Archive for April, 2010

Every copy of the current Current, the student newspaper at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., has vanished. Editor Nathan Giebel (recently featured in a CMM student journalist spotlight) suspects theft.  So do school officials.

In his words, “I think the main question on everyone’s mind at the moment is: Why? Did we print something that offended someone? Did someone just think it would be funny? Clearly it takes a lot of effort, and strength, to remove more than 1,000 issues from stands before people can see them. What would encourage someone, or some group of people, to go through the efforts of doing such a thing?

A portion of the front page someone at Carthage does not want others to see.

Below, a brief Q&A with Giebel about the incident:

Any leads, suspects or guesses as to why this has happened?

There have been no cases of any type of newspaper theft at Carthage, as far as I am aware. I do not believe that we have any type of clause saying that “the first paper is free; any additional ones are 25 cents (or any other fee),” so technically it is hard to term it theft, since they are free for the taking. However, I believe it is kind of understood that taking more than 1,000 copies of the campus newspaper from newsstands all over campus is slightly against policies.  There were no sensitive articles in the issue. . . . We have had issues with Greek organizations disliking some things we’ve printed in the past, but the only Greek article printed this week was . . . about the actual country of Greece, since [the writer of that article] is currently there.

What makes you think it is theft and not just a high pick-up rate?

There’s no doubt that it was theft. We’ve never had an issue completely disappear from all newsstands. The issues were placed on the newsstands on Tuesday evening, like normal. By Wednesday morning, when I went into the academic buildings for my class at 8 a.m., all copies were gone. I never even actually saw a copy on the newsstand, and for quite some time I simply thought there was some type of discrepancy in the distribution process and they hadn’t been put out yet. Today [Thursday], the campus was alerted that they were stolen by the Dean of Students.

What is the plan to deal with this incident?

The Dean of Students alerted Student Government, the Hall Directors of every dormitory, Campus Security, and the Director of Housing and Greek Life, who has notified every Greek organization. The Hall Directors have each told all of the Resident Assistants, who have spread the news to their floors. Essentially, the whole campus is being made aware of the theft and the illegality of the actions taken by whomever took the newspapers.

Unfortunately, our campus is not outfitted with a police force, and I do not think that the Kenosha Police Department will be getting involved since it most likely was not someone from the city. We also don’t have many cameras.

As a staff, we’re working on encouraging people to go to our Web site to view the issue, since we cannot afford to reprint it. It’s extremely disheartening that I spent a total of roughly eight or nine hours in the process of gathering information, interviewing people, attending events, and writing my three articles that made it to the issue; let alone the five hours I spent editing stories. I think those feelings are echoed among the whole staff.

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“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part Three: “What! Another Newspaper?”

Dana Jaff knew it would happen.  He had seen it happen before.  He even unwittingly predicted it would happen on his own newspaper’s front page: The beginning Times would also be the end of Times.

Individual students and student groups had attempted to launch a number of campus newspapers at AUI-S since the university opened in 2007.  And they were always fast folds– never publishing second issues.

According to Jaff and other members of the original Voice editorial board, these one-issue wonders had become part of school lore and fed the perception of a scattered, superficial student media scene.  Jaff entered the scene with The AUIS Times last December, determined to begin publishing regularly and offer a “free space for every student and faculty member to express what they feel . . . and begin our challenge for democracy, freedom, and justice.”

His own search for freedom of expression started at home in Iraq with spirited inter-family political, intellectual, and social debates.  “I was in primary school when I began to read newspapers,” Jaff said.  “I was in the 5th class of primary school when I was reading poems in public.  And in secondary school, I began to publish my articles in some of the famous newspapers in my region.”

He also quickly learned to speak Arabic, English, Persian, and Turkish to complement his native Kurdish, enabling him to work as a translator for numerous news media.  However, as a teenager, his poems and other personal writings began to convey a sense of isolation.  He had a longing to put his language skills and reportorial passion to better use.  “The education system we have doesn’t allow students to be themselves,” Jaff said.  “So I had many debates, even quarrels, through my educational life.  Journalism helped me to be a critical thinker from the beginning.  I wouldn’t accept an opinion without arguments.  This wasn’t a very easy thing to do at times.”

