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Comunicar Journal 59: Emerging mobile media. Convergence in the new media arena (Vol. 27 - 2019)

Young adults’ interaction with online news and advertising

https://doi.org/10.3916/C59-2019-02

María-del-Pilar Martínez-Costa

Javier Serrano-Puche

Idoia Portilla

Cristina Sánchez-Blanco

Abstract

This research aims to portray the way young adult people interact with news and how their consumption is affected by advertising and personal data sharing. 'Digital News Report Spain 2018', a questionnaire on the consumption of digital media undertaken by a national panel of 2,023 Internet users, is used as a main source. Among the users mentioned, there were 293 young people from 25 to 34 years old who belong to the Millennial generation. Data from this report was completed with a qualitative study in which two focus groups were held, featuring people of that age frame residing in Navarre. The paper concludes that young adult people are generally interested in news, which they access mainly via mobile devices. Their interest grows when the content affects them directly, but also if they empathize with the topic. On the other hand, their familiar background and social routines shape the way they receive information. Young adult people still make use of traditional media, although they consider it ideologically biased. Advertising is something annoying, although they generally have little knowledge and even less intention to use ad-blockers. Finally, their review of the personalized services is negative, but they tend to give away personal data to media if this facilitates their news access.

Keywords

Audiences, news consumption, focus groups, young adult people, mobile media, qualitative methodology, privacy, online advertising

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1. Introduction and current scenario

In today’s media ecosystem, in which traditional and digital media coexist and complement one another, it is important to understand the changes that are taking place in people’s usage habits and preferences with regard to information. This is particularly important for those groups that have grown up in “a context that is saturated with relational technologies and digital communication” (Buckingham & Martínez, 2013).

The primary objective of this study is to describe how young people in the 25-34 age group interact with news when using mobile media, the extent to which their consumption is conditioned by the presence of advertising, and whether they are concerned about privacy. These young people are members of the so-called millennial generation because they have reached adulthood in the early years of the 21st century (Dimock, 2018). Their commercial potential is of great interest to media outlets and advertisers.

Our initial framework is provided by the bibliography on the subject, complemented by data from the 2018 Digital News Report Spain. This report was coordinated by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. This online questionnaire offers insights into the consumption of digital news in Spain by Internet users who accessed the news in the previous month (Reuters, 2018).

However, this initial literature review needs to be complemented with the addition of a qualitative study to explain the motives underlying the behaviour observed. To do this, we set up two group discussions involving young adults from Navarre. Their media usage is described beforehand and is based on the Media Audience Study produced by the Centre for Research and Opinion Polling (CIES, 2018).

By reviewing the literature and quantitative secondary sources, and conducting our own qualitative study, we will be able to gain a better understanding of the perception and behaviour of the people in this age group with regard to news, advertising and privacy.

1.1. Communication, mobile media and information consumption

Today, the increasing importance of mobile devices is abundantly clear, to the extent that their presence in everyday life is now taken for granted (Ling, 2012). However, as with other digital technologies, we should bear in mind that there is a “double articulation” (Silverstone & Hirsch, 1992). On the one hand, mobile devices are material objects that serve as a means of communication through which their owners are connected to the world and to other users. On the other hand, they are also cultural objects whose ubiquitous connectivity and omnipresence intimately link them to their users’ daily lives, identities and social relations. Consequently, they are not only technological meta-devices with multiple functions; they also have a symbolic dimension, which gives them new social meanings based on interaction with others.

The possibilities offered by mobile communication, which frees us from the constraints of physical proximity and spatial immobility (Geser, 2004), have brought about a reconfiguration of our relationship with space and time (Ling & Campbell, 2009). Mobility is, therefore, a disruptive factor, as it introduces new paradigms into the consumption of culture and media: this consumption is no longer restricted to the domestic space and increasingly occurs in public spaces and/or during transit, thereby making spatiality a key contextual factor in the consumption experience (Peters, 2015).

The social, cultural and technological phenomenon of communication using mobile devices also presents generational differences (Ghersetti & Westlund, 2018). A large part of the study focuses on millennials, a “generation tied to their smartphones” (Mihailidis, 2014). Their phones play a key role in their daily interactions and peer socialization and enable a form of consumption that is transient, immediate, mobile and specialized (Noguera Vivo, 2018; Van Damme, Courtois, Verbrugge, & de-Marez, 2015).

