Watchdogs of the Fourth Estate or Homer Journalists? Newspaper Coverage of Local BCS College Football Programs
Submitted by Edward M. Kian, Ph.D., Stan Ketterer, Ph.D., Cynthia Nichols, Ph.D. and James Poling
Sport newspaper departments are regularly mocked for employing hometown journalism deemed too partial in favor of local teams. However, national media are increasingly criticizing affluent, major college football programs for scheduling games against smaller schools from the Football Championship Subdivision, most of which end in lopsided blowouts. Whereas media and sport teams have long formed a symbiotic relationship, major college athletics programs need local media less now due to the ability to post content on their own Web sites. A textual analysis was used to examine hometown media framing of these mismatches by community newspapers that cover football programs in the Big 12 Conference. Results showed newspapers rarely criticized near-by, powerhouse college football teams, but framed FCS teams as inferior. The larger the newspaper examined and the further they were away from the team covered in distance, the more likely they were to criticize hometown coaches and athletic directors. This topic has practical applications for sport mangers who face potential media criticism for scheduling contests against inferior opponents, especially in major college football.
Despite the prevalence and popularity of sports, sports writers have long been denigrated as part of the “toy department” at newspapers due to a perceived lack of objectivity and an unwillingness to engage in critical journalism (Rowe, 2007). A common critique of local sports reporters is they accept gifts from the teams they cover (19). However, the most poignant insults are they engage in “homer” journalism by openly cheering for local squads and becoming too close to athletes. As a result, some reporters fail to fulfill their watchdog roles (2, 16).
In an effort to address questionable industry practices, the Associated Press Sports Editors adopted a code of ethics in 1974, later enhanced in 1991 (21). Sports reporters, however, may be merely acquiescing to the majority of their readers’ desires by providing more coverage of area teams, while generally framing stories about hometown stars more positively.
Further, newspapers usually sell more copies when their local sport teams are successful (50). Coverage of area winning teams could lead to an increase in advertising due to greater readership, which could lead to conflicting interests for newspapers. “Media outlets cover sports with a clear conflict of interest: Their very enterprise is deeply invested in the continued success of commodified sport,” (37, p. 338).
Teams and athletes, in turn, must attribute much of their “staggering popularity” to media coverage that promotes their games and their exploits to readers (McChesney, 1989). Without media coverage, commodified sports struggle to exist. Therefore, sports and media form a “symbiotic economic relationship” (65, p. 38).
Historically, this relationship was strongest with the closest daily newspaper to those college campuses. In many cases, hometown college football reporters are “expected to withhold information that coaches, athletic administrations and athletes perceive as harmful to the program” (43, p. 9). They also occasionally help promote the college’s athletic events that officials believe need more coverage, such as non-revenue sports. In return, reporters may receive access to practices, games, and private contact numbers for coaches and administrators, as well as insider information (43).
However, the need for this symbiotic relationship has diminished for college athletics programs due to huge revenue increases from new television deals with conferences. These deals have increased national exposure for marquee programs in college football (60). Moreover, independent fan websites, such as those affiliated with networks like Rivals.com, have the potential to reach far greater audiences of fans and alumni than local newspapers (26). Finally, more colleges are attempting to disseminate and frame the news on their teams, athletes, and coaches through their official websites and other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook (18, 49).
Meanwhile, the print newspaper industry has suffered setbacks in recent years, highlighted by constant layoffs since the late 1990s, corporate consolidation, decreased circulation, and a loss of advertising revenue (1). Some of the most prominent sports writers have left the newspaper industry to work for online sites (27). In efforts to survive, many newspapers shifted resources to their online sites, while refocusing content on local coverage (59). Whereas circulation figures have declined sharply at nearly every major U.S. newspaper since the late 1990s, most of those publications actually increased their total readership due to traffic on their websites (25). Smaller papers located close to university towns often generate much of their online readership from coverage of college athletics, partly because alumni often move there for professional careers.
However, national media are increasingly criticizing the most famous college athletics programs for many of their practices, particularly the inequities within college sports between the “halves” and “have-nots” (13). During the last two years many national sports journalists have condemned large universities in the National Collegiate Athletics Association for playing smaller ones outside their division. Specifically, they have criticized Football Bowl Subdivision schools that have played games against teams in the Football Championship Subdivision.