Once at university, Jaff wanted a change with his Times.  He started the alternative newspaper with three classmates, a $100 donation, and full awareness that many would view its premiere as a simultaneous finale.

As he wrote in a note to readers on the front page, “What!  Another newspaper? There is no doubt that it is gonna [sic] fail.  It won’t have more than the (0) [first] issue.  The previous expression is the first impression of any student whose horoscope is AUI-S when he sees our newspaper put on the reception desk.  Why?  Because they have never seen a student newspaper publish­ing a second issue. . . . [E]very attempt to publish a stu­dent-running newspaper has failed in the past.”

Every past attempt had also embraced the preferences of the country’s journalism outlets, student or professional: political pandering, freewheeling bias, and frequent gossip in lieu of genuine news.

The Times similarly followed this tract.  Near the top and at the center of the first Times front page (a portion of it captured in the screenshot below), the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also the founder of AUI-S, is smiling. He is congratulated in bold, outsized font above his photo, along with the words, “Dr. Barham Saleh [sic] is the kind of politician AUI-S, Kurdistan and Iraq need.”

The brief piece beneath it quotes students praising Salih’s economic rigor, generous nature, good listening skills, and personal modesty– to a fault.  The editorial-headline-photo combo represents what Voice editor Jackie Spinner calls a “big wet kiss,” or an overt, often excessive fawning over political and religious leaders in prominently-featured Iraqi news “reports.”

The remainder of the content in Jaff’s paper appeared in tabloid style, with gossip, exclamation points, and anonymous sources in abundance.  As a pair of campus news items noted, “An anonymous source told us that one of the AUI-S cafeteria’s cooks gets his food from the fast-food shop near to the mosque. . . . According to the latest news from the Mid-Term exams, cooperative work, a euphe­mism for cheating, is being conducted on a wide scale by the Academic students.  There are many new methods which have not been discovered by the dear professors yet!”

Amid the kisses and rumorous reports, Spinner saw promise in the Times, and its founder.  She sought him out to be the first editor in chief for the official campus newspaper she envisioned– one that did not yet have a staff, newsroom or name.  “Dana was an easy choice,” Spinner said.  “He was so excited and so eager to start a newspaper on his own.  I understood what contributions he would make as part of this operation.  I just had to convince him that I could teach him the journalism.”

Spinner and the school chancellor sat with Jaff in early January to make their pitch and gauge his interest.  She described him as “initially very reluctant to join this quote-unquote official effort.”  As the chat progressed, the pair slowly sold him on the positives of starting a newspaper following American journalistic traditions– objective reporting and presentation; independence from political factions; facts instead of gossip; and direction from Spinner and support from the school without content interference.  If published, the newspaper would be the first editorially-independent, politically-impartial, news-driven student paper in the country’s history.

Jaff hesitantly accepted.  “The first thing I learned from Miss Jackie is Iraqi journalism is far from being professional,” he said.  “I could do better.  We could do better together, all the students. . . . From [the] start, I did say, ‘The Voice can be a small contribution to Iraq and to the world.’”

With his own contribution to its start, Jaff enabled the AUI-S student media lore to remain intact– for a tiny bit longer.  The Times never published a second issue.  And the Voice had its first editor in chief.

Dana Jaff looks over the first issue of The AUI-S Voice.

To Be Continued||| Part Four: “Editorial? What Do You Mean Editorial?”

Just In Case||| Part One ||| Part Two

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“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part Two: “I Fell in Love with Iraq”

The Voice began, indirectly, with a stumble and a scandalWashington Post veteran staff writer Jackie Spinner arrived in Iraq in May 2004 primarily to cover the criminal proceedings tied to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison abuse.  While exiting the bus that ferried her from Baghdad’s airport, she tripped on the steps– an entrance described as fitting for a transplanted business reporter who had “daily battled numbers, not bullets, not bombs.”

