The F Word with Jim Langdon, Langdon Publishing

Where do you go to find all the information about the latest news and cool stuff happening in Tulsa? For many, it's Tulsa People Magazine. A product of Langdon Publishing, Tulsa People has found great success, proving resilient through multiple economic downturns and the shrinking of newsrooms. But not all Langdon Publishing publications have experienced the same luck. Listen as publisher Jim Langdon talks about building his company and learning when to let go of ideas that just didn't work.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Jim: The dollars and cents hit you in the face eventually.

Lauren: This week on the F Word. 

Jim: Our ad revenue was diminishing, and I didn't really like the prospects of who I was having to sell to.

Lauren: The founder of Langdon Publishing, Jim Langdon.

Jim: It's pretty easy to recognize when things are becoming a drain.

Lauren: Tulsa People Magazine and the Tulsa Voice are some of the top sources for enlightening and entertaining information about the people, places, and events that make Tulsa the incredible place that it is. In a world where newsrooms are shrinking, these publications are going strong with 45,000 total copies printed each month, plus very successful websites. Jim Langdon is the founding publisher of these magazines. As the owner of Langdon Publishing, Jim has seen many highs and lows since Tulsa People first went to print in 1986. He survived transitioning to the digital age, the impact of multiple economic downturns, and some unsuccessful smaller publications. We're going to touch on all that today. Jim, thanks for being here.

Jim: Thank you Lauren. Nice to be here.

Lauren: Your journalism career started at a very young age. Your parents owned a small newspaper for 43 years in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. What did you learn in your early years that shaped the Langdon Publishing we know today?

Jim: I think I learned at an early age that being in the newspaper business, even in a very small town, is a really cool thing. You are able to go to a lot of activities, sporting events, community events. Everyone seemed to know who my father was, and respected him. So that entire vibe really made me happy. And I think made it a natural transition to want to follow in his footsteps so to speak and be a community newspaper person myself.

Lauren: What did he teach you about being an effective source of news in a community?

Jim: My mother and father, my mother was the society editor of the newspaper, my father was the publisher. They both were just very involved in the business and their town. Not just publishing the newspaper but being leaders in the community and being good people, just good community servants. And that really taught me the importance of being involved, being engaged in your community. It's really a requirement in journalism. You have to be involved. You have to care about your town or city, the people who are in it. And so I recognized that early following in their footsteps. And then as I progressed in my career, I noticed that in other newspapers publishers that I got to know over the years.

Lauren: And you did get so much experience under your belt before you started Tulsa People. You worked for newspapers and ad agencies and nonprofits around the country. But then by the mid '80s, you ended up back in Tulsa, or in Tulsa for the first time. You moved her for your wife's job and were working for a friend's advertising agency, and in 1986 you saw an opportunity. Talk about the need you saw and why you wanted to be the one to fill it. 

Jim: I guess the first thing to say is that my parents, right out of college went to work for a newspaper publisher in Oklahoma named Leland Gourley in Henryetta, Oklahoma. And Leland was a very successful publisher in Henryetta and then moved on to Oklahoma City. He started a newspaper in northwest Oklahoma City called Friday which served the Nichols Hills area, Quail Creek, those communities that had their own municipalities with city councils and police departments and so forth. So he created a community newspaper within the city that served those municipalities and was very successful. So having worked for the State Newspaper Association for a couple of years, I became close to Leland, and other publishers who really looked at him with awe, that he did that and created a publication, basically from scratch in a market where there was no existing newspaper. Naturally, other publishers thought, "Where can I do that?" And Tulsa was a natural place to look. And yet no one did it. I think a few publishers came to Tulsa, looked around, felt like it just wasn't right for them. So when I arrived in Tulsa, I had that knowledge and went to work for a friend from my college days working on the newspaper at OU, Ralph Cissne, in his ad agency. And that was kind of the platform that I had in Tulsa, not having lived here very long, to recognize that there seemed to be a need for that type of publication in Tulsa. So I, in a way, cloned Oklahoma City Friday in Tulsa.

Lauren: I think there's a misconception for a lot of entrepreneurs that to be successful in business, you have to go straight from graduating college to getting your business off the ground. You’ve got to be a 22-year-old who's like, "I'm an entrepreneur, I'm starting." And you took a different route than that. You worked jobs for a long time. Do you think ... I think a lot of people would be caught in fear of starting later in life. How do you think that time you spent getting industry experience impacted what you ended up building? 

