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'An honest, an upright, a truthful journal': Chronicling The Daily News' history

From the The Daily News 175 series
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It has been 175 years since a newspaper known as The Daily News first appeared in Galveston, a city far different from the one in which we live today.

So, too, has the newspaper changed during those years: from the way it’s printed and where it’s printed to the frequency with which it has been printed and even the name under which it has been printed. Its front page over the years has carried the banner of The Daily News, The News, The Galveston News, The Galveston Daily News and, today, The Galveston County Daily News, the last of which best reflects its emphasis and reach, extending from Galveston Island north to Clear Creek, from Galveston Bay west to the Brazoria County line, and east along the Bolivar Peninsula.

One thing, however, hasn’t changed at all: The paper has steadfastly adhered to pioneering editor and publisher Willard Richardson’s philosophy that The Daily News present an independent voice, beholden to no one, and that its content be something its readers can rely on to be thorough and fair.

Here unfolds a chronicle of its history — that of the oldest newspaper in the broad, vast state of Texas — from its humble debut, on April 11, 1842, to its multimedia present, 17 and a half decades later.

I. Birth of a paper

On a blustery and unseasonably cold Monday morning in early April 1842, Galveston’s latest newspaper — 300 or so single sheets of paper, each printed on both sides and folded over, four pages in all — appeared on the counters of downtown Galveston’s merchants.

The paper’s masthead identified it as The Daily News and a box just below it boasted that it was “Published Every Day (Sundays Excepted) By George H. French.” Yet, save for the first few weeks, it neither appeared daily nor was it particularly newsy.

Nor, history suggested, was The Daily News likely long for this world; indeed, two months later a competitor reported its apparent demise, the actual fate of more than a dozen fleeting startups during the nine years that Texas was a republic.

Hamilton Stuart’s Civilian and Galveston City Gazette, by then a robust 4 years old, reported with restrained glee that The Daily News had joined, among others, the Commercial Intelligencer, the Daily Galvestonian, the Morning Herald, the People’s Advocate, the Commercial Chronicle and the unfortunately but presciently named Croaker in passing into history.

The Daily News’ tombstone, had Stuart’s account proved correct, would have read, simply, “Born April 11, 1842; Died June 11, 1842.” And that grave marker would have stood with all the others in a cemetery hastily filling up because of an epidemic of egotism in competition for a tiny audience; Galveston in 1842 was, after all, home to a mere 1,000 souls, some of whom were slaves.

A secondary cause of death would have been listed as the absence of any genuine effort to get out and gather news. It was enough, those ill-fated publishers reckoned, to arrange for the use of a press for the self-aggrandizing purpose of pontificating on the issues of the day.

What news they ran was stale at best, mostly relying on occasional reports brought by travelers from the mainland or cribbed from papers arriving aboard ships from New Orleans.

In that regard, The Daily News in its earliest iteration probably deserved the fate of its deceased brethren.

The oldest extant copy of The Daily News, that of Tuesday, April 19, 1842, carried on its front page, aside from mention of the recent spate of foul weather from the north, some advertising — including a notice that the paper’s founder, an itinerant printer, filibuster and former prisoner of war named Samuel Bangs, was available for any and all printing needs and another that he was willing to part with two leagues of Texas land the Mexican state of Tamaulipas had granted him under his legal Mexican name, Jose Manuel Bancs, for services rendered to Mexico during its first years of independence from Spain — and the text of a tariff act passed by the congress of the Republic of Texas three months before.

What stood as up-to-date news were announcements of arriving ships — the schooners Falcon and Neptune, notably, the latter bringing 27 passengers and 15 slaves, and the sloop Phoenix — and mention of a concert scheduled that week at the old Tremont House.

It was in such fashion that The Daily News slogged on for the next two months, publishing sporadically, reliant on the similarly sporadic arrival of ships from New Orleans, until Stuart’s Civilian on June 12, 1842, attempted to lay it to rest.

II. A lull and a rebirth

A year later, Stuart reported on what appeared to be nothing more than yet another paper’s birth, a terse announcement that “Messrs. M. Cronican and Co. have commenced in this city, the publication of a small semiweekly paper entitled ‘The News.’ ”

The new paper, was, in fact, The Daily News’ return to life, nearly as unlikely as had been that of Lazarus. It would be Stuart’s Civilian itself turning up dead some 40 years later, its proprietor kindly hired by The News to write editorials.