The 120 FBS programs in 2012 included all the big-name football programs like Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Louisiana State. Forbes magazine calculated each of those football programs generated at least $100 million in value for their institutions in 2012 (54). In contrast, the 122 FCS schools included Alabama A&M, Monmouth, and Old Dominion. The median 2010 revenue for all FCS athletics programs was just $3 million (48). Therefore, many FCS athletic departments need the guaranteed lump sum payment of generally between $200,000 and $800,000 for playing a road game versus an FBS football team just to stay afloat (61).
But how do hometown newspapers frame such David vs. Goliath mismatches, particularly since the coaches and athletics directors who scheduled those contests provide them access to their programs? Local newspapers risk irritating some of their readers with critical commentary. Moreover, businesses that advertise in these papers may not appreciate negative comments about these games because they want as many visitors as possible on game days, regardless of the opponents. Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory study is to examine how objective hometown newspapers are in framing these college football “paycheck” games.
Historic Connection Between Newspapers And Organizations They Cover
Newspapers have always had a symbiotic relationship with the communities they serve. They provide news and information that residents need for a better understanding of their world, tools for daily living, and entertainment. In return, newspapers depend on local communities for readers and area businesses to help generate advertising revenue.
Journalistic independence is sometimes threatened because of this relationship. Rouner et al. (45) pointed out newspapers are businesses “with profit making taking priority over news reporting,” making it difficult for journalists in most newspapers to remain autonomous of advertising “because large advertisers are a major source of revenue” (p. 106). A survey found nearly 90% of editors at both large and small newspapers reported advertisers had tried to influence the content of stories and what is published (55). More than 70% percent indicated advertisers had attempted to kill stories, and 97% reported they had threatened to withdraw their advertising because of story content, with 90% actually doing so (55). The advertisers were most successful in influencing content of stories at smaller newspapers.
Demers (10) also found editors at larger circulation newspapers had a greater sense of autonomy in decision making than editors at smaller newspapers. Northington (36) suggested editors at smaller newspapers might have more difficulty balancing editorial independence with community involvement. In a study of editors selected to represent the range of newspapers by circulation, Reader (42) found more small-paper editors cited pressure from advertisers attempting to influence content than large-paper editors. But the biggest difference between the types of editors was a perception of direct accountability to the community, which was much stronger at smaller newspapers.
Benefits For Sports Programs Maintaining Public Relations with Local Newspapers
Public relations also plays a role in the symbiotic relationship between sports organizations and newspapers as it helps maintain a tentative but necessary bond. Although some negative stereotypes exist about sports public relations, the value added by maintaining the relationship between sports organizations and local newspapers is essential to fostering the organization’s credibility in local communities, while also lowering its costs for publicity (22). By developing relationships between athletes and journalists, the ability to reach specific groups (i.e., local fans, newspaper subscribers, etc.) is enhanced via free media coverage.
Due to the types of stories that community newspapers can offer to specific publics on a local level, it is logical to develop positive relationships between the various publics involved. Scholars have noted some sports organizations are hesitant to engage in public relations, mainly because they do not understand how to use it properly (23). The assumption exists, however, that regardless of how effectively public relations is used, people will continue to support community sport teams regardless of what transpires (23). But that could change when scandals engulf sport teams or the quality of their performances diminishes over time. Therefore, it is especially important for sport organizations to maintain a positive relationship with local newspapers (52).
Journalists select and organize facts and quotes before embedding them in storylines, a process commonly called framing (11). When writing articles, newspaper reporters emphasize specific points over others through inclusion, exclusion, repetition, and emphasis (44). Media framing helps determine the public’s understanding of issues (28). Moreover, once opinions are formed through framing, they often become more difficult to change (3, 62).
College Football “Paycheck” Games Between FBS and FCS Universities
In1973, NCAA football split into three divisions (I, II, and III), and Division I further divided into three subdivisions in 1978 (9). Division I-A was later re-named the FBS, while Division I-AA is now called FCS (9). FBS schools are allowed to have 85 players on football scholarship, whereas FCS programs can have 63. FBS athletic departments also have higher requirements for the minimum number of men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports they must offer, as well as the annual football home game attendance they must average to remain in the FBS.
