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September 10, 2013

Future of journalism

I’m at a Riptide forum at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the “digital disruption of the news.” The place is packed. Digital Riptide consists of 60 interviews. The panel discussion is with Tim Armstrong, AOL; Caroline Little, Newspaper Association of America; Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The New York Times. It’s moderated by Martin Nisenholtz.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[I came in a few minutes late…]

Caroline Little: Audiences aren’t the problem. They’re growing. Revenue is the challenge.

Arthur Sulzberg: “We’re losing our first teeth and growing our new teeth. It’s painful. But what’s coming will be bigger” in reach and impact.

Q [Martin Nisenholtz]: Tim, you paid $315M for The Huffington Post. Jeff Bezos paid $250M for The Washington Post. Did Bezos get a better deal than you?

Tim Armstrong: No, Huffpo is worth more than people thought. It’s gone from 0 to 100M video views, for example. It’s got 100% digital DNA. I once owned a Boston newspaper, but saw Mosaic at MIT and knew I had to get out of that business. “I think I got a great deal with Huffpo and I think Jeff got a good deal on the WaPo, depending on what he does with it.”

Q: Caroline, you ran the WaPo digital division. Was it inevitable that they’d sell to Bezos or could they have done someting to change that future?

CL: It wasn’t inevitable. Now newspapers really have to understand their audiences. Taking it private will remove some pressure. The Grahams were trying to put the WaPo in the best possible place for the future, and that took courage.

Q: What is the nature of authority in a world where there are tens of thousands of verticalized publications on every conceivable topic?

AS: Authority is still about accuracy, breadth, calling out your own mistakes, and having experienced people on the ground, not parachuting them in. Few news organizations have bureaus around the world or even the country. The joy of the digital era is the speed and the reach, and the ability to take in points of view very quickly and bring them into a story line. It’s a remarkable opportunity. The downside is clear. Suddenly everyone is looking at the photo of the Boston bomber. Everyone knows it’s him. But it’s not. That kind of accuracy is critical. [I think AS thinks his characterization of authority bolsters the newspaper’s case, but I don’t think it does. I trust the specialized bloggers/sites on particular topics more than I trust the newspaper. E.g., I get far more in depth and more authoritative coverage of telecom policy from blogs and mailing lists than I do from the NYT. As for Reddit’s misidentification of the Boston bomber: Yes, it was a dreadful mistake. But it was done transparently in public and was immediately corrected. <cough>Judith Miller</cough>.]

Q: Tim, you were interviewed and spoke enthusiastically about Patch. Since then you’ve downsized it. What’s so hard about local journalism?

Tim: We rolled it out to 900 of the best GDP [I think] communities in the US. It was about the authoritative nature of local journalism. Patch’s expansion was rapid. This summer we realized there are 500 Patches that work, and 400 with traffic but we’re not part of that business model. Patch will continue to go one post-partnerships because there’s such an acute need for local info. We’ll probably do partnerships. AOL will own some, and traditional media companies will own some.

Caroline: 85% of all media coverage of stories starts with newspapers.

Q: There’s never been a large, truly international paper. What’s the model for going global with a US news brand?

AS: The International Herald Tribune is owned by the NYT. We’re re-branding it in October as the International NYT. This is just a step. We’re fixing things; e.g., we didn’t used to let you subscribe using Euro currency. But: I met with aa Chinese general. She began by talking in an angry way. We had just begun to charge for Web access, and every morning she’d go to the NYT site but it wouldn’t accept her credit card. We fixed it, but the point is that a Chinese general was going to the NYT site the first thing in the morning. What an opportunity!

Q: Young people don’t seem to be willing to pay for media on the Web. As they mature, will they be willing to pay to for a digital subscription to the NYT?

AS: More and more young people, and all people, are willing to pay for an experience they value on the Web. Thank you, Steve Jobs! But it’s not as if 14 yr olds were ever buying newspapers.

Q: Tim, you create some content, and you do deals to provide access to your audience. How do you decide what you’ll cover and what others will?