Messrs. M. Cronican and Co. were the printer Michael Cronican and the apprentice printer Wilbur Cherry, originally from Boston and Oswego, N.Y., respectively, who had come to Texas not to get into newspapering but to join the future republic’s fight for independence from Mexico.

Cronican, then 26 and a member of the renowned New Orleans Grays, a volunteer militia mustered at first word of the Texas revolution, had arrived in 1835, as had Cherry, who at 15 had run away from home to join the fray. They met that year during the Texans’ October to December siege of San Antonio de Béxar.

Texas gained its independence the following April — just 15 years after Mexico had won its own freedom — and Cronican and Cherry resumed their previous careers, opening a small print shop in Galveston.

In 1843, having pooled their resources, they rented from Bangs several cases of letter type and the same R. Hoe & Co. Washington hand press on which The Daily News putatively had been born the previous year, and they leased the same weatherworn, two-story building on Tremont Street, just around the corner from The Strand, where The Daily News had been printed — and retained the editor, French.

And with that, The Daily News, now more accurately named The News, reappeared on June 23, 1843, with a proposed circulation of twice a week and the caveat that it would in fact “be issued as soon as possible after the arrival of the New Orleans steamer.”

The News was a larger sheet than its predecessor, at 12 and a half by 18 inches, half again as large as The Daily News, but still a four-page sheet.

Cronican and Cherry offered an annual subscription for $4 in the depreciated currency of the Republic of Texas — about 80 cents in U.S. specie. Individual issues cost the equivalent of 2.5 U.S. cents.

The News early on mostly carried advertisements and official notices on its cover and back page. What passed for actual news appeared inside on the two pages put to bed the night before the paper was to appear.

French was one of two brothers of Bangs’ second wife, the former Caroline French, and both had accompanied the couple to Galveston in 1839, Bangs’ second stop on the island.

He had first arrived in 1816 when Texas was the property of Spain, having joined a military excursion organized by one Francisco Xavier Mina, a Spaniard aggrieved by the rise to the Spanish throne of Ferdinand VII, an unabashed Francophile. Mina saw aiding the Mexicans in their fight for independence from Spain as a way of taking on Ferdinand.

Things, however, did not go well for the filibusters; Spanish forces captured the lot, executing Mina and most of his crew, although sparing Bangs’ life given his ability to operate his press. After Mexico won its independence in 1821, Bangs was freed, yet remained south of the Rio Grande for several years, printing official proclamations for the new nation.

Eventually, he made his way to Mobile where he wooed and married Caroline French before his 1839 return to Galveston.

By then, Mexico was a sovereign nation and Texas was a sovereign republic, and the sovereign United States was still finalizing its borders.

In fact, it was only in 1842, the very year The Daily News debuted, that the northern border with Canada east of the Rockies was established with the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

Bangs by then had acquired a second press: the Hoe Washington press on which both The Daily News and The News are believed to have first been printed.

III. A savior’s arrival

Cronican and Cherry’s little paper at first offered precious little to distinguish itself. Like most papers of the era — with the possible exception of Stuart’s well-regarded Civilian — The News served as little more than a vanity sheet and a vehicle for its publishers to advertise their services and pull in what advertising dollars they could.

At the time, Galveston Island boasted no more than 300 homes and far fewer commercial buildings, all built along a grid extending from the harbor, which ran nearly two blocks farther inland than it does today.

The roads were difficult to walk. As a visitor from England, a more established island, put it, there were “wide passages between the squares, which are ankle deep in fine sand during dry weather and almost deeper in wet, they being totally unpaved in any part.”

The beached and rusting hulk of an abandoned clipper served as Galveston’s jail, which was rarely unpopulated.

A hospital, in the days when infectious diseases were treated with little more than patience and isolation, stood a mile and a half west of all other structures.

Drinking water, drawn from cisterns fed by shallow wells, bore an unpleasant taste, and feral hogs deemed the island theirs, contending only with similarly untamed dogs’ incessant bites and human beings’ flailing kicks.