Entering the 2012 season, FCS universities defeated ranked FBS teams just three times in 2,252 meetings dating back to the 19th century (34). The most famous was Appalachian State’s 34-32 victory in 2007 at then fifth-ranked Michigan. Whereas two of these upsets occurred since 2007, the average margin of victory by FBS teams was 25.9 points for all inter-division games from 2000 to 2011 (61).
NCAA rules previously limited FBS schools to counting no more than one win against a FCS team every four years toward post-season bowl eligibility. These rules made it counterproductive to play FBS opponents more than once every four seasons. However, due to the advent of 12-game regular-season schedules in 2006, the NCAA now allows one victory against an FCS program to count toward bowl eligibility each season, which has made these mismatches commonplace (61).
Playing a FCS school assures these prominent football programs revenues from an extra home game and adds a probable victory toward bowl eligibility. The often cash-strapped FCS athletics programs use such contests as a recruitment tool for prospective athletes. However, their primary impetus is financial, such as Georgia Southern getting $475,000 to play at Georgia in 2012 (63).
Rationale and Research Questions
Although some national media have criticized major college football programs for scheduling FCS opponents, it is unclear how hometown newspapers – who rely heavily on access from the coaches and athletic directors who scheduled these games – frame such mismatches. Therefore, two broad research questions guided this exploratory study:
RQ1: How did hometown newspapers frame FBS-member games vs. FCS opponents?
RQ2: How did hometown newspapers frame the visiting FCS-member programs and their athletes?
A textual analysis was conducted of local newspaper stories about Big 12 Conference football programs during the week before and after their 2012 games against FCS opponents. Textual analyses are non-reactive tools that uncover both explicit and subtle underlying meanings within mass media content (33). They are both interpretative and subjective (64).
The goal of this project is to examine local newspaper framing of marquee college football programs’ games against teams from the FCS. The Big 12 Conference was selected from the FBS because its schools played the highest percentage (30%) of their non-conference games against FCS teams in 2012 of any conference in the Bowl Championship Series.
Despite its name, the Big 12 Conference had just 10 universities in 2012. Colorado and Nebraska left the Big 12 before the 2011 college football season and were not replaced. Missouri and Texas A&M also left in 2012, but they were replaced by Texas Christian and West Virginia.
Nine of the 10 schools in the Big 12 scheduled a single game against a FCS opponent in 2012, with Texas the exception. The Longhorns had a home game against New Mexico, arguably the worst FBS program. New Mexico was the only FBS team to win one or fewer games in each of the three preceding seasons. In an attempt to study hometown newspaper framing of all Big 12 football programs, Texas’ home date with New Mexico was included in the analysis.
Online versions of stories about these games written by the closest instate newspaper with a daily circulation of at least 30,000 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations were examined, so long as articles mentioned the FCS opponents. Articles published from the Sunday before each game through the Sunday after each game were included. The story and any accompanying text were examined, including headlines, photo captions, and breakout boxes.
Table 1 shows each university, its location, and its hometown newspaper for this study. Only four of the 10 newspapers were located within the same city as the university: Austin American-Statesman (Texas), Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas Christian), Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Texas Tech), Waco Tribune-Herald (Baylor).
Coding Procedures, Data Analysis, and Trustworthiness
Working independently, three coders each read and wrote notes about how the FCS programs and these games were framed in the 79 stories published in the 10 newspapers. The authors then used the constant comparative method to decipher and define key concepts by unifying their supporting data (17). Specific themes related to how the FCS opponents were framed were given greater importance.
Through its design, this methodology did not aim to reproduce the primary themes from the overall articles. Rather, it sought to uncover the textual constructions related to how the FCS teams and these games were framed within narratives in the FBS schools’ local papers (56). This process is highly interpretive (8). However, our analytical methods were designed to ensure consistent data collection. Moreover, the analysis by multiple researchers (first working independently and then collectively) resulted in a dynamic and layered analytical framework.
Four primary themes emerged from the analysis. Direct passages from newspaper articles will be used to support and contrast these themes.
Successful or Not, These Are FCS Programs!
