to see them except for the audience they already have? They need to be doing proper media buys using proper media planning tactics.

Newspapers need to begin reaching out to its audience members and explain to them why they still matter.

Where are the ad campaigns about being good citizens and staying up to date with the community news? Where are the ad campaigns about civic engagement through reading? Where are the speaking tours talking about our relevance?

If we don’t believe in ourselves enough to promote our products, then why should we be surprised when nobody believes in us either?

Because, maybe that next ad we run will be our going out of business ad.

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Who is the customer of a media company? (Not so fast … think before you answer)

Media companies would do well to do some soul searching about who their customers are. Why? Because knowing who your customer is helps focus your efforts and your mission.

The easy and obvious answer is that, for a media company, the customer is the same thing as the audience. But allow me to be heretical for a second and propose this counter point: the audience is only truly the customer if the audience is paying directly for content.

You see, there are two classic business definitions of “customer.” One would be the person who pays money for a service or product. The other would be the final consumer of a service or a product. But, guess what? Unless the audience is giving the media company money, they are not the customer according to either definition — instead the audience is the product.

Hear me out.

Sure, if you are a subscriber to a newspaper, then you are one of the customers. And if you are paying a cable company to access a news channel, again, this makes you a customer.

BUT, if the audience isn’t paying directly for content, the content ceases to be the product and then becomes the raw material — the thing used to create the product … the audience.

So, how is this useful?

Because, in newsrooms across the country, we go out of our way to advocate for our audience, and this is a great thing — to a point. If our audience is paying for the content, then, by all means, give them all that they want.

If our audience is not paying for the content, then we need to reevaluate why we are producing it. For example, if producing it and giving it out for free allows us to make money from another customer — namely advertisers — then terrific.

But if the audience neither pays us directly, nor is an attractive target for advertisers, then it sounds harsh, but we should reconsider whether they are an audience worth cultivating. We should instead use our efforts to create content that attracts customers — paying customers.

Now, as I said in the 4-D Funding Model, some content is not profitable but serves a higher mission. That content is still worth producing, but again, we need to find a customer for that content, and that customer is someone who will support our mission — namely donors and patrons.

Making content that attracts customers is paramount. Without customers, profitable media cannot survive.

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The Revenue Model: the four ways journalism companies can make money

The business model that will save our industry starts with a revenue model — but what does that even mean?

A revenue model is a company’s plan to get money from customers in exchange for a product or service.

By my way of looking at it, there are four – and only four – ways media companies can get revenue from their customers. It doesn’t matter what media company we are talking about, they use the same four methods: what I have taken to calling the 4-D Funding model.

4-D Funding:
Dimension 1. Get paid for your content
Dimension 2. Get paid for access to your audience
Dimension 3. Get paid for your expertise
Dimension 4. Get paid for your mission

All media companies use a mix of those four dimensions – daily newspapers, local TV stations, public broadcasting, nonprofit news outlets, even Disney, Apple, the music industry and the cable companies. If it’s a media company, this is how they get paid.

Now, that is not to say that all these media companies are using every available funding source. In fact, most media companies latch on to one or two, and if they are progressive, three funding sources. Very few media companies use all four dimensions.

Neglecting these other dimensions leaves their business flat at best, and unstable at worst. Without rounding out their potential funding sources, the decay of a key category can cause their entire operation to teeter and topple. Just look at the hoops the print industry is jumping through because it got so reliant on advertising and subscription revenues.

Each of these dimensions deserve entire posts of their own. But for now, let’s take a quick tour of what I am laying out.

RevenueModel

OK, so, how do you use this? Well, first, you start by examining the stable of offerings your company has on its menu. What do you do well? What could you do well? Who finds these offerings valuable. What customers would be willing to pay for that content.

If you jump in here and say nobody wants to pay for news, then maybe you need to reevaluate what you are producing. If it isn’t worth paying for, then is it truly valuable?

And if you say “but information wants to be free,” I just might slap you.

Next, take a look at the audience you are pulling together when you are creating that content.  What do you know about them? Who are they? How old are they? What gender are they? What do they spend money on? What are their hobbies? Once you know those metrics, then you know who you need to be targeting – business who find that audience attractive are the ones who will pay you for access to them.

Now, think about ways in which you can get those businesses’ messages in front of that audience.

OK, so here is where the old journalist in me comes out – you need to make sure that when you are matching audience with business, you are using methods that are ethical. 2013 seemed to be the year of the “native advertisement” – advertorial content in other words. I abhor the idea of native advertisements. If the only way you can make money is by selling your credibility, then drop me a line. I will see if we can come up with some better methods. But please don’t offer your content and your credibility to the highest bidder.

Now, everything I have said here so far should be a refresher for anyone who has even a passing interest in media business — newspapers have been selling access to content and access to audiences for hundreds of years now. It is the next two dimensions that actually can help round out the news industry.

Think about all the things you need to know how to do to produce good, high-quality news. Reporting, writing, design, production, distribution, sales, marketing … all those things are hard. And they are things that we have learned to do rather well. Take a look at your operations. Do you have spare capacity in any of those areas? Take a look at your market. Are there people who would be willing to pay you to help them do some of these things?

Newspapers have been printing papers for commercial clients for years. But look at the rest of the operation — what is within your core competencies that can be monitized? It might actually be worth hiring a few extra designers if you can then employ them on commercial products.

The real challenge of this exercise is to critically identify your customers. Why would they choose to give you some of their hard-earned money? Are the things that you are doing contributing to efforts that will make them want to give you more of their hard-earned money? If not, then maybe you need to drop those activities that do not add value, and instead focus your efforts on the things people value.

One of my favorite sayings in the nonprofit industry is “no money, no mission.” If you don’t have revenues, then the rest just doesn’t matter because you won’t be able to afford to do anything. You can have all the most noble intentions, but without cash, professional journalism dries up. And without customers, there is no cash.

This is typically when people say “oh, great. So, it is nip slips and cat videos from here on out! Will nobody then cover the poor? Will nobody do the civic duty of journalism?”

And that is where I say “I’m glad you asked.” Because that is where that last dimension of funding comes in – getting paid for your mission.

There are customers out there who will support the mission of good journalism. It is now our job to find them. Whether those customers are interested in supporting journalism from a philanthropic stance, or a civic stance or a nostalgic stance, we need to be actively finding those patrons and getting them involved in our industry.

Because remember, if you insist on covering news that is noble, important, and that nobody pays you for – you have already found a patron: YOU. Without someone paying you to do this journalism, you are donating your time and resources for this cause.

Now, if that is your organizational goal and mission – then great. But you need to make sure that you have other dimensions supporting your mission work. But I contend that you would be better off finding patrons, rather than being drafted into the role of reluctant patron yourself.

Now, for a real confusing question, let me jump back to something that I just glossed over and ask you this … what is a customer? In the media, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as you might think.

I’ll be happy to go into detail on that in the next post…

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