With regard to patterns of information consumption, mobile devices have certain peculiarities in comparison to other platforms (Struckmann & Karnowski, 2016; Wolf & Schnauber, 2015). The consumption of news is characterized by certain habitual and heightened tendencies, such as checking, sharing, scanning, clicking and “snacking” on information (Costera Meijer & Groot Kormelink, 2015). The fact that users always carry their mobile devices with them makes it more likely that they will consume news throughout the day. Sometimes news is consumed almost unconsciously, or without specific intent. Moreover, this consumption can occur in parallel with other activities and within time intervals that are normally closed to traditional media: namely, the various interstices that form part of our daily routines (Dimmick, Feaster, & Hoplamazian, 2011).

Information that is consumed using mobile devices and apps may have been accessed via alerts and notifications. This transforms media exposure into something that is not always planned by the user, and to which he/she pays only partial attention. In temporal terms, and to borrow the musical metaphor of Dholakia and others (2014), in contrast to the languid, continuous legato of other platforms, consumption on mobile devices is more staccato, comprised of brief and intermittent episodes that serve to provide “flashes” of information.

However, the “news snacking” that characterizes the use of mobile devices is a habit that may also have negative consequences (Molyneux, 2018). Unlike deeper, more unhurried forms of consumption, the academic literature has linked “snacking” (albeit in the form of television channel surfing or “news grazing”) to a more limited awareness of public affairs and a lower level of civic engagement (Bennett, Rhine, & Flickinger 2008; Morris & Forgette, 2007).

1.2. Traits and trends in news consumption

Several studies have indicated that young people take a positive approach to news and like to stay informed (Costera, 2007; Casero-Ripollés, 2012). However, their patterns of consumption are changing, becoming more mobile and social (Yuste, 2015). They are characterized by casual or incidental access via social networks and quick, online “scanning”, with traditional media only accessed in order to verify and expand information (García Jiménez, Tur-Viñes & Pastor, 2018).

This development is corroborated by data from the 2018 Digital News Report Spain. Spaniards in the 25-34 age group demonstrate a high level of interest in news: of the 293 users surveyed, 32% and 48% were “extremely interested” or “very interested” in the news, respectively. These percentages are not significantly different to those for other age groups, with the exception of those over the age of 55, from whom 58% were “very interested” in the news.

With regard to the use of news sources, social media (69%), newspaper websites (54%), television programmes (50%) and print media (44%) were the predominant access routes. Although the 25-34 age group has not abandoned traditional media, Hermida and others (2012) argue that social media has become a key space for sharing, recommending and personalizing the dissemination of news, as well as simply serving as a news source. According to the Reuters Institute report, 45% of young adults access news through social networks. Other significant access routes include the search engines of specific news-oriented websites (45%), direct access via the websites of media outlets (36%), and keyword searches for a specific news story (33%).

In terms of devices, mobile phones have become young people’s main gateway to the digital ecosystem. The 2018 Digital News Report Spain confirms the findings of other studies (AIMC, 2018; Fundación Telefónica, 2017) that 97% of users in the 25-34 age group recognize that mobile devices are the main gateway for accessing news. Additionally, however, 69% of users in this group still consume news via desktop or laptop computers.

1.3. Interaction with advertising and management of privacy

Regarding advertising investment in Spain (Infoadex, 2018), Internet advertising has consolidated its second-place ranking, behind only traditional media (29%). Sádaba and Sánchez-Blanco (2018) argue that its growth is due to widespread Internet use, automation, format innovations and the need to generate new sources of income.

In terms of its relationship to news consumption, Internet advertising is viewed by many users as a “toll” that must be paid in order to access content. Moreover, although advertising is a naturally occurring element within the new ecosystem, it is often seen as negative because of how it grows indiscriminately and interrupts the browsing experience (Gálvez, 2017). This has led many users to take steps to block advertisements.

The practice of ad-blocking is no longer restricted to a minority of users, especially in the age group with which this study is concerned. Gálvez (2017) asserts that 59% of Internet users over the age of 14 are aware of ad-blockers and that 28% use them regularly. For users in the 25-34 age group, these figures increase to 73% and 45%, respectively. With regard to their reasons for doing so, more than 90% of users said that they blocked advertising to prevent loss of data speed, avoid unpleasant advertisements, and avoid the risk of getting a virus.