The most frequent theme was a constant reminder these opponents were from the FCS, and/or they competed in a lower-level division. Moreover, the articles often implied FCS opponents are incapable of competing with FBS schools. For example, The Oklahoman reporter Anthony Slater (53) began his post-game analysis by writing:
Oklahoma beat Florida A&M 69-13 on Saturday night in Norman. The Sooners are now 2-0.
It was over when…
OU scheduled an FCS team. The expected blowout was just that, with OU scoring 14 in the first quarter and never looking back (¶ 1-3).
That same sidebar noted “Florida A&M’s overmatched interior” and a “superior
OU defense,” while concluding that little could be gauged from Oklahoma’s overwhelming victory because “…it was an FCS opponent, so it’s tough to take much” away from such an outclassed opponent (53).
This subtle mockery of the caliber of FCS opponents was paramount in many of the post-game-analyses. For example, in recapping Iowa State’s 37-3 blowout win over Western Illinois, the Des Moines Register wrote, “The Cyclones success Saturday should be tempered by the fact Western Illinois was 2-9 last season and has not beaten an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in nine years (31, ¶ 23).
This condescending tone toward FCS programs was also apparent in stories leading up to these games, with the hometown newspapers of FBS programs largely treating these contests as scrimmages. In projecting the effectiveness of the 2012 Kansas State offensive line before its season-opening 51-9 win over Missouri State, an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal surmised, “It’s hard to evaluate offensive-line play in one game – especially against a Division I-AA opponent” (12, ¶ 4).
Even when framing FCS opponents positively, articles still regularly noted these universities compete at a lower level than the FBS programs. For example, Baylor’s hometown paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald, wrote of Sam Houston State: “The Bearkats are a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse that won 14 straight games before losing to North Dakota State in the national championship game last year, and Baylor knows it can’t take them lightly” (66, ¶ 4).
Further, some of the positive framing of FCS opponents could be viewed as half-hearted compliments, such as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram emphasizing that Grambling State – which Texas Christian defeated, 56-0 – was a superior opponent than fellow FCS member Savannah State, a school pummeled by Oklahoma State, 84-0, a week before. “Don’t hate the dominator either. This wasn’t Savannah State that TCU played. Grambling has a rich football legacy and won eight games a year ago” (29, ¶ 19-20).
However, for most FCS schools – many of which hoped for greater national media exposure from these games– being marginalized was still probably more desirable than being ignored entirely.
FCS Opponents Are Not Worthy of Coverage
This study only analyzed newspaper articles that specifically mentioned FCS opponents. Nevertheless, much content leading up to these games only mentioned the opponent in passing, with very few providing in-depth analyses of the FCS teams or their players. Most stories focused on FCS players who attended high school within the coverage area of the newspaper.
For example, in the only Waco Tribune-Herald article largely focusing on Baylor’s opponent, all four Sam Houston State players mentioned attended high school in the greater Waco area (66). Similarly, an advance of the Kansas-South Dakota State game in The Kansas City Star noted seven South Dakota State players attended high school in the Kansas City area, highlighting the relationship between former teammates at Olathe North High who would square off as opponents in this game (38).
Indicative of the lack of respect for the FCS programs was no player from a FCS school was quoted before these games unless that player was from an area high school. Further, no articles were published with a dateline from the town/city where the FCS university was located, indicating the papers likely never sent any reporter or even hired a freelance writer to interview athletes or coaches from the FCS schools prior to these games. The common narrative for local players from FCS programs was they were honored to play against an FBS school and coming home to do so. For example, a game preview before Iowa State hosted Western Illinois in the Des Moines Register quoted an area resident who suited up for the visitors:
I’ve been watching Iowa and Iowa State play my entire life,” said Nick Eversmeyer, an offensive lineman for the Leathernecks from Wapello. “I actually grew up a pretty big Hawkeye fan. So I’ve always kind of been toward that side. Just to play a team like (Iowa State) will be a pleasure. It’ll pretty much be a dream come true (31, ¶ 10-11).
The Waco Tribune-Herald was the only paper to publish a feature story on an FCS athlete. However, that player – Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell – was a graduate of Waco area high school, China Spring, where his father Mark was the head football coach. Moreover, Brian Bell is the younger brother of former Baylor star quarterback Shawn Bell. In other words, those two local ties were prominently mentioned in the feature and seemingly served as the impetus for it (39).