Soon enough, in early 1844, Cronican, perhaps fed up by all that, headed off to Corpus Christi after selling out to Cherry, who, finding himself all but immediately overwhelmed, hired a capable writer named Benjamin Neal, who had made the acquaintance of a former schoolmaster turned journalist named Willard Richardson when both were working at the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register.

Neal invited Richardson to join The News.

Richardson, despite the less than promising environment into which he had been recruited, took the job after being granted full authority to oversee the underwhelming editorial staff. Richardson, who brought in a refreshing philosophy, soon bought out Cherry’s share in the enterprise.

Despite the island’s reputation as both a birthing place and a graveyard for startup newspapers — and despite the city’s scant population, and its unimproved roads, and despite recurrent competition and economic declines over which the paper had no say, and, too, despite the vagaries of ship arrivals from New Orleans bearing reports to crib — The News, largely due to Richardson’s guiding philosophy, came to be regarded as a metonym for responsible journalism.

He announced that The News would henceforth stand independent of any political party — a radical departure at the time — and vowed that the paper would place news before views. Moreover, it would seek to dig up its own news to fill the pages.

Richardson all but literally took that credo to the grave. Near the end of his life — he breathed his last on July 26, 1875 — he authored what is believed to be his final editorial for what was then known as The Galveston News. It read like an epitaph.

“A generation has almost passed since the senior proprietor of The Galveston News entered upon that which has been his life’s work — the management of an honest, an upright, a truthful journal,” he wrote, and astute readers could all but hear a bell toll. “In reviewing that life’s work as written in the files of this journal, he is proud to aver that he has always battled for the right, been the foeman of corruption in high places and the uncompromising advocate of the material advancement of the people of Texas.”

IV. War’s arrival

His pages validated Richardson’s claim of personal advocacy for the people of Texas, with one glaring exception: He held at least one slave and ardently opposed abolition.

Galveston, as a port, had begun to profit greatly — as, by extension, so did Richardson — from shipping commodities, among them cotton, with Texas by the middle of the 19th century a major producer of the plant.

The work involved in growing the labor-intensive crop — the planting and chopping and picking of cotton from its bolls — often was performed by slaves, a large factor in its profitability.

Less explicable is why Richardson held a slave, a man named Monroe, whom the publisher employed in driving a horse that, by means of a treadmill, powered the paper’s newfangled Hoe cylinder press, acquired in 1855.

Then, five years later, the war arrived.

Richardson, although an anti-abolitionist, was a pragmatist, and in the pages of The News he urged his readers to eschew secession. Yet, Texans in a statewide referendum voted to join the ill-fated Confederacy, whose April 1861 assault on the Union’s Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, ignited the Civil War.

Early the following year, Union ships blockaded the island.

Received wisdom held that should federal forces attack, the Confederacy would be able to do little if anything to protect the island, and so Gov. Francis Lubbock ordered all civilians to evacuate the island, a call Richardson heeded, loading onto rail cars his press and other essentials and moving The News to Houston.

One islander, however, Ferdinand Flake, defied the order, staying behind and publishing Flake’s Bulletin, while also serving as a correspondent for The News as the war ground on. He already had proved generous as catastrophe befell The News when a fire destroyed the uninsured paper’s new offices shortly after Richardson arrived in the bayou city.

Flake provided furniture, and other would-be rivals, including Edward Cushing, the editor of the Houston Telegraph, and Stuart, of the Civilian, similarly helped out, Stuart sparing a hand press, and Cushing contributing the paper on which to print The News.

Flake later provided reams of copy to The News during the Jan. 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston, one of the Confederates’ last successful skirmishes.

By then, the war had begun turning against the rebels, and for the most part telegraph lines west of the Mississippi River had been severed.

Richardson soon ruefully had to acknowledge that news appearing in his paper today typically had appeared in the Telegraph yesterday.

Only reader loyalty among the island’s evacuees sustained his sheet.

Supplies, too, became increasingly hard to come by. The Union blockade curtailed deliveries by water other than by the rare successful blockade runner; some newsprint arrived from Mexico, although not much, and the paper’s pressmen learned to wet wrapping paper the night before the press run, and hope for the best.