In a thirteen-month reportorial stint, Spinner’s beat spun out from a sharp focus on the prison scandal to a wide-angle lens on wartime Iraq.  As she wrote in her memoir Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq, “The politics of the war aside . . . I was there to chronicle the human side of what was happening, the people caught up in what was happening in Iraq, for better or for worse.”

While reporting, she avoided kidnapping, mortar shells, and car bombs; slept fitfully in rooms only slightly protected from the putrid Middle East “heat funk”; endured endless military checkpoints and speeding along dangerous roadways at Indy 500 pace; faced sexualized stares, gender-biased disrespect, and an almost daily desire to de-feminize to better fit in; and learned numerous Arabic words and phrases, including Ani SahafiyaTranslation: I am a journalist.

At the conclusion of her time in the Post Baghdad bureau– and after writing and promoting her book, and returning to work stateside– a sense of duty and a spirit of kinship with the country she had briefly lived and reported in lingered.  “I fell in love with Iraq, this horrible, awful, violent, beautiful, hopeful place, where many Iraqis, in spite of the horrors of the insurgency, felt better off without Saddam in power, felt better off with American troops on their soil,” Spinner wrote.  “I fell in love with the story of Iraq and with the purpose I felt delivering it.  I found meaning in the people I met, whose lives unfolded at my fingertips.  My life didn’t feel on hold when I was in Iraq.  It was my life.”

This past December, Spinner began a new phase of her professional life, in Iraq and academia.  She joined the staff of The American University of Iraq- Sulaimani, a nearly three-year-old private university in the country’s northern Kurdish region modeled after Western liberal arts schools.

“I’m the director of media relations here,” she said two months after accepting the position.  “That’s not why I took this job.  I took this job to start a newspaper for students. . . . I’m very familiar with the Iraqi press.  I labored alongside them.  I went into battle with them. I always dreamed of coming back here someday.  I would like a free and democratic press started here.”

How do you begin building an objective student newspaper from scratch without accompanying journalism education and within a media landscape where a free, democratic press model is a plane ride away?  As Spinner wrote about her previous Post reporting stint, “I went to Iraq because I am a journalist: we drive into hurricanes, not away from them.”

Spinner created a slate of policy guidelines for the future publication, adapted from those used at award-winning U.S. college newspapers such as The Daily Kansan, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and The Daily Egyptian, the paper where her personal student press fires first sparked.

Spinner walked across campus as an Egyptian during her entire undergraduate career at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, talking her way onto the staff before her freshman year had officially begun.  She earned a journalism degree from SIU in 1992.  She subsequently enrolled within the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where she similarly enmeshed herself into the campus press and started a school chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  “You know how high school students who’ve been in the marching band will sometimes call themselves band nerds?” Spinner asked.  “Well, I was definitely a news nerd from a very early age.”

Her main confidante during the creation of the new publication at AUI-S was also the co-author of her memoir: her twin sister, Jenny (below, right).  As Jackie (below, left) writes, “She was always my identity, the other half of the Spinner twins who grew up in a blue-collar town in the Midwest, chasing lightning bugs and a sense that the world extended beyond the corn and soybean fields surrounding us.”

Dr. Jenny Spinner is also an adviser of a student newspaper, The Hawk, at Saint Joseph’s University, where she is an assistant professor of English.  “She’s been my biggest supporter,” said Jackie.  “I was a reporter with the Washington Post for 16 years.  I don’t really know anything about academia or student journalism from an adviser perspective.  So we have spent many, many moments on Skype and trading e-mails.”

As Jenny recalled about her reaction to her sister’s desire to start a student paper in Iraq, “I thought ‘Perfect.  Perfect.  Perfect for you.’  It is a job and a task that is made for her.  I think Jackie is somewhat of an idealist.  I mean, she’s a realist in that she understands the reality of what she’s doing.  But in terms of journalism, she’s an old-school idealist.  I think she is the perfect sort of person to be working with these students, doing this job, and she’s dedicated to it.  So honestly if a bubble could have popped over my head like a comic book character it would have said ‘perfect, perfect!’”