Jim: Well, I think it was very important. I had varying experiences in my career up to that point. Of course, I always thought I was going to be a newspaper publisher. I really felt like I would follow in my father's footsteps, maybe in the community where he published. Maybe we would expand and buy some other newspapers. And then I had kind of a turn in my career. I was invited to come back to Norman and teach at OU for a year, and that changed my trajectory. I then went to work for the State Newspaper Association and the National Newspaper Association, and when I arrived in Tulsa, it was my first experience outside the newspaper world. It was in a small ad agency. And so I felt very prepared. I knew how to create a publication; I'd done that before. And in the ad agency, I felt like a fish out of water. I didn't know that world. And so I think in hindsight, I was probably looking for an opportunity to get back to my roots, to get back in publishing. And so fortunately, the need seemed to be there. I had the confidence that I could do it. My wife, who was practicing law, had a really good job, which enabled me to do something and not make much money for a year or two. And so the stars aligned for me. And I feel very fortunate and grateful that things happened the way they did. 

Lauren: So you had this itch for starting your own publishing company even before you graduated college, it just took a while for it to come to fruition.

Jim: I really felt like I would go to work for another newspaper. And right out of college, I did. I went to work for the Norman Transcript, the daily newspaper in Norman and felt like I would step onto another newspaper. I may go back to my hometown. I just felt like being a newspaper publisher was my future, would be my destiny. And that was the path that I was on. And funny things happen to you. And I fully think that I had not received that call from one of my professors to come back to OU, that's what I'd be doing today. I don't know where it would be.

Lauren: Working for someone else and not yourself?

Jim: I think I would be working for myself. My father was an owner of a publication. I valued that role. I don’t think, unless I was destined to work for a big newspaper, I think my destiny was always going to be as a, probably a small community publisher.

Lauren: You lucked out in a lot of ways in the beginning. You were the first to market, which, as any entrepreneur knows, is huge. It gives you a really big leg up. But you also had some great support from other partners in the business community. The department store, Harold's, pretty much bankrolled Tulsa People for its first year. That drew the support of Miss Jackson's, and other big department stores, which is how magazines make money is advertisers. Can you talk about building those strategic partnerships?

Jim: Well it's kind of the value of who you know, which is very powerful in business. I was very fortunate that during my years in Norman, I became acquainted with Harold Powell. He was one of my ad accounts at the Norman Transcript. So when I came to Tulsa and decided I wanted to explore the possibility of starting a publication, he was the first person I called because I knew he valued creativity. He had stores in Tulsa, and I'd hoped that he would share the need for a publication here. And he did in a big way. He not only, in a totally unsolicited way, offered to pay his first year's advertising in advance, which was huge. He also volunteered to come to Tulsa to talk to Bob Renberg, at Renberg's Department Store, and Bill Fisher, who owned Miss Jackson's at the time, to solicit their support. So he did that. He drove to Tulsa from Norman. We visited those two businesses and owners at those businesses, and he made the magic happen.

Lauren: What's the key to developing a relationship, like the relationship you had with Harold? I think that's kind of a lost art of strong business relationships that you can call them, just call them and say, "I'm doing this, what do you think?" What's some tips or advice you would give to build relationships like that?

Jim: Well, it's important to try to align yourself with successful people. People that you admire and respect, and want to know, and want to learn from. I was fortunate that Harold really valued my heritage. He knew of my newspaper background, he knew of my family's involvement. Not only my parents, but my dad's brother owned a newspaper in Oklahoma. There was some expansion of the Langdon name in publishing in Oklahoma. And Harold knew that and he valued that. And he admired, I think, anyone who wanted to follow in their father's or family's footsteps, and to build a business, build a heritage as he had done in Norman. Although he started his company himself. But it was a joy for me to get to know him. I owe him so much because he took an interest in me, and I think our personalities kind of meshed. He kind of liked who I was. He liked that I was working, that I worked at the student newspaper at OU. He liked that I was at the Transcript. He knew I was on a good path in my career development and he valued that.

Lauren: So he saw your work ethic. He saw your expertise. Did you make it a point to stay in touch with him in the in-between years, between when you were in college working for the Norman Transcript, and when it was time to launch Tulsa People.

