News(paper) in the cloud

I think it’s possible today to run a news organization — up to the point of publishing — from the cloud, changing not only the production process of news but also its culture. John Paton, CEO of Journal Register, is about to prove it with his Ben Franklin Project.

John and I were sitting in my CUNY office as he told me about the technology he’s saddled with at this orphaned newspaper company where he just took the helm. He used a term I swear I hadn’t heard in well more than a decade: “VDT.” That stand for “video display terminal,” the old, dumb box that was wired into newspaper mainframes. I was talking with a bunch of young journalists shortly afterwards and they’d never heard of VDTs (though they thought it could be cured with a shot). Well, Paton still has VDTs.

And so, as he was talking about having to buy new computers, I took to the whiteboard and drew out how I think a news(paper) can be produced from WordPress, Google Docs, and Flickr (or their equivalents). We’ll get to the other functions shortly.

This up-in-the-air production is made possible by Paton’s edict at JRC (as he dictated at ImpreMedia before) that digital comes first, print last. If print comes first, newspaper people will worry about H&J (hyphenation & justification — that is, fitting text to finite holes in print designs). That dictated their process.

But not JRC. By putting print at the end of the line, production for paper won’t dictate the rest of the line. So now a reporter can start blogging at the beginning of a story. And that makes a profound shift in the culture of news: it opens up the process to the public. “Here’s what I think I’ll work on,” the reporter says to the community she covers. “Good idea? Is there something else you think I should do instead? What’s the best use of my time? What do you want me to find out for you? If I do this story, what questions do you have? What do you know? Whom should I call?” As the process continues, the reporter can share what she learns — and doesn’t learn — and the community can help fill in blanks and make the reporting better.

At some point in this process, the reporter likely will write what we’d still recognize as an article. Indeed, writing it before publication opens the possibility of the community still helping by correcting and enhancing.

Then a print editor can grab the story and fit it for print. No longer a big deal.

At the same time, the reporter and editor can ask the community for photos to illustrate the story. They can be shared via Flickr. When it’s time to print, an editor can copy the high-resolution version of an image. If the photographer chooses, he can make the photo available under Creative Commons. If the paper chooses to (as Bild does in Germany), it can pay. That’s up to them. The taking of photos can become competitive: a reader says “I can beat that.”

There are still bureaucratic details that must be handled: schedules of stories, who’s working on what, and so on. Google Docs is perfect for that. My CUNY colleague Jeremy Caplan showed our faculty how much more Docs can do: enabling reporters to, for example, graph data and create their own illustrations. Docs can be used to publish documents to the web.

From these three streams, content can come to a print editor — who is now, remember, at the end of the line — to fill the paper (which my friend and fellow JRC advisor Jay Rosen points out, is the most expensive space). The readers can even help the editor decide what deserves ink.

Note the profound cultural shift this new process brings to a news organization. Rather than doing everything we do and then sharing it with the public — and allowing them to comment on (or snark at) our work — we become transparent, we view news as a process instead of a product, and we open up our process to constructive collaboration with the community we serve. Hallelujah.

The rest of the process of publishing a newspaper is more complicated — at least to me, as I don’t know the tools. I’m not sure all that can be done with free tools but I’ll bet it can all be done in the cloud. At a event last week, I talked with an exec who said that his service can be used to handle ad order entry. Other systems can handle business tracking, payroll, H&R, and such. I don’t think JRC needs to be dogmatic about living in the cloud but I do think it can avoid huge expense of buying and integrating new systems and hardware.

All this is why I’m delighting in advising JRC and Paton. They are going to try to do the things I’ve been wanting to see news(papers) do — I’ve been writing about this since at least 2005 — the things that tradition and fear prevented other papers from doing. They’re not alone. (which I also advised) is entirely on Movable Type. Online news organizations, of course, operate on blogs. But here’s the chance to jump a newspaper company from the past — from the age of VDTs and discs — to the future. I can’t wait to watch and help.

  • Great article. Step by step we’re starting to piece together the ‘new’ newspaper. This model reminds me of the middle-eastern online news organisation Elaph that has an incredibly inventive production structure, which began as a counter to regional censorship, and ended up with a truly international shape and extremely low overheads.