TA: Our theory is that people care about a limited amount of things. As they get older, they spend more time with things that matter. We want to be the most human-based company in terms of what people care about. E.g., we’re running TechCrunch Disrupt now. 3,000 people. Just about all the major figures in the tech space. This is an influencer space that we have a major major major amount of mindshare in. The second generation of our strategy is to build out massive content partnerships. And a giant B2B strategy; we service about 40K other publishers with video, ads and content-sharing. Our content theory: let’s invest in the most important areas of journalism and content, build B2B, and have relationships with people in the most important areas of their lives. HuffPo is an influencer. It’s a global info source. It’s a trusted brand. E.g., see our coverage of the selection of the new Pope.


Q: Will reporters inevitably have less time to research a story?

AS: The pace has certainly picked up. But we’re still engaged in long form journalism. E.g., Snowfall.

TA: 30-40% of the traffic is on mobiles. Mobile adds consumption, typically about 30%. This changes how news works: If you don’t have a brand like the NYT, you’ll mix low appeal with high appeal

CL: Newsrooms are smaller, but they’d send 15 people to cover the Olympics. Do you really need that? Many newspapers now are investing in longer-form reporting.

Q: What makes global journalism work? The size of the city?

CL: Trust and authenticity. People still trust newspapers.

Q: What do you look for in journalists’ skills?

AS: We didn’t focus fast enough on hiring engineers to build systems and tools.

Q: TV broadcasters are using time efficiently. E.g., Netflix released an entire series at once. How are you experimenting with how to bundle and release investigative reporting?

AS: We’re always experimenting. E.g., We printed Snowfall as a full section, but the experience on the Web was so immensely powerful because of the video, the sound, etc.

TA: We look at how you disrupt readers’ behavior. I always say you can’t beat ESPN Sports Center by being 5% better. You have to be 75% better. Also you need distribution partnerships; that disrupts when your content is released.

Q: [couldn’t hear]

TA: If you look at how people use phones and tablets, the fact is that the average TV is 22 mins of content and 8 mins of commercial. When you watch how people use content, you’ll see trusted brands and faster content. [I had trouble hearing this.] People want to be told what they want to see. The future will be very curated and disruptively time-based.

Q: How do you view social media? Does the capacity to share overcome the limitations of 140 characters?

CL: I think Twitter is like a caption to a photograph. If it’s engaging, you’ll go find more about it.

AS: Twitter is a powerful tool, both in and out.

TA: Twitter is best known for short content, but they’re going to be changing that.

CL: Twitter is great for sources.

AS: This isn’t new. People said you can’t trust what people would say over a telephone wire. Telegrams were thought by some to be the death of newspapers. Twitter is a tool that we’re all getting better and better at using.

Q: From Twitter: How do you choose your political angle?

TA: We have a news chooser that lets you customize the news. HuffPo started more with a political angle. Now there are lots of forums set up for people with different political views. But we [AOL? HuffPo?] have our own voice.

AS: The Net is bringing us back to the written word. Radio, TV, telephone all took us away from that. We’re learning that using any single method will fail.

Q: Tim, you said “not just everyone can be a journalist.” How about bloggers who steal content?

TA: Anyone can be a journalist if they want to be. But consumers are smart. They know who’s stealing information and who isn’t. What you see happening in the blogging community are people taking advantage of situations to be disruptive to gain audience. I would not undercut the ability of people building blogs on specific topics disrupting newspapers.

Q: 5B people may be coming on line in the next decades. How does that change the target audience for online journalism?

The possibilities of our growth and the value of the quality of the info we can provide are immense.

TA: As the developing world comes online, they’ll come online with higher bandwidth.

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February 20, 2013

How many birds are killed by cats? How many people subscribe to the Boston Globe online?

How many birds do domestic cats in the United States kill every year? You win if your answer is within an order of magnitude in either direction. However, you don’t actually win anything.

The answer comes from the journal Nature Communications as reported here

To reveal the answer, select the black box. (This assumes you don’t have black set as your selection color.)

“We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually.”

And now for extra credit, within an order of magnitude, how many people subscribe to the online version of the Boston Globe? Hint: It costs $3.99/week. Hint: Greater Boston’s population is about 4M. Hint: This quarter, online subscriptions rose 8%. (The answer comes from an article at BizOnline.)


