International Journalism Festival 2023: what we learnt in Perugia about the future of news

Here are a few highlights from the festival on topics such as press freedom, investigative journalism, climate coverage and AI

Journalists from all over the world gathered again this year at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia to discuss some of the most important issues for the profession. Here are some of the highlights of the festival so far, curated by the Reuters Institute's editorial team. 

Stuff we learnt

1. There is not a single recipe for the business of news. Our Director Rasmus Nielsen moderated a panel on the business of news featuring speakers from France’s Mediapart, South Africa’s Daily Maverick and Vox Media in the US. These three news organisations have built successful businesses with very different models. Daily Maverick is running a membership model. Vox has diversified its revenue streams with ads, memberships and platform money in the mix. Almost 99% of Mediapart’s come from its 220,000 subscribers with no ads, no public subsidies and no commercial agreements with tech platforms. 

Speakers shared the kind of dilemmas they are grappling with. Mediapart is trying to kick-start B2B subscriptions and experimenting with reaching younger audiences on Twitch and YouTube. Daily Maverick is using Facebook and newsletter to get new readers into the conversion funnel. Meanwhile, Vox, about to turn 10, is reflecting on how to distinguish its content in what now looks like a sea of explainers, the genre they adopted when they launched in 2014. “There are at least two things we can do,” said Melissa Bell. “We can give people a friendly space where they don’t feel inundated by noise and we can find undercovered topics like the water crisis in places like Flint and Pittsburgh that are necessary for people to understand so they can create solutions for their lives and their families.” | Watch

On a separate panel, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni discussed with the BBC’s Ros Atkins the news agency’s growing venture into serving news audiences directly through their website, newsletters, podcasts and events. Galloni said this won’t compromise its relationship with business clients, insisting “there’s room for both”. Galloni believes that Reuters can attract consumers through its reputation of being a highly trusted news operation, offering global reach and local expertise. She also thinks his move will offer its journalists more visibility. | Watch · Read our piece about inclusive reader revenue models 

2. AI should lead us to ask what journalism is for. AI will have profound impacts on newsrooms and jobs, and we should see this moment as an opportunity to consider how we approach AI and also to rethink what journalism is for, agreed a panel chaired by Charlie Beckett from LSE’s JournalismAI project. Chris Moran of the Guardian said: “I found myself thinking less about what the technology can do and more asking ‘what is journalism for? What do we do as journalists? Which of those tasks is mundane? And which things do we not want journalism to touch?’” 

Similarly, Gina Chua from Semafor stressed that journalism is ultimately a public service industry and therefore should be focused on getting public service information to people in better ways, something that AI can help with: “Large language models allow us to open our minds to a whole set of things that we couldn’t contemplate before.” Lisa Gibbs from AP placed fears about job losses due to AI in the broader context of job losses and closures suffered by the news industry before ChatGPT. “AI will change your jobs and will make you a better journalist. For a while we’ve been talking about augmented journalism and not about automated journalism, and that framework remains useful.” | Watch · Read our piece on the threats and opportunities for journalism from ChatGPT

In a separate panel, AI expert Nicholas Diakopoulos stressed that using tools like Bard and ChatGPT for public-facing newsroom tasks such as writing pieces can be risky, due to the inaccuracies and hallucinations the models are still producing. However, he said journalists should use them for research and analysis purposes and gave an interesting example: a project he's working on that aims to use generative AI to help journalists find and inform their reporting with recently published research papers. These tools, he explained, should be used "less as knowledge generators and more as language machines." | Watch

3. Newsrooms need to broaden the ways they think about AI. At a time when new entrants and big tech companies are building systems that may have a huge impact on news consumption, journalists should make an effort to cover and understand the AI industry itself. “We are hanging onto the coattails of people who are experimenting live and using us as part of that experiment,” said Charlie Beckett at a panel moderated by Emily Bell. “We have to lobby for infrastructure. This is a good moment for that. It’s crucial for journalists to engage with this field,” said Uli Koppen from Bayerischer Rundfunk. 