    One note, business tracking and payroll etc can be handled by Replicon (I’ve no affiliation to it, just a regular user) which keeps everything in professional order without ever touching paper.

  • JRC employee

    It is obvious Mr. Jarvis has not been to a JRC newspaper to see for himself the conditions JRC employees must work under. Our computers our 13 years old while we are operating on an obsolete system (when was the last time you put out a paper using Windows 98). Before you tell JRC not to by new equipment, go take a look at the challenge facing the employees every day working with these antiquated machines.

  • Matthew Terenzio

    This is one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen from a newspaper company in over a decade.

    It’s definitely going to be a challenge to change the culture at any company but the fact that Paton understands what cultural changes need to be made is a huge, huge step in the right direction.

    I’ve also worked with some of the web developers they currently have and I’m telling everyone to watch this company.

  • Shawn Petriw

    “WordPress, Google Docs, and Flickr”

    Great use for that iPad you returned, Jeff.

    • Lora H.

      My thoughts exactly.

  • Marc Matteo

    I’m curious, wouldn’t it make more sense to have professional photographers shoot the pictures and then simply crowdsource the text? This way a quality visual site can be developed (and print product created) while readers can compete to see who has the most interesting text… like a game!

    Perhaps the Demand Media algorithms can be licensed… then even fewer editors would be necessary.

    It sounds fun!

    • If it would be better to have photographers take photos, would it not stand to reason professional writers would do better with the copy? While we need to involve the community in the process, not everybody can write a clear story. Most pro journalists, like photographers, have spent years in the workforce and in training. Read any blog, then compare it to a story written by somebody in the newsroom. There is a huge difference. While I may spend a lot of time at Home Depot, that doesn’ mean I can put a new roof on my house.

  • I’m a science teacher and I think this type of method would be awesome for allowing people like myself (non-journalist) to be able to add to the publishing process. This would be awesome if a publication tried this model out. The news that would get reported would be what the people want not what the media wants us to have. Interesting insight.

  • Sounds interesting and fun. My concern is how to pull it off time wise. Still, any way to change the culture and infuse new ideas should be jumped on by all those in the publishing industry

  • Inky wretch

    I was working in the online unit of a major weekly newsmagazine and, all of five years ago, pushed as hard as I could to have the web-first/paper-later approach adopted. Well, at presentation after presentation, everyone nodded, acknowledged that the times were changing and muttered vapid truisms about the need to be “agents of change” or “embrace tech” or, well, you get the idea.

    The end result, and I know it was replicated at many other publications, was that the ink-and-paper diehards decided that they had better control the Web operation. Back-stabbing and knifings became the order of the day as the magazine’s editors made their plays for control of the web’s daily operations and the right to shape the direction they wanted it to head.

    In some respects these people were actually quite smart. They realized the web was the future and that their careers depended on hitching a ride. The flaw in their thinking was that it did not go far enough. Without exception the inky wretches insisted on attempting to make the web operation a new variant of their tired, old mag.

    They thought in terms of traffic — ie., that it was the online equivalent of circulation, and they boosted those figures with sleight of hand slideshows and the most cynical use of SEO. Google the terms “nike” + “big butt” and you will find an entry that was held up to all producers as an example of what the new, online journalism was all about. The fact that we were pulling volumes of porn surfers worried nobody in a position of power; indeed, the mag editor kept issuing officewide hero-grams about the stellar traffic gains our site was making.

    The result was disaster. As the mag’s circulation descended a Himalayan gradient, the web operation lost its core audience, which was replaced by blow-in surfers who arrived via Yahoo and AOL to look at the latest “wealth porn” slideshow. Meanwhile the bosses were heading up to the executive floor, where they buried the CEO etc with buzzwords and BS. Sure, they talked “engagement” and “reader conversations” and “online community”, but what they really meant was nothing more nor less than the old, arrogant business model: We decide what you read and what you talk about.

    The magazine has since been sold for a knock-down price and, even in the care of its new deep-pockets owner, its future is moot.

    This journalism thing of ours will survive and prosper as the new business models and editorial regimes kick in. That said, it breaks your heart to see the missteps along the way.