By then, the paper — little more than a two-sided handbill run off on the loaned letter press — appeared three times a week at best, and Richardson came to swap copies for food as hyperinflation gutted the value of the Confederacy’s legal tender.

Yet, thirst for any news as to how the fighting was going eventually drove circulation. By late February 1865, thanks in large part to The Telegraph’s establishment of a de facto pony express to bring and share war updates, The News began to appear six days a week, albeit still just a single sheet printed on both sides.

Yet, after the war ended that April and The News returned to the island, Richardson continued printing his paper six days a week as well as his prewar weekly for wider circulation and a triweekly as well. And, too, he revived the annual Texas Almanac, which The News had launched in 1857 and which briefly during the war had ceased publication.

The triweekly held on until 1877; the weekly until 1894. The Texas Almanac continues to this day.

V. A new partner

A 28-year-old former Confederate colonel named Alfred H. Belo — he had been with Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia at the headwaters of the Appomattox River on April 9, 1865, when the rebel military leader surrendered to the Union — soon found his way to Galveston, and Richardson, impressed with his bearing, invited him to join the paper.

Belo, born in Salem, N.C., had served with distinction in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, twice suffering severe injuries, first at Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863, and then on June 3, 1864, at Cold Harbor, in Hanover County, Va., where an artillery round shattered his left arm, permanently rendering it useless.

During the war, in addition to grit, Belo had demonstrated admirable administrative skills, which Richardson coveted, the war having fully taxed his managerial wherewithal and his publishing company’s accounts at the time in disarray.

Belo was hired on as a bookkeeper in late August 1865 for a trial period of six months for which Richardson agreed to pay him $500 in gold.

Within those six months, Belo had so thoroughly turned around the business operations — collecting debts and revamping the company’s accounting system — that Richardson offered to sell him an interest in the paper. Belo’s father, a North Carolina merchant still wealthy despite the ravages of the war, arranged for a loan, and so it was that Richardson, on March 1, 1866, six months after Belo’s arrival, named the former Confederate officer a junior partner in charge of the paper’s business office.

Two years later, with Richardson having determined that Belo possessed the mettle and expertise needed to ultimately succeed the publisher, appointed him a full partner in what then became known as Richardson, Belo & Co.

Texas had begun to rebound — largely due to Richardson’s ceaseless push for expanded rail service — and The News began to gain additional readership and advertising. By 1871, The News boasted the largest circulation of any Texas newspaper, and soon claimed more readers than all other dailies in the state combined.

Richardson had begun his railroad campaign on April 17, 1856, publishing on The News’ front page a map he had drawn up to illustrate where he envisioned tracks should be laid.

An adjoining article called for the state to invest in and operate the proposed network, something that the legislature dismissed out of hand, although Austin eventually did float a railroad bond plan, which voters approved by a handy margin.

As one result, a railroad bridge soon connected the mainland to the island, bringing the Galveston, Houston & Henderson Railroad into the county seat.

Richardson continued his push by urging that any railroad running from coast to coast — it was at the time a matter of great discussion throughout the nation — reach and then traverse Texas.

“The great value of this road to Texas induces us to notice some of the manifest advantages over all others proposed to be extended to the Pacific coast region,” he wrote in The News. “The more northern routes pass through barren and uninhabited regions, while this passes through regions partially settled and often inviting dense settlement, on account of the extensive prairies or fine pasturage, rich valleys, and valuable minerals.”

His argument prevailed, and in 1883 The News — too late for Richardson to read it — ran a front-page article announcing that the Southern Pacific Railroad indeed would route its stretch of the transcontinental railroad through Texas.

Willard Richardson had died on July 26, 1875 — a passing that elicited laudatory editorials in papers large and small — and Belo, as planned, assumed command.

Richardson left the paper’s new chief with a robust staff and correspondents spread across the state. He had written in January 1872 that, “as the railroad extension of our state brings distant cities, towns and counties into proximity with Galveston, we shall extend our corps of reporters and correspondents.”

He made good on the promise by arranging for the state’s postmasters and telegraph operators to serve as correspondents. For good measure, he added a New York correspondent to the payroll.

VI. A change of command

Editorially, the imperially bearded Belo, who carried himself with a military officer’s starched posture, hewed to Richardson’s philosophy while solidifying the company, which in 1881 he refashioned as A.H. Belo & Co.