The biggest coup Jackie saw through at the outset: convincing the university to agree to not review or censor any newspaper content before publication.  This promise of no prior restraint was a huge sign of support from administrators, especially considering AUI-S is a university still in its infancy operating under an enormous international spotlight and within a culture where such press freedom is rarely granted.  The university was also going to provide the newspaper with funding and a newsroom on campus, two perks that are often accompanied by tight content controls even at U.S. schools.

Next up for Spinner, as she wrote via e-mail: “I had to think about copy flow, story budget sheets, photo assignments and everything that you need for any newspaper.  Figure out which equipment we needed to buy.  Software.  It’s not easy getting software in Iraq.  And then I had to lobby the university to build the newsroom.  They [students] had nowhere to work.  I had to build the house and furnish it before I invited anyone to tea.”

Her tea party planning included a search for the first editor in chief.  She set her sights on one student in particular, Dana Jaff.  The evidence for her belief in his potential included the founder of AUI-S and a sloppy but culturally-acceptable “big wet kiss.”

To Be Continued||| Part Three: “What! Another Newspaper?”

Just In Case… ||| Part One

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“One Team, One Newspaper”

The Founding of Iraq’s Independent Student Press

Part One: “THIS is a Newspaper”

Zimnaku Mohammed Saleh lost his family, fled his homeland, and adopted a new identity– all before he could walk and talk.  As a four-month-old living in Halabja, Iraq, Saleh was one of the residents fortunate to have no memory of the March 1988 bombing orchestrated by Saddam Hussein that transformed the city “into an open cemetery.” The explosions, which unleashed “a deadly cocktail of mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun, sarin, and VX,” were part of Hussein’s larger “scorched earth offensive” against Iraqi Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War.

More than 5,000 people died in the offensive, including Saleh’s father and six older siblings.  His mother also collapsed amid the chaos and was transported unconscious to a hospital in Tehran.  Unbeknownst to her, Saleh survived.  Iranian soldiers found him three days after the bombing and took him to their country.  A kind Iranian woman adopted him, giving him a new name: Ali Pour.

Saleh lived as Pour for nearly 21 years in Iran, returning to Iraq late last year after his adopted mother’s death in a car accident.  Prior to his arrival, he sought information on his family through Iran’s Chemical Organization of Halabja and Ahmadi Natqi, a photographer who captured famous images of the bombing that displaced him.  A subsequent meeting with an Iraqi government official and a DNA test revealed astonishing news: Saleh’s birth mother was aged, but still alive.  He held her in his arms in early December 2009 in Iraq, saying aloud as media watched, “I’m in a dream.”

His story echoes that of Iraq’s during the past two decades– bloodshed, loss, struggle, survival, hope, dreams. Fittingly, two months after he returned home, embraced his mother, and enrolled at university, this story was given a voice.

The AUI-S Voice, Iraq’s first independent student newspaper, featured a Q&A with Saleh in its second issue, on portions of the front and back pages. He is a student at the newspaper’s host school, The American University of Iraq– Sulaimani (AUI-S).

Zimnaku Mohammed Saleh shares his story with The AUI-S Voice.

His words join separate reports, Q&As, op-eds, photographs, editorial cartoons, and polls in a journalistic smorgasbord that its student staffers and adviser hope will sustain itself as a pioneering news publication by students, for students– and the country and university where their unfolding story is set.

More than any specific content, the Voice’s medium is its ultimate message, proving student journalism and idealism are appreciated and still en vogue in even the hardest hit spots on Earth.

In the new media age, at a time when journalism is simultaneously discombobulating and reinventing, the paper’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, independence, and the search for truth.

They are tenets often left out of the Iraqi mediasphere, where well-sourced, accurate, unbiased reporting rarely appears.  Instead, facts mix with opinion in a majority of news content.  Rampant rumors are run.  And political affiliations are proudly and repeatedly touted on front pages, above the fold.  As Voice design editor Yad Faiq said, “In Iraq, for many years, any parts of media, all the newspapers and television and radio [stations] have been all related to political authorities and political people or they are related to your sex or your religion or your ethnicity.  They are not independent.”