    • Add your name and the name of the magazine and I would send this out on my Twitter feed. You’d have a few hundred more readers. Although I can’t see how it could be any title other than BusinessWeek.

      • Inky wretch

        Jay, you’re a clairvoyant as well as a twitterer, I see.

        I’ve moved on from those terrible days, when I’d wake up in the middle of the night, grinding my teeth and wondering why? how? so many senior, well-paid people could be so stupid.

        Now Murdoch is doing the same thing, prefering to view a piece of 21st century technology as the salvation of a 19th century business model. Carriage makers made the same mistake when they designed the first automobiles to resemble horse-drawn vehicles. Then Henry Ford came along and ate their lunch. Rupert believes content is king, but that’s not the case. It’s distribution — and redirecting commissions from news vendors to Steve Jobs won’t cure anything.

        I’m now involved in a startup — still a bit hush-hush — to be run very much along the lines that Jeff described above. We’re almost there, and pretty soon it will be coming to a town near you.

        If you like, jay, I’ll drop you a line at NYU. I think you will be most impressed.

    • Very well put “Inky”. The television networks are no better, as they too dictate the same “We decide what you read and what you talk about” sense of arrogance that is killing their business as “they” know it.

      When you saw “the bosses were heading up to the executive floor” you should have locked the door from the outside and started a grass roots mag online.

      Good luck…

      • ChrisPineo


        I am a multi-media reporter, with decent experience, and some good clips. Let’s say I wanted to get in touch with you: Is this start-up hiring upstarts?

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  • Great post!

    In fact because the content has been vetted by the market, 2 things can happen:

    a) it is interesting enough that people will pay for it (or someone who has contributed to the process will make them pay for it)

    b) publisher knows the target readership in great detail – hence higher ad rates

    Additionally, this is not something that will take a ton of time to take off. The key though will be in managing the community expectations.

  • Even though print is second, it has to happen, so: while we are on the “no strings to old technology” theme (and reinvisioning front-ends for CMS), how about ditching expensive pagination and Adobe’s print tools and trying to use open-source DTP for layout. Scribus is just as easy to use as InDesign, has professionally suitable PDF output, and can be scripted with a bit of Python to glue to web tools like wordpress using XML-RPC. Inkscape works well for illustration, and gimp is (well, just) okay.

  • The taking of photos can become competitive: a reader says “I can beat that.” ”

    That also can make the newspaper ( at this point we should find something else to call it) always changing.
    The news begins with the first photos and then we get better and better…
    This IS globalization.
    A newspaper written in the cloud, things which are accessible from China to Europe to America…and of course the Internet plays the part of the King.

    How could we call it?

    iNews, or weNews, or cloudNews, broadbandnews, WDFnews
    Write, read now and never pay? Be part of the news?

    This is a big step in the future of news, may be the only possible bail out for newspaper.
    Remember? Everything has to change, so that everything is always the same…
    This is the Internet generation, the end to end network.
    Not a centralized power or centralized news, but an end to end news…

    Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

  • Waldo

    A couple of things I’d disagree with in what is an otherwise okay post:

    In my experience, reporters certainly don’t worry about the H&Js. If they did it would make the lives of sub-editors much easier. Most reporters will give you War and Peace if you let them.

    Don’t fall into the trap of thinking because online is “unlimited” there’s no word limit and no need for editing. A long, badly composed ramble that never gets to the point (a bit like this response) is a disservice to your time-poor readers.

    And while the idea of asking your readers what you should work on is all warm and fuzzy in a kumbaya kind of way, I can only see it working on non-trivial stories. Asking “the gang” what they know about the local mayor’s use of a slush fund to finance his habit for working girls might not be the best move.

    Still, the digital first, print (or mobile app) second mantra is one I think would work for a lot of publications.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Asking “the gang” what they know about the local mayor’s use of a slush fund to finance his habit for working girls might not be the best move.

      Why not? (If you think that you’re in danger until you go public, going public earlier protects you earlier.)

      • Tex Lovera

        Libel, anyone?

      • Andy Freeman

        It’s not libel (or slander) to ask if the Mayor has a slush fund or visits prostitutes.

        Of course, I am assuming that the reporter hasn’t decided on the conclusion before gathering information.