"AI will do boring, repetitive labour, but it wil also do exciting things humans can't do," Beckett said. "So there's a huge potential for imaginative uses: expanding your coverage, get bigger reach, increase the diversity of your content and optimise how you connect with audiences." As for how to think about AI right now, Koppen said: “We’re not using the technology for the sake of it. There has to be something in it for our users and our journalists for us to use it. First we need to look at our unique selling proposition and ask ourselves what we want to do with technology that advances that.” | Watch · Check out Felix Simon's thread on the topic

4. Despite the rise of digital investigations, reporters on the ground are still essential when reporting on war crimes. The most poignant discussion in Perugia was chaired by Italian journalist Barbara Serra and featured Ukrainian journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Vasilisa Stepanenko, who are part of the AP team who reported from Mariupol when the city was under siege. Along with his colleague Evgeniy Maloletka, just awarded with the 2023 World Press Photo, Chernov and Stepanenko risked their lives to document Russia’s bombing of hospitals and apartment buildings. Their work uncovered systematic targeting of civilians and will be key to building the case against Russian leaders at the International Criminal Court. 

Chernov said they arrived in Mariupol one hour before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. “We knew the city was a primary target and we wanted to report on what was going to happen,” he said. “Once we were in Mariupol, we realised the Russians were trying to find us. If they captured us, they would make us say that everything we had published was a lie. So it was crucial for us to send our footage but also to keep the original files with the metadata so they couldn’t say that this never happened.”

This piece explains how Chernov and his colleagues managed to leave the city, where AP found evidence of more than 10,000 new graves. “Mariupol is an interesting case of how society depends on information,” he said. “Even journalists criticise journalists. It’s become a trend. But when you remove all the journalists from a 400,000-people city and close it, then you can see how society collapses without journalism. It can be more important than food. It can be what holds a city together.” | Watch

5. Journalists are now producing serious journalism on TikTok and the audience is growing. A panel hosted by our own Nic Newman focused on the rise of journalism on this social platform. The speakers were pioneers Dave Jorgenson (Washington Post), Sophia Smith Galer (Vice) and Erika Marzano, who has launched dozens of accounts for German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. They all explained what they do on TikTok and how their perception of the platform has evolved in the last few years. 

Smith Galer showed her own TikTok stats (3.9 million views and 465,000 likes in the last 60 days) and shared how she went into the platform in 2019 when she was working for the BBC. “As I was already cutting video for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, I thought I should learn to cut video on TikTok in case they wanted me to do it. That’s how I started. Then my first video got viral and it was that dopamine hit of virality that kept me coming back,” she said.

At Vice, where she works now, Smith Galer is expected to deliver videos on TikTok and she even has TikTok-first appointments. Over time she’s developed a very basic low-production news explainer format she experiments with. “As a news reporter, for me social media is part of the way I try to make my reporting seen by more people,” she said. “It’s also how I try to build a community around my reporting and build relationships with people who find out the kinds of areas that I am interested in in the hope they come back for more. But I also have a lot of fun on TikTok. It’s like a hobby for me. It’s fun.”

Initially hired to produce videos for YouTube, Jorgenson launched the Washington Post’s TikTok account and became one of the most famous personalities on the platform. He explained how the account has evolved from pure comedy to delivering context and countering misinformation, and he stressed that it’s important for news organisation to be on the platform. “Something we get very often is people saying 'I wouldn't have found out about this if not for this TikTok.' So we are using the platform to tell stories that really matter like mass shootings in the US.” | Watch · Read our report on journalism and Tiktok · Check out this thread from Erika Marzano on their work

6. Young people are looking for authenticity in news. One of the most pressing challenges for newsrooms is engaging young audiences. At a stimulating panel on this topic, Kenyan journalist and researcher Nanjala Nyabola said: “Why does [satirical shows and comedy] become the main way in which young people get their news?” asked. “Part of that is authenticity. It’s trust. It’s integrity. It’s all these mushy things that we know are part of what the news should represent.” 

Panellists agreed that news publishers are not meeting young audiences where they are. This results in young people turning to influencers and other voices with no skills or integrity to get their news. They stressed how young people are attracted to authenticity and sincerity, as well as entertainment when engaging with the news. | Watch · Read our DNR 2022 chapter on young audiences · Read this interview on this topic 

7. Planning for the journalism of the future requires diverse perspectives. Panellists Agnes Stenbom from IN/LAB and inclusion and innovation consultant Shirish Kulkarni stressed the need to include news outsiders when planning what journalism will look like in the future. “We cling to habits and formulas of the past because there is no diversity of perspectives,” said Kulkarni, who explained that perspectives from those outside of journalism were essential in exploring possible futures for news. 