To mark the occasion, Belo had a sign mounted above the center column on the face of the paper’s offices at 2217 Market Street that read: “The Galveston News, Established 1842, Incorporated 1881.”

Belo had included in the incorporation charter a clause allowing for the company to establish a paper in rapidly growing Dallas.

So it was that on Oct. 1, 1885, the first issue of the Dallas News — today’s Dallas Morning News, which also dates its lineage to April 11, 1842, conflating its far shorter history with that of The Daily News — rolled off the presses. By 1890, the north Texas municipality’s population for the first time topped Galveston’s, making it then the state’s largest city.

Belo on Oct. 12, 1874, had hired an English-born 15-year-old named George Bannerman Dealey. The former colonel had asked the boy what experience he had; Dealey responded that in addition to pumping his church organ, he was employed in pulling a string that put in motion streamers to shoo flies inside the Fifth Avenue Hotel’s dining room, leading Belo to deem him sufficiently versatile for newspaper work and brought him on as an office boy.

Dealey proved a quick study, and 11 years later was assigned to the Dallas paper.

After Belo’s death in 1901, Dealey assumed full editorial control.

He would go on to stridently oppose the Ku Klux Klan, which by the early 1920s had established a stronghold in Dallas.

The Klan fought back, persuading advertisers, those sympathetic to the white supremacists, to cancel their paid promotions, and organizing boycotts against those business owners who persisted in hawking their wares and services in the Dallas News.

The paper’s revenue soon began to plummet even as The Galveston News, too, fell on hard times as readers and advertisers alike perceived it as having become too reliant on content provided by the then Dallas-based Belo company and no longer truly local. They abandoned it in droves.

By 1922, A.H. Belo & Co., now in the hands of the colonel’s daughter, Jeannette Belo Peabody, and his son’s widow, Helen Ponder Belo, and its reserves all but gone, received an unsolicited offer from Galveston businessman and financier W.L. Moody Jr. to buy the ailing Galveston paper.

The bid proved a godsend for both papers.

VII. A reluctant divestiture

On March 1, 1923, The News changed hands — the first time in the paper’s then nearly 81-year history that an outsider had come in and taken over — and the proceeds from the sale allowed the beleaguered Dallas News to survive its fight against the Klansmen.

Three years later, the paper had largely defeated the Klan, which Dealey at one point described in print as “a slander on Dallas.” Klan membership in Dallas fell from a high of some 13,000 in 1920 to 1,200 by the end of 1926, the year Dealey purchased A.H. Belo & Co. from its founder’s family.

The Belo family, not wishing to publicly concede the damage the Klan attacks had done to the company’s fortunes, had put a brave face on the 1923 sale, contending that they had turned down any number of previous offers for the Galveston paper.

“We were reluctant to think of parting with ownership of our original newspaper which is intertwined with the history of Texas and with which tender memories are associated, and we were firmly resolved that we would never permit it to pass to interests that could not be relied upon to maintain it in accordance with its honorable traditions or that would imperil the interests of the people of Galveston,” the Belo company said in a statement announcing the sale.

“We have listened to and accepted Mr. Moody’s offer to purchase because we believed that the conditions that we had imposed upon ourselves were met by him. As he said in his own statement, ‘It is our purpose to continue The News on the high standard of conservation, accuracy and impartiality so ably maintained in the past.’”

The sale was well-received on the island. Ad revenue picked up, as did circulation, and The News soon returned to profitability.

In October 1926, Moody formed The Galveston News Inc., after also purchasing the rival Tribune.

Moody, who was born in Fairfield in January 1865, had gone on to make his fortune in banking and insurance.

By 1907, he had opened City National Bank, later known as Moody National Bank, and had a hand in establishing the American National Insurance Company, of which he took full ownership in 1908.

Before Moody’s purchase of The News, the paper had begun to place more importance on sports, social goings-on, literature and other coverage considered innovative at the time. The additions were well received.

In 1904, the Sunday edition included color comics.

The News, after a period of retrenchment brought on by its pre-Moody slump, soon expanded coverage of mainland Galveston County with particular emphasis on Texas City, which grew as World War II spurred demand for products from its refineries and chemical companies, the industries that had come to define it.