By the way, I occasionally like to acknowledge that the “order of magnitude puzzle” was invented by my famous friend Paul English.


April 2, 2012

Times cuts down on free access

Why? Does the Times have research that shows that when someone is denied access to her eleventh NYT article, she’s going to cave in and buy a subscription for $195/year? Because my informal market research — I sat myself in an airless room, asked myself some questions, and rewarded myself with m&m’s — indicates that I will just get more annoyed at the NYTimes, and regret its insistence on losing its place in our culture.

PS: No, I don’t know how to save the newspaper industry.


December 23, 2011

[2b2k] Is HuffPo killing the news?

Mathew Ingram has a provocative post at Gigaom defending HuffingtonPost and its ilk from the charge that they over-aggregate news to the point of thievery. I’m not completely convinced by Mathew’s argument, but that’s because I’m not completely convinced by any argument about this.

It’s a very confusing issue if you think of it from the point of view of who owns what. So, take the best of cases, in which HuffPo aggregates from several sources and attributes the reportage appropriately. It’s important to take a best case since we’ll all agree that if HuffPo lifts an article en toto without attribution, it’s simple plagiarism. But that doesn’t tell us if the best cases are also plagiarisms. To make it juicier, assume that in one of these best cases, HuffPo relies heavily on one particular source article. It’s still not a slam dunk case of theft because in this example HuffPo is doing what we teach every school child to do: If you use a source, attribute it.

But, HuffPo isn’t a schoolchild. It’s a business. It’s making money from those aggregations. Ok, but we are fine in general with people selling works that aggregate and attribute. Non-fiction publishing houses that routinely sell books that have lots of footnotes are not thieves. And, as Mathew points out, HuffPo (in its best cases) is adding value to the sources it aggregates.

But, HuffPo’s policy even in its best case can enable it to serve as a substitute for the newspapers it’s aggregating. It thus may be harming the sources its using.

And here we get to what I think is the most important question. If you think about the issue in terms of theft, you’re thrown into a moral morass where the metaphors don’t work reliably. Worse, you may well mix in legal considerations that are not only hard to apply, but that we may not want to apply given the new-ness (itself arguable) of the situation.

But, I find that I am somewhat less conflicted about this if I think about it terms of what direction we’d like to nudge our world. For example, when it comes to copyright I find it helpful to keep in mind that a world full of music and musicians is better than a world in which music is rationed. When it comes to news aggregation, many of us will agree that a world in which news is aggregated and linked widely through the ecosystem is better than one in which you—yes, you, since a rule against HuffPo aggregating sources wouldn’t apply just to HuffPo— have to refrain from citing a source for fear that you’ll cross some arbitrary limit. We are a healthier society if we are aggregating, re-aggregating, contextualizing, re-using, evaluating, and linking to as many sources as we want.

Now, beginning by thinking where we want the world to be —which, by the way, is what this country’s Founders did when they put copyright into the Constitution in the first place: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”—is useful but limited, because to get the desired situation in which we can aggregate with abandon, we need the original journalistic sources to survive. If HuffPo and its ilk genuinely are substituting for newspapers economically, then it seems we can’t get to where we want without limiting the right to aggregate.

And that’s why I’m conflicted. I don’t believe that even if all rights to aggregate were removed (which no one is proposing), newspapers would bounce back. At this point, I’d guess that the Net generation is primarily interested in news mainly insofar as its woven together and woven into the larger fabric. Traditional reportage is becoming valued more as an ingredient than a finished product. It’s the aggregators—the HuffingtonPosts of the world, but also the millions of bloggers, tweeters and retweeters, Facebook likers and Google plus-ers, redditors and slashdotters, BoingBoings and Ars Technicas— who are spreading the news by adding value to it. News now only moves if we’re interested enough in it to pass it along. So, I don’t know how to solve journalism’s deep problems with its business models, but I can’t imagine that limiting the circulation of ideas will help, since in this case, the circulatory flow is what’s keeping the heart beating.