Stenbom explained how they hired a representative sample of news outsiders (young people from the outskirts of Stockholm) to devise what the future of journalism looks like to them. The resulting project, “What If the News…”, is an example of what could happen to journalism by bringing new voices in. | Watch · Read Nic Newman on news avoidance

8. More news organisations operate from exile and they face unique challenges. Reporting in exile makes it difficult to maintain a close connection with audiences whose priorities may have changed and whose interest in hard-hitting, critical journalism may have declined. “We realised that six months of exile changes your perspective. You lose the feeling of the reality that you’re talking about. That’s why using freelancers on the ground is so important,” said Sveta Dyndykina, whose organisation supports Russian and Azerbaijan independent media, in a panel on the growth of hybrid media in authoritarian countries.

Working with freelancers in their home countries, however, presents its own set of challenges. Many journalists are not trained in basic digital security, while others are fearful of conducting this kind of reporting in countries where it can put them in jail. Tinshui Yeung, an independent editor and journalist from Hong Kong, said using pseudonyms, reducing paperwork and using extra-secure digital channels can prevent freelancers’ names being revealed. | Watch | See also our Memorial Lecture by exiled Nicaraguan journalist Carlos F. Chamorro.

On a separate panel, Russian journalists in exile discussed how their organisations have managed to survive from abroad. In order to continue reporting on their country, many newsrooms have had to pivot their operations to focus more on messaging and social media platforms to spread their news stories, as well as creating content that’s impossible to block like newsletters and podcasts. “For Telegram we created a special bot so people can share their stories anonymously,” said Yana Golovnykh, Head of Social Media at Holod Media. | Watch

9. The legal threats facing journalists are skyrocketing. According to a new report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, the volume of these threats have grown and they’ve become increasingly complex. Legal challenges have moved away from simple defamation lawsuits towards tax evasion or money laundering accusations, for example, and this has made them time-consuming, expensive and difficult to deal with. The goal is to silence and distract journalists from their work.

“We are very careful that the distraction doesn’t turn us into victims of this legal repression because it is very hard to operate with a process of legal defence that can protect us against a lot of legal claims that are constantly put against us,” says Lina Attalah, the publisher of Mada Masr, a Cairo-based news website. “The utter and ultimate protection for us is to keep doing the work.” | Watch

10. Journalists should team up globally even more to investigate organised crime. Investigative journalists Paul Radu (Romania), Pavla Holcova (Czech Republic) and Stevan Dojcinovic (Serbia) stressed that journalists should partner with colleagues from other countries when investigating organised crime.

“These guys are very creative and dynamic,” Radu said. “They are early adopters of technology. They organise their own conferences like this one. They share tips on how to be good criminals. So we should review the way we follow the money. We stop tackling datasets in isolation and review them across countries and industries. Even big investigations like the Panama Papers have blindspots, especially in smaller countries in the Global South. So we need to think strategically and co-opt more people. We need to collaborate with activists and with the public by developing technology so they can investigate.”

11. Journalists and scientists need each other to cover climate change. A discussion moderated by our own Mitali Mukherjee focused on the lessons from COVID-19 that journalists can apply to the coverage of climate change. Sondre Ulvund Solstad from The Economist explained how he and his colleagues built this tracker to figure out the real death toll from the pandemic. “There will always be some pressure to publish official figures, but we journalists should be militant and say, 'No, we should pause and verify that.' Because that's the only way to tell a truthful story,” he said. “The problem with using official figures for COVID-19 is that you underrepresent the countries with the least resources to fight the disease. This is something that can also happen with climate change.”