These usage figures are reasonably similar to those that appear in the aforementioned quantitative study. According to the 2018 Digital News Report Spain, 51% of users in the 25-34 age group have downloaded an ad-blocker at least once. This makes them the most frequent users of ad-blocking software. Some 42% are using ad-blockers currently: mostly on their computers (89%), and to a much lesser extent on their tablets (27%) and mobile phones (25%).

Although these users do have concerns about privacy, they still provide information in order to access services or simply to share things (Evens & Van Damme, 2016; Lee, 2016). Their willingness to share information depends on three factors: what they will receive in exchange, the extent to which they trust the company in question, and how personal the shared information is (Woodnutt, 2018). Those who are concerned about privacy take steps such as deleting their browser history, using temporary user names or email addresses, deleting apps, and adjusting the privacy settings on their devices (Lee, 2016; Meeker, 2018).

The 2016 Digital News Report Spain also explored this particular question (Reuters Institute, 2016). Specifically, it asked whether users were concerned that receiving personalized news might present a greater threat to their privacy. Spain had the third-highest percentage of respondents (54%) who stated that they shared that particular concern (Portilla, 2018). Moreover, the level of concern grew with age: amongst users in the 25-34 age group, 53% stated that they were concerned about their privacy; a similar percentage to the one for Spaniards as a whole (54%).

2. Materials and methods

Having reviewed the literature and the quantitative data mentioned above, we obtained an overview of how young people interact with news and advertising and the extent to which they are concerned about privacy. However, the following questions require further exploration:

• Why do young adults take an interest in news?

• Do they trust the traditional media for information on current affairs or do they use a diversity of sources and access routes?

• How do young adults use their devices to access news?

• What is their view on advertising? Are they aware of and/or do they use ad-blockers?

• If giving personal data is required to access news, which data are they willing to provide, and why?

In order to answer these questions, we need a qualitative study that will enable us to gain an understanding of real-world attitudes through an analysis of the discourse that this type of research generates. The study will involve particular individuals representing the 25-34 age group in Navarre who have accessed digital news, so they may be compared to the same age group within the 2018 Digital News Report Spain.

We will use the focus group technique, as it offers a greater range of approaches and focal points than if we had interviewed each individual separately.

Focus groups are a habitual feature of the qualitative methodology, as they make it possible to discern the attitudes and motivations of a particular social group and enable researchers to extract generalized principles from individual interactions (Báez & Pérez de Tudela, 2007).

As Navarre is the focal point for this study, we will first present the data on media consumption in Navarre for young people in the 25-34 age group. We will then present the results of the qualitative study, based on the participants’ perceptions of their information consumption.

2.1. Media and young audiences in Navarre

According to the Media Audience Study, in 2017 Navarre was home to 73,500 people aged 25-34, from whom 72,640 (99%) had previously accessed the Internet at one time or another.

This group consumes media in all its forms. In terms of accessing online newspapers, the group also stands out from other age brackets, in light of the fact that 53% stated they had read an online newspaper the day prior to the study.

The most common digital media outlets accessed by Internet users aged 25-34 in Navarre were diariodenavarra.es (17%) and marca.com (11%). In terms of traditional media, 16% read the print version of Diario de Navarra, 10% listen to Europa FM Navarra and 16% watch Antena 3 channel. Another noteworthy statistic is that 65% of the participants had logged in to Facebook the day prior to the study.

Consequently, the ways in which young adults in Navarre consume news media are of interest to this study and justify the inclusion of this group in the qualitative study of how young people make use of media and devices, their attitudes towards advertising and privacy, and the reasons underlying their behaviour with regard to news.

2.2. Methodology

The study involved two focus groups made up of young people who lived in Navarre, aged between 25-34, and consumed digital news with a local or Navarre-oriented focus, in any format.

CIES, a company specializing in research studies and opinion polls, helped us design the methodology, recruit the participants and carry out the fieldwork. The focus groups met in separate successive sessions (at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) on Thursday 22 February 2018. Each discussion lasted two hours. There were a total of 16 participants, eight in each group, with an equal gender split (i.e., 50% women and 50% men). The mean age of the participants was 28.5.