Jim: I had not kept in touch with him during those couple of years. But I did keep in touch with him after I started the publication, and actually went to Norman a couple of times and had lunch, and expressed my appreciation to him. They were our back cover advertiser on the magazine for 25 years. I'd write him a note occasionally and reach out to him, and he was huge. And I hope that I can do the same thing for others who are interested in building a business and starting like I did, like he did. I mean, he started his business from scratch in Norman, and ended up, I think at one time, I think had 60 stores with headquarters in Norman. Just a tremendous success. So I value that. I know that I need to share my experience, and hence why I'm here today. What works, what doesn't work, but generally just kind of what it takes to start a business, and maintain a business, go through all the changes and swerves that you do in business.

Lauren: Speaking of changes, I think a lot of people don't know that Langdon Publishing doesn't just produce Tulsa People, and the Tulsa Voice. You publish a lot of other things like the Tulsa Guest Guide, and the Vision Tulsa Pamphlet, and Intermission, which is the little magazine that you get at the PAC. And you do the magazine for Creative Homes. And I think it's a great example of diversifying revenue streams. Can you talk about how do you decide what to take on? Because I think as a business owner, you have opportunities to take on so many things. Like you probably had way more opportunities than even the ones you have. How do you decide what to say yes and no to, as you're diversifying your revenue streams?

Jim: Well, it's not easy. But I think you just look for things that fit. The frequency of the publication. Does it fit? Kind of the flow of the business. How it is going to impact your employees? Is it something that will be fun to do? Is it something that we could engage in, and be proud of? You kind of ask yourself all those questions, and just look for a good fit. Look for a need. Obviously selling advertising's important to support any publication, so you have to assess the potential of the publication in terms of its revenue and profitability. We've started some things that after two or three years didn't meet those thresholds, and you have to be able to say it's time to move on too, and not let something that's not working negatively impact your company and your team. So we've had a few of those over the years. We've learned from them. But I've never been afraid to stop doing something if it just didn't seem to be the right fit, or if it just didn't seem to be working the way it needed to. 

Lauren: I want to touch a little bit more on those publications that didn't work out. As you've grown, you've had a handful of ones that have been short-lived, like Uptown News, and Urban Tulsa Weekly, Computer User. Can you give us the story of one of those? How it started, and how it evolved, and how you reached a point of, "Okay, this needs to end."

Jim: Well, Computer User was a tabloid publication that we published in the late '90s that served the interest of the computer-user industry. And as we all know, that's almost everyone.

Lauren: Now.

Jim: Yeah, now. The computer world was different back in the late '90s. There were many small mom-and-pop type computer stores that made computers, that sold computers, that repaired them. I was just looking at our Computer User issue from September of 1997 today, and I was amazed how many small businesses there were that were serving the computer industry in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. This was a statewide publication. The genesis of the publication is one weekend my wife and I were in Kansas City, and I walked into Barnes & Noble, and there was a rack inside the door that contained copies of Kansas City Computer User. And so, as I'm prone to do, I pick up all the free publications when I visit a market. And so when I returned home after looking at it, I called the publisher of that publication, and learned that Computer User was really a franchise-type model, and that it was based in Minneapolis/St. Paul and owned by the company that was publishing the Minneapolis/St.Paul Magazine, which is a very fine city magazine. And so called them, expressed an interest. My wife and I flew to Minneapolis one day in January, and met with them, and liked the concept, and so we brought it to Tulsa. Actually, brought it to Oklahoma. It served both the Oklahoma City and the Tulsa markets. It went well, I think for the first couple of years, and then everything started changing within the computer industry. A lot of these small stores were closing. Dell was ramping up and really selling lots of computers, and taking business away from these independent stores. And so gradually, we could see the decline ahead. And so decided after two or three years that the future didn't look good for Computer User, and so we stopped publishing it. Now there are none. They're all gone. At one time there were probably 50 Computer Users around the country in other cities. I even partnered with my printer in starting one in Arizona, Arizona Computer User. And I eventually sold my interest in that to them, but then they operated it for a couple of years. It lasted for about three years. 

Lauren: What was the deciding factor that made you decide, like, "We're done."?