Amruta Byatnal from TRF made a similar point and stressed how global inequalities inform what is reported and what is not. “The official death toll from the heatwaves in India was ridiculously low,” she said. “So as a journalist you have to investigate and look at the people who are the most impacted: migrant workers, women and children.” Bilal A. Mateen from the Wellcome Trust stressed that climate change is today’s problem , not tomorrow's problem. “It’s already a public health crisis,” he said. “Millions of people are dying from non-optimal temperatures today. And yet a lot of the data we need to report on climate is still missing. That’s why scientists need journalists and journalists need scientists. The local context that local journalists can provide might be the first line of defence against climate change. It can help scientists to know where to look." | Watch · Check out our climate network

Figures speakers shared

As a result of OCCRP reporting, public authorities around the world have confiscated  $9.6 billion, according to co-founder Paul Radu. “That is a return on investment of 50,000%. Not even cocaine can offer that kind of return,” he said. · Watch | After raising 3.4 million Swiss francs at a successful crowdfunding campaign (around $3.4 million at the time), Swiss news organisation Republik now has almost 30,000 paying members, said co-founder and Head of Community Richard Höchner. · Watch | Launched by Danish digital magazine Zetland as a way to diversify its revenue, transcription service Good Tape now has more than 2,000 paying members, co-founder Lea Korsgaard said. · Watch | Around 90% of the Kyiv Independent's audience is based outside the country, according to CEO Daryna Schevchenko. "Our main mission is providing context and explaining people what Ukraine is", she said. · Watch

Cool Projects

Texting the news. News lab Fathm has implemented a pilot project with the Daily Maverick in South Africa, The Standard in Kenya and The Premium Times in Nigeria to deliver news in a new format: through text messaging. “Everybody uses messaging apps every single day,” says Fergus Bell, co-founder and CEO of Fathm. “If people are using messaging, why are we as news organisations not embracing that as much as we could be?” | Watch 

Helping newsrooms plan for a crisis. Ann Hollifield from Deutsche Welle Akademie presented DW Akademie's Media Resilience Scanner, a free and secure tool for media organisations to develop their own customised crisis plans for everything from the outbreak of war to climate disasters to digital attacks to credibility crisis. | Watch

A new network of black and brown media organisations in the US. URL Media was launched in the United States in 2021 as a for-profit network for news organisations with a focus on people of colour. “If people need something but Google's search results are not going to surface [our media organisations], how am I supposed to serve my community?” says Mitra Kalita, one of the founders. “The forces of scale working against us prompted the creation of URL Media.” The network shares advertising revenue, content and distribution to enhance reach, and expand revenue for its partners. | Watch

Remembering Ukrainian victims. The Ukraine Memorial Platform, a project by local media development agency ABO NGO in partnership with media outlets including Ukrainska Pravda, aims to remember every victim of Russian aggression in Ukraine. There are currently around 3,000 stories on the website, with around 3,000 more in the works, ABO's Lera Lauda said in a panel on journalism at war in Ukraine. | Watch

Tackling news deserts. In January 2023 Aron Pilhofer launched the Tiny News Collective, a project that seeks to address the ongoing problem of news deserts in the US: communities that haven’t had news organisations of any kind for years or even decades. The project is an incubator which provides tools and resources to help people build news organisations to serve their communities. “We’re trying to build from the grassroots and help small news organisations launch, grow, and then ultimately leave us,” said Pilhofer. “We want them to leave and become sustainable.” | Watch

New storytelling formats. Three journalists shared their projects on experimental and non-colonial journalism through innovative and interactive storytelling formats:

  • Annie Slemrod, Middle East editor of The New Humanitarian, shared how they told the story of Lebanon’s collapse through the WhatsApp conversations of five Lebanese people over the past few years.
  • Zing Tsjeng, VICE Editor-in-Chief, shared the outlet’s Unfiltered History Tour which is an alternative tour of the British Museum and its artefacts, told by people from the countries they were taken from.
  • Rachel Hamada, lead on community-led investigations for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, explained how they are working on a journalism-meets-theatre project about stereotypes in crime reporting and how those impact communities. | Watch

A newsletter for every neighbourhood. Los Angeles' Crosstown news project harnesses open source data on a huge range of issues such as crime, building permits, road safety and homelessness, to produce weekly, hyperlocal newsletters tailored to each of the city's 110 neighbourhoods. Crosstown employs only four part-time editorial staff. "By collecting all of this data, sorting it, making it super easy to query, we bring down the cost of reporting. We make a lot of heavy-lifting data journalism as easy as doing a Google search. We turn every journalist in the newsroom into a data journalist," said Publisher and Editor Gabriel Kahn. The model is now being rolled out in cities across the US. | Watch