The groups discussed five major topics: news consumption, the degree of interest in local news and media, digital media consumption, use of social networks, and advertising and personal data. The use of mobile devices was a particularly noteworthy part of the discussion.

3. Analysis and results

3.1. Interest in news

Given the scope of the study, young people are more interested in the news when they can relate to its content or when it affects them directly. In the focus groups, several participants agreed that it is important to “know what’s going on the world” (male, 26) and “what’s happening from day to day” (female, 34). These positions corroborated the quantitative data.

In order to explore their motives further, participants were asked about the types of the news story that interested them most. The groups made a distinction between general news and specific news. In terms of general news, several people said they were interested in social issues, cultural programs and local events “that [they] relate to” (female, 25; male, 31). Local sports content was also consumed on a recurring basis. In terms of news related to specific interests, one participant (male, 29) said he was particularly interested in information that affected him “directly”.

On the whole, participants took a greater interest in the news concerning their more immediate circle or the environment. News concerning institutional politics was of less interest to some participants. As one individual (male, 27) commented, “Political news is everywhere, but I don’t pay too much attention to it”. However, other participants habitually kept up with political news: “Although it makes my blood boil at times, I love to follow the political news, because I like to know what’s going on in the world and at home” (male, 30).

With regard to news content, we discovered another relevant factor that has a bearing on consumption: namely, the saturation that occurs when content is repeated as a result of the fact that media outlets have no further information to provide. According to one participant (male, 29), this saturation reflects the fact that certain news stories become “trendy” and therefore cause him to lose interest.

3.2. Information sources used

The quantitative study revealed that social media, media websites and television were the three news sources most frequently accessed by young people in the 25 -34 age group. Print media was relegated to the fourth position. However, when we explored this question in the focus groups, the results were somewhat contradictory. The traditional print-media brands maintained their prestige, while television was described as “sensationalist” and social media had as many detractors as it did defenders.

Nonetheless, the majority of participants said that they accessed digital media more often than traditional media because the former offered immediate access, more news stories, a broader range of perspectives and, in the words of one participant (female, 33), “more freedom to choose”. If the participants happened to pick up a traditional magazine or newspaper, they would read it; otherwise, they would not. For this same reason, the traditional print-media brands the participants consumed depended on the habits of their family members, ease of access, and ideology. Some participants read newspapers because they were available at their family home: “I tend to read the paper because my parents have it delivered to our home” (female, 27). For others, reading the newspaper was an everyday habit linked to other activities: “I read the paper while I am having a coffee. I get my first glance at the news every morning in the café” (female, 34).

In general, local radio was used as a form of accompaniment. No one in the group used it as their primary source of information. Although approximately half of the participants watched television news, this trend appears to be decreasing, as three people stated that they did not watch television at all. However, for news with wide-ranging scope and impact, some did turn to the television. In the words of one participant (male, 34), “Video is the most spectacular and often the most dramatic format”.

Those who defended social networks as a source of information valued their immediacy and range of perspectives, in comparison to the local press, which one participant (male, 31) described as “politicized and polarized”. Another participant (male, 30) argued that “on social networks, you can follow many different media outlets, which means you will always have a complete range of perspectives”. Some of the participants accessed local news via social networks (especially Facebook), received recommendations from contacts via WhatsApp, and followed events as they unfolded via Twitter. Instagram was praised as a source of sports news. Among the detractors of social media, some said they generally avoided social networks as a source of local news because they found them untrustworthy, had difficulty in establishing their credibility, and found it necessary to verify the source. “I don’t like how social networks operate”, said one participant (female, 27). “They manipulate everything”, replied another (female, 25). However, other participants pointed out that social networks play an important role in “finding out about breaking news” (male, 29).

3.3. Access routes

Although it is not easy to identify common patterns of consumption, the participants said that they accessed news via media websites (whether directly or via search engines) and social networks; Facebook and Twitter in particular.

With regard to the latter, much of the information that was accessed originated from official media accounts that some of the participants had chosen to follow. However, news stories also appeared frequently on participants’ timelines because they were posted there by their contacts. As one participant (female, 27) described it, “Suddenly, you’ll see a news story that someone has shared”. Some of the participants also said they found it difficult to distinguish the source of information: “[On Facebook] I follow lots of different things, and sometimes I get a little lost as to where something comes from” (female, 24).