The few post-game articles focusing on FCS teams always tied back to their experiences playing road games against a FBS team. Following a 44-6 rout by hometown program Texas Tech, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal noted how beneficial this game would be for the loser, Northwestern State. The headline was “Facing Tech will aid Demons down the road.”
Of course, the Big 12 schools easily won all nine games, outscoring the FCS programs by an average score of 51.3 to 9.2. Throw in Texas’ 45-0 win over New Mexico, and the hometown teams outscored their smaller opponents by a combined score of 507 to 83. Nine games were decided by a margin of at least 25 points, with Kansas’ 31-17 win over South Dakota State the lone exception. Therefore, it would have been misleading to frame these contests as competitive afterward.
Scant Criticism of Hometown Teams For Scheduling These Games
Even though these contests resulted in the blowouts projected by many national analysts, largely missing from the hometown newspapers’ coverage were criticisms of the FBS teams for scheduling them. The exception was a series of articles published in The Oklahoman before and after Oklahoma State’s 84-0 annihilation of hapless Savannah State. Jenni Carlson, who already had garnered a reputation for criticizing Oklahoma State, wrote the most critical of these commentaries. It was Carlson’s column about the Cowboys’ quarterback situation in 2007 that resulted in Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s now infamous “I’m a man. I’m 40!” tirade directed at her during a press conference. It is No. 1 on ESPN SportsCenter‘s list of the top 10 all-time most heated exchanges between athletes/coaches and sports media.
In a notes column five days before the game, Carlson (7) included a ranking of Oklahoma State’s all-time “Five Worst Nonconference matchups,” placing the 2012 Savannah State squad atop the list. “The Cowboys will be the first major-college opponent that the Tigers have ever played,” she wrote. “It’s a dubious distinction considering the FCS program hasn’t had a winning season this century” (¶ 6-8).
In an article focusing on the performance of then-Oklahoma State freshman quarterback Wes Lunt, Carlson (4) wrote, “On a night that OSU throttled Savannah State 84-0 and left you wondering if it should be illegal for major-college teams to schedule lower-level teams” (¶ 5). She made her strongest condemnations in a column calling for the end of FBS-FCS matchups: “This madness needs to stop. The NCAA or the BCS or whoever’s in charge of college football these days should ban games against lower-division teams. End the insanity. Bring back the civility” (5, ¶ 5).
No newspaper was close to as negative about these contests as The Oklahoman. Interestingly, The Oklahoman was much less critical of Oklahoma hosting Florida A&M. Carlson (6) wrote that game was only scheduled because Oklahoma had a vacancy on its non-conference schedule after Texas Christian joined the Big 12, “so when OU got desperate, it went looking just about anywhere for an opponent. Its search ultimately landed in Tallahassee with Florida A&M” (¶ 3).
Let’s Let Others Do the Criticizing of These Games, Like Players and Coaches
Whereas reporters from hometown newspapers rarely directly criticized university athletics directors or football coaches for scheduling these matchups, several stories included negative quotes from hometown coaches and players after they were played. Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Stefan Stevenson (58) quoted TCU Coach Gary Patterson downplaying any significance of his team’s 56-0 win over Grambling State. “They beat an FCS team,” Patterson said of his Frogs. “Simple as that” (¶ 6). Gina Mizell, an OSU beat writer for The Oklahoman, seemingly took advantage of one athlete’s verbal slip-up to form the lead of her game story after Oklahoma State’s 84-0 win over Savannah State: “Joseph Randle immediately caught himself after he said he wished Oklahoma State could have played a ‘real’ opponent in its first game, quickly following with a ‘no comment’ ” (35, ¶ 1).
However, most of these player/coach criticisms were subtle or indirect. For example, in discussing San Houston State outscoring Baylor 20-10 in the first half of an eventual 48-23 Baylor blowout, the Waco Tribune-Herald’s Will Parchman included a quote blaming Baylor’s mental acumen, instead of praising its opponent for its play:
The root of the trouble? Perhaps a pinch of overconfidence.