VIII. Arriving at the present

The Daily News, as it eventually had come to be known, in 1963 again changed hands when the Hobby family, the owners of the Houston Post, purchased it and its affiliated publications.

Oveta Hobby, former Gov. William Hobby’s widow, oversaw The Daily News and commissioned the design and construction of new offices, at 8522 Teichman Road, where it continues to operate.

Yet, the Hobby family’s ownership, marred by in-house decisions poorly received by Daily News readers, was short-lived. They had killed off the Tribune; had moved The Daily News to afternoon distribution, while reducing its publication from seven days a week to six; and had promoted their Post as the morning read — none of which went over well with subscribers.

So it was that the paper was ripe for purchase.

Georgia-born B. Carmage Walls — who, armed with less than a high school education but with a remarkable eye for undervalued newspapers, had founded and built Southern Newspapers Inc. — purchased The Daily News in 1967 and immediately returned it to morning circulation, seven days a week.

The paper became known as The Galveston County Daily News on Nov. 1, 1993, and two years later, on Christmas Day, 1995, made its online debut, one of the first newspapers in Texas to provide both print and digital editions.

Walls’ career stands as an exemplum of the earnest pursuit of the American dream. Born in 1908 on a cotton farm outside the dirt-poor, south-central Georgia town of Cordele, he was one of 11 siblings.

His newspapering career began inauspiciously and by happenstance. One day when he was 15, a decade after his father had moved the family to Orlando, Fla., he happened to accompany his cousin to the latter’s job stuffing inserts into that city’s Sentinel newspaper. A mailroom supervisor, seeing Walls standing idly by, offered him a job helping with the inserts.

Walls, armed with the small paycheck that that modest labor provided him, decided to quit his studies.

A quick learner and good with numbers, Walls rose in the Sentinel’s ranks, becoming head bookkeeper in 1931 when he was 24 — and he quickly got the paper’s accounts receivable caught up. Three years later, he became the paper’s business manager and earned the attention of Charles Marsh, an Austin-based entrepreneur with interests in a number of papers, including the Sentinel, under the umbrella of his General Newspapers Inc.

Marsh in 1940 bought a controlling interest in the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph-News and named Walls general manager. Five years later, he promoted Walls to the General Newspapers presidency.

Walls later founded his own company, Southern Newspapers Inc., through which the high school dropout became a multimillionaire; the fortune he eventually amassed placed him on Forbes magazine’s 1984 list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

One of Walls’ acquisitions was the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, which the former owner agreed to sell only if Walls also agreed to become its publisher.

Walls did so, and during his tenure counted among his friends Texas-born President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a supporter of civil rights — and among his foes Alabama’s strident segregationist governor, George Wallace, against whose racist policies Walls fought on the Advertiser’s editorial pages.

In 1967, Walls sold the Advertiser and bought The Galveston Daily News, for which he created Galveston Newspapers Inc., a stand-alone corporation, and moved to Clear Lake. He died in 1998. Fourteen years later, he was inducted into the Texas Newspapers Hall of Fame.

After Walls’ death, his wife of 44 years, the former Martha Ann Williams, better known as Molly, took the corporate reins, which she held until her death in 2014.

Today, their daughter, Lissa Walls, is Southern Newspapers’ chief executive and the sole shareholder of both Southern Newspapers and Galveston Newspapers, which today publishes the award-winning magazine Coast Monthly, in addition to The Galveston County Daily News, continuing a 175-year tradition, now both online and on paper.

Dolph Tillotson, president of Southern and a longtime publisher of The Daily News, credited Walls’ leadership for the paper’s success.

“These are difficult days for many newspaper companies, but through Lissa’s leadership we’ve kept our focus on quality content and innovation in print,” Tillotson said.

“To me, her leadership is the reason our performance is far better than average among our peers.”

Molly Walls, in 2008, predicted both editions would remain indispensable.

“I don’t think the print product will go away because, well, I just think that people like to have something in their hands that’s black and white, and they can read it and reread it and maybe say a few cuss words and write a letter to the editor,” she said for a 2008 Texas Newspaper Oral History. “I think that it’s the solidity of the newspaper, to have and hold, that will keep it alive.”

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