[A few minutes later] Mathew has also posted what reads like a companion piece, about how Amazon’s Kindle Singles are supporting journalism.


February 10, 2011

[2b2k] Jay Rosen on Huffington’s path to somewhere

Jay Rosen wonders if there’s any room in AOL’s buyout of HuffingtonPost for “ideological innovation.” He suggests a four-part policy for AOL’s media:

1. Pluralism. Many points of view.

2. Transparency. All contributors explain where they are coming from.

3. “The view from somewhere.” Media sites will be upfront about their general stand point.

4. “Non-negotiables.” Accuracy, fairness, a fact-checking form for every article, etc.

It may look like #1 and #3 conflict. But, as I understand Jay’s point, pluralism applies to AOL, while having a standpoint would apply to sites like HuffPo and to individual topical sub-sites within HuffPo. (Note that pluralism is very different from balance.)

I like this a lot (surprise surprise!), but I wonder about the right level at which to apply the pluralism criterion. If AOL and other media conglomerates follow Jay’s advice, we will have a bunch of pluralistic hens, with one large, ferociously dedicated Fox in the henhouse.

In any case, I hope AOL listens to Jay. And I hope HuffPo stays ideologically committed, stops running the stupid gossip and pin-up articles, and gets off Obama’s back. But that’s just me.


October 8, 2010

Knight News Challenge getting ready for proposals

From their press release:

Miami — The fifth year of the Knight News Challenge, a media innovation contest funded and run by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will open for entries on Oct 25, and for the first time will feature experimental categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability and Community.

“The use of new categories are an effort to harness and accelerate the entrepreneurial energy we are seeing in the field,” said John S. Bracken, Knight Foundation Director of Digital Media. “We have incorporated what we have learned over the first four years of the News Challenge to focus this year on four key issues.”

The Knight News Challenge seeks innovative techniques and technologies that advance the foundation’s goal of informing and engaging communities. In its first four years, $23 million has been awarded to 56 media innovators chosen from more than 10,000 entries.

The fifth year of the contest opens for entries Oct. 25 and closes Dec. 1. Individuals, schools, nonprofits, governments and businesses all may enter.

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September 22, 2009

[berkman] Clay Shirky on the future of news

Clay Shirky is giving a lunchtime talk at the Shorenstein Center, which may be a joint event with the Berkman Center.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. Posted without re-reading. You are warned, people.

p>The commercial structure of the newspaper industry means that it’s not enough for them to run at a profit. Advertisers had been forced to overpay because there weren’t other waysto reach people for display ads or coupons. This gave the newspaper enough capital to do long-term investigation; mere profitability wouldn’t have allowed this.

The advertisers were overcharged and under-served. That is, they couldn’t influence coverage.

Neither the overpaying and the underserving is true of the current market. The new market is efficient and so the price of advertising plummets. “We may be seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history.” And if you want to sell a bike, you don’t go to the people who print news and crosswords; you go to Craigslist. As Bob Garfield says (says Clay), it turns out that people will go to sites that do nothing but post ads.

The news is now disaggregated and is re-forming itself around actual user desires. The aggregation is going from server-side to client-side. “The decision about what to bring together in a bundle” is made by the consumer, not the producer.

We should worry about echo chambers, although it turns out that people are interested in serendipity. But people are not interested in the omnibus approach. The number of people going to the NYTimes home page is going down because people go straight to the article. The bundle is put together more by other readers.

None of this will be reversed by increasing the commercial viability of printed newspapers.

“This doesn’t mean all newspapers go away. It does mean a lot of them go away.” “Newspapers will play a less significant role in accountability than they have in the past, which leaves us with a giant hole.” A big problem: Every town of 500,000 or less “sinks into endemic civic corruption” because no one is watching.

He refers to how a story in the Boston Globe went worldwide not because of the Globe but because its audience passed it around. “The public created itself.” “The penumbra of reuse around the article created an enormous amount of its value.” An article on a similar topic (priest pedophiles) in the early 1990s didn’t spread the same way, because the forward-and-recommend infrastructure didn’t exist.