“We were saying (we’ve got to take them seriously), but the first drive we go out and get a three-and-out, we were like, ‘This is going to be an easy game.’ ” nickelback Ahmad Dixon said (40, ¶ 7-8).
The purpose of this study was to examine objectivity of hometown newspapers in framing college football “paycheck” games. Results suggest Big 12 hometown newspapers generally failed to perform their watchdog function by not criticizing the hometown FBS schools for scheduling patsies from the FCS. Others found similar failures of sports journalists to perform this role (e.g., 2, 43). Only The Oklahoman criticized a university, Oklahoma State, before the game for such scheduling, and the newspaper was not located in the same city as the university. But the newspaper did not criticize a university located much closer, Oklahoma, for doing the same thing in a pinch.
Indeed, coverage of FBS programs from smaller newspapers located in the same city as the universities was generally less critical than content published in larger newspapers located further from the college towns. This type of “homer journalism” has long been common in media sports departments (47).
As a result of sports journalists failing to perform their watchdog role, the FBS schools in the Big 12 have little incentive to change such scheduling because they are mainly getting a free ride from these newspapers. These teams nearly always get their extra win over FCS schools to pad their record and enhance their chances for a bowl game. But the readers and fans must endure a boring, lopsided game at high ticket prices, unless the tickets do not sell well and they can get a discount.
The main criticism of these games was indirect and in post-game content, providing further evidence of the local newspapers failing to perform their watchdog role. Moreover, the few critiques mainly appeared in game stories instead of commentaries. Such indirect criticism suggests the sports reporters are heavily concerned about their future access to the teams and/or are concerned with upsetting readers who do not want to read anything negative on the local team.
The hometown papers chiefly framed FCS programs as athletically inferior, particularly through the use of post-game quotes. Tuchman (62) argued reporters use quotes to frame stories as they desire, while claiming they distance themselves from events and people they cover. Even when writing about a historically successful FCS team like Grambling or one that won 14 consecutive games the previous season in Sam Houston State, the hometown FBS newspapers still trivialized FCS successes as coming in a lower division and/or versus lesser competition.
Further, the hometown newspapers in the Big 12 wrote few advances about FCS teams, indicating they felt the other team was unworthy of such coverage. When they did write such stories, they primarily focused on the local angle of players who attended high school in the area. The only advance feature story written about an FCS athlete was about a former local prep star. Thus, readers were largely deprived of in-depth coverage of these teams.
In addition, the lack of datelines from FCS cities indicated the hometown newspapers did not send their reporters there to cover the opposing team. They are apparently unwilling to expend precious resources to do so. Consequently, readers usually received one-sided coverage of the home team.
The backlash against scheduling these types of contests by national media is already having effects. In early 2013 athletic directors in the Big Ten agreed to stop scheduling games against FCS opponents (41). Around the same time, Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby opposed passing legislation to prohibit these games, but said he would discourage his league’s schools from scheduling them. Bowlsby said these games do not make Big 12 teams better and typically resulted in blowouts (24).
Our study showed scheduling of these games was generally not framed negatively by hometown newspapers of the Big 12 schools. Results from this exploratory study, however, cannot be generalized for games with FCS schools beyond Big 12 games during this year. Future research can examine these games over a longer period of time and with hometown newspapers in other conferences.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
It is unknown how the implementation of a four-team college football playoff in 2014 will affect scheduling philosophies of the most powerful programs, such as Big 12 Conference members Oklahoma and Texas. Strength of schedule is supposed to be considered when selecting teams. However, several high-profile coaches, such as Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, have already expressed skepticism. Stoops pointed out strength of schedule was also supposed to be a key criteria in BCS bowl game selections, but its track record shows win-loss records generally were given more credence, encouraging powerful teams to schedule easy non-conference teams (57).
Future research must examine how FCS teams are framed after major college football implements a playoff system for the first time in its history, starting in 2014. Moreover, scholars can analyze how local and national media frame the powerful and affluent FBS programs that continue to schedule outmatched FCS opponents.
Regardless, hometown media framing was evident in these newspapers, showing that “homer” journalism remains commonplace in at least the smaller- and mid-sized daily newspapers that cover major college football programs in Big 12 conference areas.
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