Jim: I think that ... And this publication didn't require a lot of effort because it was a franchise model, and they basically created most of the editorial content for their franchisees. It was a really easy publication to produce, from graphics to editorial. But it became difficult to sell the advertising. I remember going into a small mom-and-pop computer store in Oklahoma City, and just felt leaving that there's no way they could afford an ad. They were hanging on, and I almost felt guilty trying to sell an ad to a small business like that. And I think that's when the light went on. I just thought, "I don't feel comfortable." Our ad revenue was diminishing. And I didn't really like prospects of who I was having to sell to. And so we just decided the time was right to move on.

Lauren: That's really big. I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs have a hard time letting go of things they've worked really hard on.

Jim: Well, it is hard. You invest time, you invest some money, you invest effort. It's hard to say no, but I think in business, the dollars and cents hit you in the face eventually. You just recognize that ... It's pretty easy to recognize when things are becoming a drain. They're becoming a drain on your profitability. And they become a drain on your team. And once those two things coincide, it's an easy decision to make a change.

Lauren: Another hard season for Langdon Publishing that I want to talk about is, before we met, I asked you what one of the most fearful seasons for you, as an entrepreneur has been, and you mentioned the recession in '08. How did the recession impact your business?

Jim: With Tulsa People, specifically, our total source of revenue is advertising revenue. And once the recession hit, it so quickly and negatively impacted so many businesses. An example is the car industry. The automobile industry in Tulsa virtually stopped. They just stopped selling cars. And that was a fairly large classification, ad classification, for us. And it hit hard and immediately. And so it was a difficult time. We were about two or three months after the start of the recession, I thought, "You know, this is not going to be all that bad," and then all of a sudden a wall just erected, and it became very difficult to sell advertising because so many businesses were negatively impacted by it. And so that was a really difficult time for all of us. For, I think, everyone in business. It's been a slow climb back. And unfortunately some businesses just weren't able to make it all the way back.

Lauren: How do you think you were able to? Because I'm sure you had to lay off staff, and make the publication smaller. How did you pull back out of that? 

Jim: Lauren, I think the two advantages that we had at that given time is we didn't have any debt. We owned our building, which was huge. 

Lauren: Absolutely.

Jim: Two big assets. I mean our building obviously was an asset, but two ways that you have to finance your business, one borrowing money, we had not had to do. And two, rent can be expensive, if you've got ... You know you need a lot of space. I made the decision to look to buy a building when my rent reached about $3,000 a month. I thought with that level of expenditure, let's build an asset with it instead of just throwing it out the window every month. So that ended up being a good decision, a good recognition. And I think those two things were really big for us at that time. You have to retrench. That's a difficult thing in business if you have to eliminate jobs. And we had to do a little bit of that as everyone had to do. Fortunately we were just able to make those changes and shrink a little bit and ride it out.

Lauren: And now you've almost completely come back from where you were, which I think is incredible because we hear all the time about shrinking newsrooms and staff being cut left and right and journalists being expected to take on double workloads. And that's just not the case for Langdon Publishing. Everyone I've ever talked to who works there loves their job. You’re thriving, you're not shrinking. What do you sets you apart?

Jim: I think the magazine industry is different than other media. The newspaper industry is definitely more challenged than we are. They're having to produce a product every day. They're having to compete with the chaotic pace that the internet has created to break news, and just to serve their readers, when knowing that readers have access to news 24/7. Magazines are more feature-oriented. We're a different animal. I think people still value magazines. They don't like to read magazines online. They still like to hold the product. I think the feel of the publication has meaning to people. They like that. They like the color, they like the quality. They like reading about things they enjoy, things that don't necessarily stress them out.

Lauren: And that are right in their backyard.

Jim: That are right in their backyard. They like taking advantage of cool things in their city. They like getting to know their city. They want to be educated. They want to know what's going on. They want to know how to enrich their lives and make their lives more full and fun. And that's what magazines do. That's what city magazines are about. And though we're seeing, I think, a resurgence within the magazine industry. Not only in city magazines, but I think nationally. There's been a shakeout naturally, but because magazines really appeal to the special interest of people, as long as those special interests don't change, and as long as we continue to publish with quality and integrity, I think the future looks good.

Lauren: That's a great point because there is such a push right now to shop local and support local businesses and you're creating an avenue for people to learn how to do that. 