The current Voice editorial board. Left to right, standing: Baker Alhashimi, Yad Faiq and Arez Hussen Ahmed. Left to right, kneeling: Hazha A. Abdullah and Namo Kaftan. (Photo by Heidi Diedrich)

In recent months, student editors and their impassioned adviser Jackie Spinner, a former Washington Post reporter, have aspired to start a new Voice, creating a publication with a clear demarcation between commentary and news and not even a whiff of political influence.

Within a country struggling with the basic necessities of rebuilding, security, and establishment of a solid political infrastructure, an independent student newspaper is not bread and water– but it is nourishing.

As Baker Alhashimi, an AUI-S student and the Voice’s editorial page editor said about living in Baghdad since the fighting began again in 2003, “The violence, the U.S. Army and the resistance and terrorists and explosions daily, it has been, you could say, a nightmare.  So I was looking for just an opportunity, one opportunity, to be involved and be a student like other students around the world.  While at AUI-S, I tell myself that this is the time to achieve my goals, to express, to be honest, to be loyal, to get engaged, to get my dreams.”

He has found his dreams coming true with the Voice.  “Students want a newspaper,” he said.  “This is a newspaper.  THIS is a newspaper.  It avoids politics.  This is from students to students.  All of the editors are part of the campus so you have to talk with them.  Every issue is free for everybody.  And the person who is in charge of it was part of the Washington Post, so nobody will say that it is not accurate and it is not quality journalism.”

Voice student staffers and adviser Jackie Spinner meet in the paper's newsroom.

Nine issues into its existence, the weekly paper’s quality does remain uneven.  Its first editor in chief recently resigned due to concerns about the overall editorial structure.  And Spinner, a first-time publication adviser, struggles to teach students journalism basics while acceding to their desires to also shoot video and tweet.

Yet, its larger contribution is already confirmed, echoing what is taking place in the country overall.  As a Newsweek report noted in February, “Something that looks an awful lot like democracy is beginning to take hold in Iraq.  It may not be ‘mission accomplished’– but it’s a start.”

To Be Continued||| Part Two: “I Fell in Love with Iraq”

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“Eww . . . Disgusting.”  “Like a journalistic terror attack.”  “You say tomato, I say Gestapo.” Those are just a few of the many, many outraged responses I have received about the Rodney-King-style beatdown of college press freedom at James Madison University.

As you have probably read by now, police and a county prosecutor with a search warrant she had no right to waive around very recently stormed into the Breeze newsroom at JMU.  They seized (digitally burned) hundreds of unpublished photos taken by newspaper staffers during the recent school-block-party-turned-riot, Springfest.  Inexplicably, they also burned lots of other photos unrelated to the event.  Breeze staffers were forced to watch, mad and mystified, while their intellectual property was taken.

The police and prosecutor had NO legal backing for their actions.  ZERO.  NONE.  In fact, it is the opposite.  At that moment, they were breaking the law.  Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists: “One of the first things I said to a colleague was, ‘It sounds to me like the prosecutor needs to spend more time with law books and less time watching Law & Order.'”

As the Washington Post similarly noted in a shaking of its editorial fist about the incident, “State courts have recognized that newspapers may withhold materials from the government unless officials make a compelling case to the contrary, a process that is supposed to play out in court in response to a subpoena. In this case there was no subpoena, no court arguments and no recognition that raiding a newspaper makes a mockery of the First Amendment.”

My take: Eww . . . Disgusting.  This is a direct, open-palmed slap in the face to student journalism.  This apparent attorney and these supposed law enforcers stepped over legal and ethical boundaries in a manner they would have NEVER mimicked if dealing with the professional press.  These student journalists should be applauded, not bullied.  They legally captured images of a public happening and rightfully sought to protect them.

To the police and prosecutor involved in this Gestapo tactic: Uphold the rule of law.  Do not break it when it suits you.  Want to take a look at the Breeze?  Fine, just do it from a distance.

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Neon Tommy is an online news outlet built atop public service more than staff pay, “stories that nobody has heard before” more than parroting headlines of the day, and possessing “a certain blue-collar sensibility” wedded blissfully with new media’s rough-and-tumble gung-ho.