        And, if you start with “does anyone in the local city govt misuse public funds?”, there isn’t even an offendable party.

      • Waz (no, not that Waz)

        Tex is right – libel.

        Whether it’s libellous or not is up to a court to decide.

        There’s also the small matter of scuppering your investigation by giving the mayor a heads up and time to cover his tracks etc.

      • Tex Lovera

        I’m not a lawyer (which is probably obvious), so I can’t answer whether or not asking such questions is definitely libelous.

        But what happens when you get answers like “You bet! He’s screwin’ his maid!” Who takes the fall for that?

        I guess I come at this with a particular prejudice for avoiding lawyers, courts, judges, etc….

      • Andy Freeman

        It can’t be libel – the mayor is a public figure. It’s almost impossible for a public figure in the US to win a libel suit. (The de jure standard is malicious disregard for the truth, which is beyond lying. The de facto standard is even harder to satisfy.)

        Even filing a lawsuit over a journalist asking “does the mayor have a slush fund?” or “does the mayor visit prostitutes?” is pretty much the definition of frivolous, which results in sanctions against both the mayor and any lawyer silly enough to help him file.

  • robin

    sounds like mr. paton is trying to replicate this experiment:

    apparently the code for this has been open-sourced, maybe jrc has the coding chops to pick it up as one tool would be easier to manage as several different organizations implement this vision.

    best of luck to them!

  • Nick

    By starting the digital process first, and posting stories online immediately, the print editors/designers can use the pageviews and comments as a gauge on which articles are most read, and therefore, which ones may be most likely to be read in the print version.

    Basically, if an article isn’t read or commented on, it may not be needed or doesn’t justify print publishing. Sort of like American Idol for news.

  • James

    “The taking of photos can become competitive: a reader says ‘I can beat that.'”

    The same thing can be said of a blog vs a newspaper.

    You can’t be so dismissive of the importance of professional photographers in news media while at the same time trying to justify the need for newspapers, journalists, and editors versus bloggers.

    Bloggers are to newspaper journalists what Flickr Creative Commons is to photojournalists.

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  • Tom

    These are great observations, Jeff.

    Not only would this save a news organization money of production costs, it would also probably allow more resources to be put toward news gathering, which would also benefit the consumer.

  • Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose, and it’s something that must be considered in a model like this.

    Go to any NYTimes article online and read through some of the hundreds of comments – everything from “Obama’s a Kenyan, Muslim socialist” to “those damn [Republicans | Democrats] are destroying America.” I certainly wouldn’t want to be a reporter chasing stories based on input from that crowd.

    Tell me how to weed out the actual contributors from the scandal-gawkers, conspiracy-lovers and attention-seekers, and then I’ll believe that the entire newspaper can be run in the cloud. Otherwise, you need a base of primary-source reporters with the tools, assets, and access to do investigative reporting to kick the process off. Once the information is out there, the cloud can enrich it (as it’s proven time & time again…)

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  • Scott Gaulin


    I agree with James and Marc. Newspaper photographers are just as skilled if not more so then our reporter counter parts. Most photojournalists I know spend years honing their craft and hours working with subjects and going the extra mile to get that great shot. I love how every model for the future of journalism or cost cutting of current newspapers begins with cutting photography. The web is a highly visual medium which most newspaper photographers are uniquely poised to leverage. Most have made the transition long ago to the web world and have been on the forefront of pushing web news to new heights. Remember photographers were the first to embrace web video, slideshows, audio and multimedia. without these things there would be no web news.

    • Inky wretch

      True, what you say about snappers generally taking better pics. But consider this: Suppose instead of one fotog’s images, you had scores of images to choose from? Godd chance, I’d reckon, that some of those would be even better than those of a pro lensman.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Most photojournalists I know spend years honing their craft and hours working with subjects and going the extra mile to get that great shot.

      The problem is that news often happens when there’s no photojournalist around. However, its becoming increasingly common for news to happen around non-professionals who just happen to have a camera.

      • Viktoria Sundqvist

        And do the readers really care whether it’s an award-winning photo, or is it more important just to show SOME photos to say “we were there”?