Jim: Right. And we were a big advocate of shopping local, naturally. There aren't many national advertisements in our magazine. And so we're totally dependent on local businesses, independent businesses, primarily, as we are. 

Lauren: In addition to the physical magazine, you're actually one of the first publications in the country to digitize your magazine, to put your content online and make it available to everybody. An early adoption of new technology can be very hard. It can be intimidating for business owners. What do you say to people who are hesitant to hop on the wave of new tech trends?

Jim: Well I can't really speak to other businesses and other trends because it's a pretty big world out there, but I knew our business. I knew our industry, and I knew that creating a digital product that was more accessible to more people was a no brainer. And so while attending a publishing convention on the East Coast, I met a company from Boston that I think was one of the first companies engaged in digitizing magazines. And they were digitizing big national magazines. And they were considered the Cadillac of the industry. We decided to go into business with them because of their experience. They were more costly than others. But if we were going to do it, I wanted to do it right, and knew that they would do it right for us, and they did. And so it was not an inexpensive move, but it just clearly seemed to be a new path that we needed to follow and as it turns out, that was the right decision. But it was an easy decision because you could just see the direction things were going and that the digital world was just getting ready to explode. And it did. 

Lauren: So maybe the take-away from that is know your industry. Know what's up and coming. I mean you found out about this company at a conference. So to get out of the weeds of your business for a little bit and study your industry as a whole and where it's going. 

Jim: It's very important to make friendships and develop relationships with others within your industry.

Lauren: Yeah. You actually have a group of publishers that you're friends with?

Jim: We do. We have a group of about 10 publishers from around the country. They're all magazine publishers. We gather twice a year and basically have dinner together and then meet the next day and share successes, and share things that aren’t working all that well. Because neither of us compete with one another, we're totally open and honest with one another. And that's a great resource. I can call them on the phone and ask questions. They do it too. And so it's great having people like that, that you know, that you trust, that are smart, and can guide you through maybe a difficult time. 

Lauren: Act as a sounding board.

Jim: Absolutely. Yeah. Very important. 

Lauren: Everything you do runs on just 23 employees. I know you work with a ton of contractors and freelancers to fill in those gaps. For people thinking about growing and hiring new employees, or maybe taking on contractors or freelancers, can you talk about the pros and cons of the fact ... For you, it's freelancers. So what are the pros and cons of running your business on a ton of freelancers?

Jim: Well because of our publishing frequency, we don't need that many people in our building. And the value of using freelancers is you can find writers with specific expertise. They can write topically about specific subjects because they're really into those subjects. And we use a lot of writers in that way. They write topically for us on the same subjects in each issue. We also have general freelance writers who are more general in their writing, but they're very skilled and they write our cover stories and lead feature stories. It's really an economic necessity that we use freelance talent, but it's also a really good thing because we're able to really obtain great writing, and award-winning writing. So I think being able to use talent like that really works well for us. We couldn't afford maybe one of those people on the staff, but we can afford seven or eight that are really looking to have the freedom to freelance, and not work in an office, you know, eight to five.

Lauren: Is there a downside to not being their boss and having more control? Like is there an issue ever with consistency, or follow-through, or all of a sudden you're looking at the clock and saying, "Wait, we need this," and you don't have that same leverage that a boss would have, maybe.

Jim: No and to be truthful, Lauren, I don't work directly with our freelance writers. Our editors do. And I know that occasionally they go through some angst over a story that's not turned in on time or a writer that just, for whatever reason, didn't execute it in the way that it needed to be done, or at all. But over time they learn how to select good writers. They know how to assess that writing talent and the person who's behind it. And if someone just doesn't execute in the way that we need for them to, then it's easy to not use them again.

Lauren: That's a great point. You don't have to go through a firing process.

Jim: Exactly.

Lauren: Yeah. That's a great takeaway to be selective about who you're choosing to play a role on your team, even if they're not a part of your staff, to still be picky about who's getting a piece in your work, and who's creating this final product that you're making.