More figures speakers shared

Around 70% of AP's leadership team are women, CEO Daisy Veerasingham said. · Watch | According to Mediapart’s Cécile Sourd, around 17% of 220,000 subscribers pay a half-price subscription (five euros a month), an offer this French outlet created as a way to be accessible and cater to people who can’t afford the full price. · Watch | 80% of UK journalists come from professional and upper-class backgrounds, according to a report by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. · Watch  | Over 37 media outlets from Russia are operating in exile in some capacity, said Penelope Winterhager, managing director of the JX Fund. · Watch | In the first month of Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda gathered one billion pageviews, according to her editor Sevgil Musaieva. · Watch | Around 30% of the revenue of Mexican project Dromómanos comes from creating content for NGOs and academia, co-founder Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza said. · Watch

Quotes that made us think

Ukrainian journalist Vasilisa Stepanenko on how she became a war correspondent. “I didn’t expect to be a war correspondent. War came to my home and I decided I would cover it. There were more experienced people, but I decided I would focus on my work. Then if something happened to me, I would have done everything possible to bring truth to the world. Some people told me: ‘You’re small, you’re a girl, you’re cute.’ Even some people in my family told me this was already enough. But this is happening in my country. It’s an important moment in my life. And I had to show the situation in Ukraine. I’m a journalist. This is my job. I won’t give up.” | Watch

Daisy Veerasingham from AP on newsroom diversity. “If you have a diverse hiring pool, you are more likely to make the right choices when hiring. I’m not just gender and colour but all kinds of diversity. And it’s also important to think about how to make hiring more impactful for the organisation across the board.” | Watch · Read our factsheets on: gender and leadership · race and leadership

Nora Younis from Egypt’s Al-Manassa News on leading as a woman. “One of the challenges I faced was around stereotypes of leadership styles. I started with participatory and democratic decision making and I found a lot of challenges with that. People were more ready to receive a Margaret Thatcher-style of leadership, but if you are democratic and participatory you are perceived as indecisive and unsure about what you are doing.” | Watch

TV presenter Barbara Serra on language discrimination. "I know what it’s like to be the only one in the room that sounds weird. You have nothing to apologise for. Your voice matters because it sounds different. In this world, speaking English as a journalist is a huge privilege, especially being a native English speaker. Because, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as international news. There is ‘English-language news'.” | Watch · Read Barbara’s piece on the topic

Azmat Khan from the 'New York Times' on protecting sources when reporting on remote killings. “A top priority for me has always been the fact that people are opening their homes for you. They are sitting down to talk about the worst nights of their lives and there’s a real risk to re-traumatising them simply by sitting down and asking them questions. It’s important to meet someone where they are. A farmer in a very remote village in Southern Kandahar is not familiar with terms like off-the-record. They are used to things like guest rights: inviting people into their home, giving them a meal, answering questions. And it’s important to remember that the very act of asking a sensitive question can put people at risk in terms of prosecution from local authorities. So it’s important to explain why you are here and what might happen to them if their words and their images are used. It’s important to tell sources they can say no and explain the full extent of what the repercussions might mean for them when the piece is published.” | Watch

Paul Cheung from the Centre for Public Integrity on the media industry’s role on AI. “As an industry, we were late to the game of Web 1 and Web 2, so we were never an active participant in its development. We were always chasing it after its adoption. Now we have an opportunity to say ‘This is what we think AI can be doing, and this is what we think the ethical concerns are,’ as bioethics professionals do in science. Journalists are better equipped to raise these kinds of questions than most, because we have been in this game much longer. For instance, we've considered the ethics of photoshop, of publishing photos of victims who are minors. We shouldn't just assume tech will get these ethical issues under control." | Watch · Read our piece on the challenge AI-generated images pose to fact-checkers

Robyn Vinter from the 'Guardian' on working class journalists in the UK. “The main thing is how working-class people as a group are perceived in the media. There is this notion that working-class people are ignorant, bigoted and stupid. Editors with those views push those narratives all the time.” | Watch · Listen to our podcast episode with Robyn