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  • Paul Bradshaw

    This is not dissimilar to my Model for a 21st Century Newsroom ( – but in that I argue it should be digital first – and last. Print (and broadcast) are great at a pseudo-definitive snapshot of a story – but the build up before that & the interactivity & interrogation after both suit the web well.

  • Andreas

    When the reporter tells everybody, what story he is doing – why won’t the newspaper next door just read his blog and take the story for their print issue, using the manpower of their opponent and saving a lot of money?

    • Viktoria Sundqvist

      I guess it doesn’t matter if they do – those who read the reporter’s blog will know who had the story first. And I guess it should be seen as flattering if another organization/journalist also found what you were working on to be some important they have to copy you.

      The news industry is changing – fast – and it is no longer about holding on to a story so the competition won’t steal it. If you get it out there first, you were FIRST. It’s all that matters.

      And if the reporter gets lots of good input from readers, chances are his/her story will be better than the competition’s because they didn’t bother to ask the right people the right questions.

  • Tex Lovera

    I like the idea of the news(paper) process becoming more interactive and transparent. I’d like to see a viable model of this succeed. But the major problems that I see must be addressed include:

    1) How do you cut through the noise of the crowd? For some subjects on narrow topics, this will probably be easier; but for popular (especially controversial) topics, as Groucho said, “Who do you trust?” That could be a tough learning curve to chew through.
    2) Along with 1, how do you protect the newspaper from libel over comments/information posted in these dicussions? Do we need to revisit these laws? That seems like a biggie to me.
    3) I agree that there will still be a need for staff photographers; sometimes the crowd can take great pictures, or even reasonable pictures of critical things, but not always. Perhaps it’s up to the consumer to decide just how “good” the product needs to be; hell, look at the quality on youtube, but people watch it.
    4) Even with reasonable contributions from readers, staff writers & editors will still be needed to consolidate these contributions into a unified theme/voice.

    Just my dos centavos…

  • Hey Jeff
    we’ve been running 3 hyperlocal TV news operations from ‘the cloud’ for more than a year now. No office and all off the shelf software. Its the combo of FCP7 and iChat that makes it possible. Not so hard to do if you’re prepared to start frm scratch and throw everything out.

    • Tex Lovera

      Can you link to your web site? It would be interesting to check out.

  • Rafael Cavenaghi

    Hello Jeff Jarvis. My name is Rafael Cavenaghi, I’m 20, I am Clerk of the Senate of Brazil, I’m from Brasilia – DF, Brazil.
    I write to tell you what I just read your book: What Would Google do?
    Two days ago actually and really enjoyed it. Mainly from the Google Cola.
    And how many jobs have you had huh … boy, he worked in various places, I’m sure his wife gave him an earful when you met your ex girlfriend huh? Congratulations on the book, liked it, I’m showing it to friends, acquaintances and work colleagues and the faculty.
    Hug’s Rafael Cavenaghi.

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  • Vill Robinson

    Great vision Jeff, but as a veteran of decades in the daily news business you still have to address the rather significant hurdle that most newspaper editorial executives do not WANT their process to be transparent. Look at how little interaction there is with their readers now, even in the age of online comments, Twitter feeds and “citizen journalism.” Daily newspaper reporters rarely engage their commenters (the cogent ones, that is) in the comment thread and you can count on one hand the number of daily papers that still employ an ombudsman (the budget excuse is a sham). Newspapers pretty much still only offer the online equivalent of letters to the editor; they don’t really want the public to know what goes on inside the newsroom unless it’s carefully filtered and vetted.

    The idea of making the process transparent makes eminent sense. Good luck getting the average editor or publisher (especially the latter) to go along with it.

  • Waz (no, not that Waz)


    You make the same mistake Jeff often does in assuming that the world ends at the borders of the United States, or that the world is some form of USA clone. It doesn’t and it isn’t. Some of us live in countries with different legal systems where people – even public figures – can and do sue for libel, so publishing statements that you can’t substantiate can land you in court (quite rightly, in my opinion).

    But the legal issue is a sideshow. The real issue is: why ruin a good story by tipping off (a) your subject and (b) your competition just so you can feel all warm and fuzzy that you crowd sourced with the gang?

    Maybe for the local crochet society newsletter, but not real, actual journalism.