The USC news site is the new flagship enterprise of the larger Annenberg Digital News.  It is run by undergraduate and graduate students, advised by faculty, and supported by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  In a recent post, Truthdig’s Bill Boyarsky profiles the upstart outlet, noting:

The name Neon Tommy is derived from Tommy Trojan, a campus symbol, and neon, a retro kind of word that invokes the days of neon lights, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday” and newsboys screaming “Extra!” The evocation of an earlier era is perfect, for Neon Tommy combines the best in the new multimedia journalism with intensive reporting, clear writing and speed in stories on politics, government, culture, sports and whatever else interests its staff. It also recalls a touch of “The Front Page,” the old newspaper play upon which the film “His Girl Friday” was based.

Like other student outlets in California, Neon Tommy‘s most prominent exploit this semester was its nonstop, comprehensive, multimediated coverage of the statewide public education funding crisis protests.  As Boyarsky writes, staffers subsequently mounted a care-to-comment-about-higher-ed phone-athon aimed at potential California gubernatorial candidates, without reply.  “Neon Tommy called almost every day for a month, each time posting their frustrating result,” according to Boyarsky. “Finally, [the outlet’s executive editor Callie Schweitzer] wrote, ‘The lack of response on such a hot button issue is truly appalling. It is proof that putting pressure on politicians for 30 days is to no avail. If the media cannot get answers from the political elite, what are voters to expect?'”

Separately, Schweitzer’s most inspiring quote, about her determination to continue as a journalist in the topsy-turvydom of the current j-climate: “Yes, there will always be obstacles. That is in every facet of your life, in your job, your personal life, your health. Obstacles are just things you overcome with the help of friends, family and co-workers.” Or as she says at the start: “Nothing is going to stop me.”

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The annual burst of student press satire at the start of April stirred an uproar after all.  A group of 70 to 100 students and faculty gathered on the University of Colorado, Denver campus recently to protest the April Fools’ issue of The Advocate, a student weekly.  Protesters declared the satire in bad taste, citing some articles for perceived hate speech and racism.  Angry students also confirmed stealing a majority of copies of the issue distributed on campus, returning some to the Advocate office as a show of their disgust.

Among the articles provoking certain students’ ire: “Dear White Guys,” a faux advice column in which Caucasians answer questions from “black guys” with a snarky undertone of racism that concludes “I’m just relieved you didn’t ask me how we keep your wages so low and the schools in your neighborhoods so shitty.”

A separate piece, headlined “Enjoy Obamacare If You Like Payin [sic] for Illegal Mexicans,” warns people that the President’s health care reform is “BAD NEWS people. It looks like everyone who voted for OBAMA BIN LADEN is now going to get whats coming to them because hey!! say goodbye to the land of the free because AMERICA is now the land of SOCIALISM and FORCED ABORTIONS.”

As the Advocate itself dutifully reported, Jeff Otte, the student writer of the “Obamacare” piece bravely spoke at the protest: “Otte got onstage to answer questions from the audience. ‘I have a public history of supporting Hispanic causes and culture,’ said Otte. . . . ‘In no way was I making fun of Mexican stereotypes— I was making fun of racist stereotypes.’ After shouts of ‘You’re a racist’ and other interruptions, Otte was asked by the audience to leave the stage.”

In a follow-up piece, Otte wrote that his piece aimed to start a conversation about what he perceives as an inherent racism in Obama’s health care plan: “I will not apologize for calling that racism out, nor do I regret calling it out through satire, a subtle yet effective means of social commentary.”


In an open letter to readers, the Advocate‘s editor in chief expressed the classic mea culpa for misunderstood satire, “I am sorry anyone was hurt by what we printed. Our intention was never to hurt, nor to encourage hurtful ideas.  That, to me, is the saddest part. We wrote to defend the very groups who felt offended by what we printed. To say it quite simply: We’re on your side.”

In a separate piece, the EIC confirmed, “A necessary byproduct of a free press is that people are occasionally unhappy with what we print. It’s truly and honestly regrettable, but it’s a fact of the job.”

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