Jim: Right. I think as far as the internet, one of the really positive things is we're able to utilize some talent that's outside of Tulsa. They have access to our publications. We're using a really good writer in Dallas right now who won a couple of awards. One recently, the SPJ Award, and she also won a Great Plains Journalism Award about a month ago for The Voice. There's a person who's not in Tulsa, but is a very skilled writer and can write topically for us. But primarily, we're using local talent. And they're writers that really, that's the way they want to share their craft. They may be a mother, a mom at home with a young child or two, that being employed in an eight-to-five job just doesn't work for them right now. There are lots of reasons why people choose to freelance who are professional writers, and are very skilled. So it just ensures to our benefit in our business that we can utilize talented people that way. 

Lauren: You can keep quality high and cost low.

Jim: Absolutely.

Lauren: That's huge. I'm sure building this business has taken a lot of your time and your attention and your labor. Ultimately, a lot of sacrifice in different ways. I know you have a wife and kids. How do you make sure that you are prioritizing the right things in your life? And have you always done that well?

Jim: It's hard to do. As I reflect back on my earlier career, the first 10, or 12, or 15 years, I feel like the business maybe extracted more time out of me than I like. It took me away from the family more than I liked. I think at that time, it just felt like a necessity. It was a requirement of me, when the business was smaller, especially, that I just had to wear lots of hats. Had to do lots of things. Kind of having grown up in a publishing family like I did, I was able to do lots of different things. I didn't do them all well, but at least I was able to do them. And so in building a small business, I think that's a requirement of any business owner. I recruited my wife, Julie, into the business at about year 10, and away from her career in law. And that really made a huge difference because I wasn't managing our business very well at that point, and Julie came into the business and we were able to divide and conquer, so to speak. She concentrated on one side of the business and I concentrated on another. It really enabled us to right the ship, but it also enabled us to grow again. And that was huge.

Lauren: Was there tension in that though? Going to work with your wife every day and coming home? How do you work with your spouse and not always be talking shop?

Jim: Well, it's hard. Especially when you're young, business is young, and you care about it, and you're proud of it, and you want it to be all that it can be, and you want it to grow. Fortunately, Julie and I just kind of shared that interest, and recognized what we were doing and the value of what we were doing in the community with the publication. And we're a great team. But it's not easy. That's a lot of togetherness. At the business, at the office all day, and then home at night. My parents did that. I had really good models, role models for that but it's not an easy thing to do. And I credit Julie with making it work. It has worked really well for us. Not that we don't have our moments where we don't agree on things, but there just has to be a mutual respect that exists, and trust that even though we disagree, we're trying to do things for the right reason. 

Lauren: When it comes to prioritizing your marriage and your kids, what are the practical steps you take to do that?

Jim: I don't know how to answer that question. I think you're just kind of guided by what you think is right. What you think is important. Obviously your family is more important. I think in Julie and I's case, we just, with the family, we had to kind of divide and conquer. Just like we did our business. It was very much a team approach and a team effort. And our children deserve credit too. They understood what Mom and Dad were doing. They were just good kids. 

Lauren: What are your plans for Langdon Publishing in the years to come? Do you have great ideas or goals you're still wanting to reach, or something you're shooting for?

Jim: Not really. I'm really happy with what we're doing now. I don't have anything out there that I have regret that we haven't done. I feel good about the publications that we're publishing now. I feel like our boat is quite full. Not looking to really do anything else. Our business is good. I'm proud of what we do. I love being in Tulsa. I love living and working in Tulsa. And our publications, I think, in many ways, certainly our Tulsa Guest Guide, and Tulsa People make Tulsa look good. We want to make Tulsa look good, and there's lots of ways of doing that and there's a lot of pride in our city. So I like what I'm doing. I don't know what the future holds. I'm certainly in the twilight of my career. I feel so fortunate that I am where I am and that I've been doing what I'm doing. I just want to keep doing it.

Lauren: That's great. And you do represent Tulsa so well. You make us look real good.

Jim: Well, I hope so. That's part of our mission. A big part of our mission.

Lauren: Jim, thank you so much for coming in today and sharing your story with us, and what you've learned. We really appreciate it.

Jim: Thank you Lauren, I've really enjoyed spending time with you and appreciated your good questions. It enabled me to really think back about things in our earlier days of our company and it makes me happy. 

Lauren: Next week on the F Word ...

Nehemiah: And, oh my gosh, I drove that thing into the ground, I felt so bad.

Lauren: We talk to another local publisher, Nehemiah Frank, and his vision for the Black Wall Street Times.

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