This consumption, therefore, constitutes an “accidental exposure” to news, given that the users in question come across the information while they are online for other reasons, rather than deliberately searching for news. As one participant (female, 24) remarked, “News tends to come at you from all sides. News stories usually come to me, and if one of them piques my interest, I look up more information about it”. This dynamic also extends to messaging services such as WhatsApp, which the groups cited on numerous occasions as a means of discovering news.

Moreover, access routes for news are conditioned by the urgency of the story in question and its geographical scope. Usually, the participants first found out about breaking local or regional news via WhatsApp, particularly through groups they participated in with their families and friends. To find out more, some of the participants would then access local media outlets or look up information using Google or social networks. In any case, the participants agreed that it was necessary to verify the information that they received and that the traditional media remained more credible. When the news story in question was national or international in its scope, the range of media outlets accessed by the participants became larger and was extended to include those that could dedicate more resources to news coverage.

Finally, the groups drew attention to the fact that, although their digital consumption is fragmented, it remains constant throughout the day and is arranged around temporal interstices. “I follow Diario de Navarra on all of the social networks. I check the feeds every day to see if they have been refreshed and if there are any new stories. I check them every three hours or so”, commented one participant (male, 25).

3.4. Device preference

In line with the data presented in the 2018 Digital News Report Spain, the focus groups reinforced the fact that mobile phones, followed by computers, are the devices most frequently used by young adults to access news. Information consumption “almost always takes place via mobile phone, and very rarely via newspaper”, remarked one participant (female, 24).

The predominance of mobile devices for accessing news means that knowledge of breaking news sometimes occurs via platforms that typically serve another purpose. One such example is instant messaging services, which become a gateway for information consumption through the user’s personal contacts and groups. In the words of one participant (female, 27): “We have a group on WhatsApp, and when something attracts someone’s attention, they usually share a link to the newspaper or story in question”. In general, participants did not subscribe to news alerts and did not use media apps.

3.5. Perception of advertising

The participants’ opinions on advertising were not very positive. “I hardly ever watch a whole ad, unless it relates to something I’m really interested in”, said one participant (male, 30). Another participant (male, 31) was more explicit: “Sometimes they’re very invasive because they take up the whole screen and prevent you from reading the article”.

When asked about advertising based on browser cookies, the participants unanimously responded that it was “awful”. As one participant (female, 27) said: “If just one ad pops up, it’s not a problem. But if you lose your place on the page, then you don’t know what you’re clicking on, where to search, or where you are”. However, this dislike of cookies bore no direct relation to the use of ad-blockers, and awareness of the existence of ad-blockers was not commonplace amongst the groups.

With regard to specific devices, advertising was found to be more annoying on mobile phones. For one participant (female, 24), it depended on which device she was using: “If I’m using my laptop, it’s not an issue, because I can close the ads easily. But if I’m using my tablet or my phone, it’s a lot harder”. The discussion generated a more vehement response from another participant (female, 25), who stated that advertising “makes you angry”.

3.6. Privacy concerns

When the participants were asked if media outlets required them to identify themselves in order to access content, some of them said that they had signed up using their social network accounts “for the sake of convenience” (female, 34) and to avoid having to remember so many passwords. Others said that they signed up using an email address that they do not habitually access. When local media outlets required them to sign up, the participants were willing to provide a certain amount of personal information, such as their name, postcode and email address. However, they refused to provide other details, such as their postal address, telephone number, or bank account details. One participant (male, 30) said that he would only give these details “if he were a subscriber”.

When discussing whether they were prepared to activate geolocation on their mobile devices, the participants generally responded negatively. They would only agree to geolocation in order to access content offered by local or regional media and to use other services, such as maps. The participants were of the opinion that certain apps recorded information without their knowledge and shared their data with third parties. This made them feel uncomfortable and as though they had given up control. In the words of one participant (female, 34), “It makes me feel a little uncomfortable to think that they can tell where you are through your mobile phone”.