    • Andy Freeman

      > You make the same mistake Jeff often does in assuming that the world ends at the borders of the United States, or that the world is some form of USA clone.

      Interestingly enough, a comparable comment applies to folks who invoked libel, yet ….

      However, I’m interested in the assumption that the fact that some not-US paper can’t do something implies that a US paper shouldn’t/can’t do it as well.

      > real issue is: why ruin a good story by tipping off (a) your subject and (b) your competition

      You’re assuming that you have a story and are just looking for some finishing polish.

      As to “tip off”, I thought that you folks claimed that you were always on the job. Do you really want to admit that you’re only looking for the mayor’s slush fund occasionally?

      The more you folks talk about your process and behavior, the less good you look.

  • Jeff, if I would invite you and the community to develop such a platform (I call it news3.0) in a public process (open innovation, crowdsourcing, agile development, iterative approach with community input) what would your answer be? – I strongly believe that the time of news portals will end and that news will become social – but still journalists are needed to ensure quality.

    More here: “How Social Will Shape the News Landscape Tomorrow” –

    Would be nice to connect.

    – Yours, Steffen

  • ex jrc

    The JRC has little choice but to turn to, I presume, cloud-based services to host its applications, production, and create a real estate-less environment.

    The JRC’s legacy has been to strip its newspapers of much of their editorial staff so in that light, the cynic in me says that this is just more of same cost cutting.

    But, seriously, are we suppose to be impressed — at this point — with JRC’s new management or its decision to move to the cloud?

    This is not new stuff.

    The City of LA is moving 30,000 of employees, including the LAPD, to Google Apps. Many universities have done similarly, and Microsoft is on the verge of completing its Cloud offerings with Office 2010 next month.

    Many new companies today operate virutally and in the cloud.

    The tools, the technology and the processes for doing so are well established and improving by the day. The JRC has plenty of technology roadmaps to follow.

    The problem with the JRC is more fundamental.

    The JRC turned its newsrooms into the worse possible places to work. It has operated a churn-and-burn operation of first rank.

    I wish the JRC and its new managers luck and want to see newspaper jobs survive. I also think moving to a virtual environment and stripping out as much production cost is absolutely necessary. There is absolutely no reason why editorial can’t be standardized on Google Apps. Its document collaboration tools are really astonishing.

    If the JRC can move to a cloud environment and ALSO put a high value on its employees, then I’ll be among the first to applaud it.

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  • Ranko

    How about a publishing / layout system in the cloud. There was a local TV story on it recently that is fully content based on the cloud. You can see it (in Croatian): but there are mentions of links and screens in the video that might be of interest.

  • Ranko

    Edit on myself: this looks to be the link to the software mentioned with content in English.

  • Dean William Bartlett

    I’ll be very interested to see how this works out. I have a strong feeling that the newspaper and magazine industry will not survive to see 2020 or will look nothing like we know today. When I see that a great publication like “The Graphic Arts Monthly” has closed! Both their magazine and discontinuing their web site as of April 30 – I have to wonder when a publication for the print industry can’t survive then what chance does the rest of the print industry have, cloud or no cloud.

  • Right on. As a 41-year newspaper veteran I have become a huge believer in what the community can bring to a publishing business. In my last three years at The Hartford Courant I was an investigative consumer columnist. I depended almost totally on tips and complaints from readers. Together we had a profound impact on business and government. I now have my own consumer web site – and have partnered with the JRC in Connecticut. They have been wonderful to work with. I produce a weekly newspaper column for their papers for free and I carry all their Ct RSS feeds on my local news pages. In return, the JRC papers use my RSS feeds, sending their readers to me. It has worked well for me and I hope well for the JRC.
    One observation that I would like to make, is that for community involvement to produce great publishing models, you need outstanding and experienced editors and reporters at the center of it who have made enough mistakes and have good instincts to know who is legit and who is not. That to me is the critical piece. If you have inexperienced editors and reporters running the show your product will lack the credibility and sophistication that is needed for people to pay for your news.
    The Wall Street Journal can charge a lot of money for its products because it has incredibly smart, ethical, and knowledgeable editors and reporters who produce stories and information that make their work worth every penny.
    George Gombossy

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