Lina Srivastava, founder of the Center for Transformational Change on decolonising journalism. “I’m not necessarily that interested in the question of diversity and inclusion because that’s not necessarily about justice. But there is something to be said for representation. Just because you happen to be hired as a journalist ‘of the community’ doesn’t mean you have the power to change policies. What I’ve seen is that you are hired and told to tell a story in a very particular way or you don't get funding. Representation alone, diversity alone, doesn’t get us to decolonisation, it’s one step on the way.” | Watch

Bobby Ghosh from Bloomberg on newsroom diversity. "The arc of our profession is bending towards representation. We are seeing a lot more diversity in newsrooms all over the world, and having a diverse newsroom is a great step towards achieving truly representative journalism". | Watch

Yasir Khan from the Thomson Reuters Foundation on why context matters. "All of our stories are in-depth. One [focus] is on stories that are news-led and how we can get in with our own angles. What is going to be the second or third read on a topic? We feel there's a lot of news out there, but not a lot of context and we are trying to fill that hole."  | Watch

Patrícia Campos Mello on media regulation in Brazil. “There's a division between big and small media outlets. Big news organisations like the idea of a bargaining code. But small media would prefer to create a fund. The problem with a fund is that there's a risk of political pressure. The current draft of the bill includes a provision to support public interest media. But how do you define this? The current draft defines this as an outlet that's been operating for two years and doing professional journalism, but all those terms are very vague and don't know who's going to regulate this. But something needs to be done. Otherwise some new organisations won't survive.” | Watch · Read Patricia's 2021 Reuters Memorial Lecture

Matthew Caruana Galizia on his fight for justice. "For my family and me, it’s a matter of long-term justice for my mother [Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist assassinated in 2017]. We can’t do anything to bring her back to life. What we can do is make sure there is a long-term from the fight that she started and that she didn’t give her life in vain.” | Watch · Watch our seminar with him

Indira Lakshmanan from AP on showing impact. “Transparency in journalism is necessary, but it doesn’t undue the fact that many believe the media are intentionally sharing misinformation. You need to show your audience that you care about them. And you need to show the impact of your work.” | Watch 

Natalia Viana from Brazil’s Agência Publica on how the far-right uses journalists. “Journalists have to know that they’re being used by the far right. Fake news and invented facts spread on social media and then journalists report on them.” | Watch · Watch our seminar with her

Sevgil Musaieva on reporting on the war in Ukraine. "We've focused mostly on news. But we've also covered sanctions, politics, war crimes after Bucha and also corruption. After one of our investigations, some corrupt officials were fired. But of course people are really tired of the war. I understand that literally everywhere everyone abroad is feeling Ukraine.  are at war. But you can imagine that Ukrainians are also tired. We've been living in this war for more than a year and for journalism is a big challenge to find a new way to tell stories about this war, especially about war crimes." | Watch · Watch our seminar with her

Ronan Farrow on SLAPPS and other legal intimidation tactics.  "It's really critical that we all talk about the personal devastation and the chilling effect that comes with this kind of legal attack tactics." | Watch

Catherine Gicheru from Africa Women Journalism Project on newsroom diversity. "Women make up 51% percent of the world. It makes real business sense to have women in the newsroom. At the end of the day, you need to reach that 51%, and who else better to do that than women journalists? If you are in a position of power in a newsroom, you need to be very deliberate in providing mentorship and management training to women colleagues. It can't just be talk, you need to put your money where your mouth is." | Watch

Sisi Wei from The Markup on the importance of providing equal opportunity to everyone at her staff. “If you’re managing a team, think about which types of work are being done and who gets the opportunity to do what a friend of mine calls the ‘glory work’ and who has to do the ‘house work’. It’s important to identify who is doing the behind the scenes work that they don’t credit for, the kind of work doesn’t help them build their career in a public way. You can create a system to make sure everyone is doing every type of work and everyone has an opportunity to do the ‘glory work.’” | Watch

María Teresa Ronderos from CLIP on covering Latin America. "Latin America is a very diverse region, but there are some structural problems and international bad actors who are harming the whole region. We need to identify these actors and problems and see what they have in common." | Watch · Read our piece on Russian propaganda in Latin America. 

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