If there were a pay wall around the later article, it would have forestall its effect and value. First, “We need the public good of accountability journalism.” Some newspapers are trying to get an anti-trust exemption to establish a pay wall for the sake of the public good. But that will destroy the village to save it. We should be looking at ways of balancing the cost of producing good journalism and the public good that comes from reuse.

There are three ways to create things accessible to the public. Private companies. NGOs. Social/peer production where people get together and do it. #3 had been confined to picnics, etc. Now it’s becoming a big part of the ecosystem. E.g., Pro Publica. Wikileaks. Open source. “The Internet makes all commercial models of journalism harder to sustain…and social models much, much easier to sustain.” “We’re seeing a re-balancing of the landscape” where all three of these modes of production will be operating. We want experiments across all three of these.

Also, we don’t want to replace newspapers. Newspapers have a single point of failure problem because they do 85% of accountability journalism. We don’t need a single point. We need someone who does 5% and then repeat that 15 times. “It’s a shift from one class of institutions to an ecosystem as a whole.”

Clay says he wants to distance himself from the utopians and optimists. “I think a bad thing is going to happen.” People don’t take seriously that things may get a lot worse for a while. He doesn’t think there’s any way to get out of the coming of public corruption. Between the printing press and the Treaty of Westphalia there were a long 100 years when people didn’t know what to think. “Our goal should be to minimize the depth of that trough … and hasten its end.” But there’s not simple and rapid alternative to 20th century newspapers, in part because what held papers together was “so crazily contingent.”

“I believe that newspapers are irreplaceable in their production of accountability journalism.” Some think we should therefore spend whatever we have to in order to replace them. Others say we should be “transferring our concern to the production of lots and lots of overlapping models of accountability journalism.” “The next step needs to be vast and varied experimentation.”

Q: Alex Jones: I don’t agree that newspapers are ready to be abandoned. In the priest pedophile story you cite, the Catholic Church was brought to heel by the viral information but also by the institutional power of the Globe. As you imagine this future, do you see in this array of smaller entity an institutional power that can bring institutions of power to heel?
A: Not in any simple way. That is the great weakness of the experimental trough: No one news org has that sort of power. Hard news is cross-subsidized by people who buy the paper for the coupons. But the front page has institutional power. The media has lost its force in almost all cases. The question is: Can news gather a public the way newspapers have done? The optimistic face is: We don’t know yet, but it’s there. The pessimistic: The ability of media to bring institutions is fading with the mass audience. I don’t know enough about the economics of converting newspapers to nonprofits.

Q: How about magazines?
A: They’re essentially non-profits. The New Yorker has operated at a lost throughout most of its history. The amount of journalism done by non-NPR radio is very small. Magazines are subsidized by billionaires. “The way to get around the problem with the media model is to have lots of models.”

Q: The revenue base is shrinking but it’s also much easier to acquire information.
A: That’s why we need lots of overlapping 5% reporting. The last time we had a big push for transparency — Watergate — it created K Street: You now knew how people voted, so lobbyists could get paid for effects. “It’s not enough to make the data available. We also have to make the public able to assemble and act on the data.”

Q: What’s the model for something like Pro Publica, which is not reaching the ordinary joe?
A: In the past, city hall news generally wasn’t front page. We think readers of newspapers read the whole thing. But it was cross-subsidized. It’s never been that all citizens care about all news. Pro Publica is reaching elites, and the question is whether it’s giving them what they need. “The real danger is that our political life is organized around geography, but the Web not so much.” The midpoint between nation and neighborhood is hard to do on the Web. Web stories are either hyperlocal or spill across all borders. Pro Publica isn’t well suited to regional reporting. The media markets and the political markets overlapped, but not any more. The trough will be worst at state and county levels.

Q: How does The Economist fit? They’re growing.
A: The one big exception is to the sharing model is financial news. A pay wall damages general news and benefits financial news, because people want to act on that news before they share. The Financial Times’ online audience is 1% of the Times. I don’t believe the Economist, FT and WSJ model is applicable to the general news.