Some participants had experimented with personalized content and/or alerts. In general, their assessment was negative, as the media outlets in question were unable to reflect their interests. Some felt they received too many notifications and related advertising. Generic subjects did not work adequately, as one participant (male, 29) noted: “I was interested in a podcast that discussed the economic aspects of current affairs, but the filter was so broad that [...] all it did was send you ads and news stories that you’d never even think about reading”.

Some participants disliked the idea of someone else pre-selecting the news stories they received. One participant (female, 27) summed it up as follows: “I scan everything, and then take a further look at what interests me”. For the time being, the participants were not interested in personalized news stories.

4. Discussion and conclusions

Although young adults are interested in news, they dislike being overloaded with information, being repeatedly exposed to the same news stories, and becoming lost in the tangle of available news sources. According to our qualitative study, the ways in which young people access news is conditioned by their social and family environments, the types of activity they engage in, and their routines.

Traditional media still form part of their “information diet”, given that their personal environments facilitate access to media outlets such as the press. However, they are very critical of these outlets, as they consider them to be ideologically biased. Although they describe it as “sensationalist”, television remains a go-to source for important news. This was also reflected in the study conducted by Antunovic and others (2018). The 25-34 age group is, therefore, a generation that embraces digital without abandoning traditional.

Their interest increases when the content affects them directly or when they can relate to the news story in question. “Young people have an increased appetite for news” (Casero-Ripollés, 2012) and want to be informed so that they can interact with others. They appreciate immediacy, plurality, and depth in the news stories that interest them (García Jiménez, Tur-Viñes, & Pastor, 2018).

Although it is not easy to identify homogeneous patterns of consumption, there is evidence to show that young people “snack on the news, whenever and wherever they feel like it”, as asserted by Dholakia and others (2014). They prefer frequent “news snacks” to regular full meals. However, prioritizing the brevity of content more than its information value may give the news media less incentive to produce quality content (Chyi, 2009; Chyi & Yang, 2009). In this respect, and as noted by Westlund (2013), and Canavilhas and Rodrigues (2017), adapting to the mobile era represents a major challenge for journalism: not only in terms of language and journalism genres but also regarding the business models adopted and user interaction.

Although young people make extensive use of social networks as a way of finding news with a plurality of perspectives, and despite the trend towards sharing this news within their communities, young people paradoxically consider these sources too untrustworthy or biased to be used as a sole source of information. However, this study has also highlighted the use of WhatsApp for information purposes and revealed that it could even serve as the initial gateway of access to important news.

Mobile phones are the device of choice, as they provide immediate access to news. Mobility makes consumption possible under a wide range of circumstances, as noted by Peters (2015) and corroborated by the focus groups. However, emerging devices such as smart TVs are beginning to gain ground among young people in the 25-34 age group, as well as amongst users in other age groups. Consequently, media outlets must make an effort to develop content and positive user experiences for smart devices (López-García, 2018).

In general, the 25-34 age group sees advertising as a nuisance, although the qualitative study showed that young people in this age group are not generally aware of or use ad-blockers. However, after they were told about the features of ad-blockers, they became interested in them. Although the 2018 Digital News Report Spain revealed that ad-blockers are mostly used with computers and have achieved very little penetration on mobile devices, the qualitative study revealed that advertising could be considered far more annoying on mobile devices than on computers. Consequently, when we argue that journalism must adapt its languages and formats to the mobile era (Westlund, 2013; Canavilhas & Rodrigues, 2017), we should bear in mind that this adaptation will also have an impact on advertising.

Young adults are willing to provide personal or geolocation data only if they receive high-quality personalized services in return and if they trusted the company in question, as noted by Woodnutt (2018) and confirmed in the qualitative study. In any case, improving personalization services and soliciting anonymous data may be two plausible alternatives for media outlets to collect useful information for their business.

In conclusion, journalism must take these new patterns of consumption into account if it wishes to continue to attract the attention of young adults and future generations. However, any action taken to achieve this must not result in poorer-quality content or misuse of advertising. A professional journalistic approach is needed in order to maintain user confidence in the media outlet’s brand and to increase income by offering services that add value.

Funding Agency

The “News Preferences and Use within the New Media Scenario in Spain: Audiences, Companies, Content, and Multi-Platform Reputation Management” project was jointly funded by the Ministry of Finance and Competitiveness and the European Regional Development Fund (CSO2015-64662-C4-1-R).

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