Q [bill mitchell]: As you describe your three models — commercial, public, social — what in each of them really holds value for the public at large. What might they pay for, whether in donations, contributing their own journalism, etc.?
A: The core of the value is the set of the values accuracy and timeliness, but also shareability. General news has more value the more people know about it. People contribute unexpectedly. E.g., SETI. People donate not just because they wanted to help but because they got a cool screensaver. NPR tote bags say “I’m paying for your radio.” The power of that type of mockerhood is under-estimated. 6-8% of NPR listeners contribute, which might be enough to keep a newspaper alive, doing something (but not all of what it used to do).

Q: The story on Randy Cunningham required figuring out how to take the database of info and turn it into a story. Who’s going to do this?
A: Richard Hackman [sp?] says that groups are no good at writing. E.g., Wikipedia’s writing isn’t its strong point. Amanda Michel at OffTheBus found out that most people can’t be David Broder. Instead, she had hundreds of people crowd-sourcing data, and then gave it to a writer. She had a professional-amateur fusion. “No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need lots of experimentation.”

Q: The NYT says it has 800K readers who have been with them for 2 yrs, and they pay $700/year. Is that sustainable?
A: No. Someone suggested that newspaper rename their obit column as “Reader countdown.” Many newspapers pursuing a pay wall are only trying to stave off the Web.


July 22, 2009

My PDF talk on facts ‘n’ transparency

Link. (The video embeds my slides, but (1) they get more and more out of order in this YouTube; they were in the right order when I actually presented them. 2. My font got lost somewhere in the translations, and so there’s a fair bit of mis-sizing, text overflows, etc.) (I posted about one of the ideas in the talk (transparency as the new objectivity) here.)

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July 5, 2009

News is a network

Jeff Jarvis has a terrific, provocative post about the narcissism of newspapers in which he discusses a number of myths. The discussion afterwards is also really inte)resting. Here’s the comment I posted there (with a minor edit or two, all of which can really be reduced to the title of this post:

Terrific post and discussion. Thanks, Jeff.

May I add one more, related, myth to your collection, Jeff? Here goes: That it’s possible to cover the day’s events.

This is just a different way of putting your formulation “One man’s [sic] noise is another man’s news.” But I think it’s worth calling out since the promise of sufficiency is a big part of traditional newspapers’ promise of value to us: “Read us once in the morning, and after going through our pages, you will know everything you need to know.” (Do radio stations still make the ridicule-worthy “Give us 8 minutes and we’ll give you the world?” claim.) Yeah, no newspaper would ever maintain that claim seriously if challenged — they know better than their readers (or at least they used to) what they’re leaving out — but it’s at the base of the idea that reading a paper is a civic duty. The paper doesn’t give us everything but it gives us enough that reading one every day makes us well-informed citizens.

The notion that newspapers give you your daily requirement of global news — which works out to wondering, along with Howard, if there is such a thing as “news” — seems to me to be as vulnerable as the old idea of objectivity. Like objectivity: (1) It’s presented as one of the basic reasons to read a newspaper; (2) it hides the fact that it’s based on cultural values; and (3) it doesn’t scale well in the age of the Net.

Ultimately, this myth is enabled – as so many of the myths of news and knowledge are — by paper. Take away the paper and the newspaper doesn’t become a paperless newspaper. It becomes a network. That’s what’s happening now, IMO. From object to network … and networks are far far harder to “monetize” (giving myself a yech here) than objects.

(By the way, this is what I was trying to ask in the question I horribly botched at PDF. Sigh.)

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June 12, 2009

Newsy is meta-newsy

Newsy, a project in collaboration with Univ. of Missouri’s Journalism School, pulls together a half-dozen media reports on a topic, stringing them together with their own reporter-at-a-desk commentary. The sources include mainstream news and less mainstream news. For example, here’s Newsy’s meta-coverage of China’s new Net blockage:

Newsy is a manual curation and production project. At least during this beta phase, it seems to be doing one or two a day, which means they may have more luck getting their stories embedded elsewhere than in drawing a regular crowd to their own site. In fact, the site has announced a syndication deal with Mediacom to provide stories for mid-Missouri cable tv subscribers. (The project is also probably a Fair Use lawsuit magnet, unfortunately.)

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