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Texas Observer, legendary crusading liberal magazine, is closing and laying off its staff

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The Texas Observer, the storied progressive publication known for its feisty, combative and often humorous investigative journalism, is shutting down and will lay off its 17-person staff, including 13 journalists, several members of its board said Sunday.

The decision marks an end to 68 years of publication, starting with its founding in 1954 by Ronnie Dugger and including a six-year period under the helm of the legendary Molly Ivins from 1970 to 1976. The magazine, in its first few decades, represented the liberal wing of the once-conservative Democratic Party. It was a thorn in the side of Lyndon B. Johnson when he was Senate majority leader (before he became president), Govs. Allen Shivers and John B. Connally, and other conservative Democrats. And it chronicled the era in which Texas was remade into a Republican stronghold that sent a governor, George W. Bush, to the White House.

The closing of the Observer raises questions about whether small progressive publications can survive the digital transformation of journalism and the information ecosystem during a time of rapid social, demographic and technological change.

While nonprofit newsrooms have been proliferating around the country, many are dependent on philanthropic grants and don’t have a clear pathway to economic sustainability. The Observer had been supported for years by a small number of major donors, and wasn’t able to build a broad base of subscribers and members.

The Observer’s budget was $2.1 million last year, and in recent weeks, the board considered moving to online-only publication, which would have taken the budget down to $1.8 million, and doing that plus laying off three staff members, which would have taken the budget to $1.5 million. The Observer has about 4,000 print subscribers (its content is free online) and 64,000 subscribers to its free email newsletter. It doesn’t accept advertising.

The board of the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation, which owns the Observer, voted on Wednesday to approve the layoffs, according to the board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss its internal deliberations.

Robert R. Frump, who stepped down from the board in June to run the magazine’s business operations as a special adviser, resigned in protest on Thursday after he was informed of the decision. Following a last-ditch effort to slow the process and give employees more severance, the Observer’s board confirmed its decision on Sunday and plans to tell the staff on Monday morning that their last day will be this Friday, March 31, the board members said.

Frump told The Texas Tribune that the board chair, Laura Hernandez Holmes, and other board members instructed him on Thursday morning to cease operations immediately and shut off access to email and social media accounts. “I handed in my resignation after they told me what they were doing,” he said in a phone interview.

Hernandez Holmes, an El Paso native and Austin-based campaign consultant and political fundraiser who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s failed presidential bid in 2019, said in a text message Sunday night: “I feel strongly about talking with the staff before I talk with any reporters outside the organization. I owe them that.”

“The editorial quality of the Texas Observer is excellent, and it deserves to live on in some format,” Frump said. “It has a unique voice that’s progressive but hews to the truth. I‘m hoping some version of it can still survive.”

Frump said the Observer was ultimately unable to adapt to the demands of a 24/7 news cycle and the proliferation of other sources of information about Texas, including Texas Monthly, a features magazine that just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization co-founded in 2009 by Evan Smith, a former editor of the Monthly.

“Our reader base and our donor base is aging out,” Frump said. “There’s a nostalgia for Molly Ivins and Ann Richards and their era, and that’s a lot of what still drives the Observer. We weren’t able to build a bridge to the younger, progressive generation. I think the legacy is worth fighting for, but I do understand why the board feels the way it does.”

Reached Sunday night, Gabriel Arana, who was hired as the magazine’s editor in chief in April 2022 after two consecutive top editors left abruptly, said: “This is the first I’m hearing of it, the board hasn’t communicated with me or the staff about this.”

He added: “I’m really proud of the work the staff is doing. The level of talent and the quality of journalism are really impressive. I feel the board has abdicated its responsibility for fundraising and ensuring the financial health of the publication. I think it’s shameful that they haven’t involved the staff in this decision-making in any way.”

Arana pointed to enterprising work on women’s health issues, political extremism, Texas rivers and on the Biden administration’s border policies.

Decades of investigations

Through the entirety of its operation, the Observer earned a hard-fought reputation for pulling no punches with the state’s political echelon — and telling richly written stories about race, poverty and classism that mainstream news outlets ignored, overlooked or under-reported.

Dugger, who was in his 20s when he became the founding editor, clearly defined that mission in the first issue.

“We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit,” he wrote.

In the decades since, the outlet’s mix of threadbare operations and muckraking ambitions churned a staggering stable of renowned investigative journalists, political reporters and celebrated columnists including Ivins, Lawrence Goodwyn, Jim Hightower, Jake Bernstein and James K. Galbraith.

Dugger served as editor until 1961, when he then became publisher. In 2011, he was awarded the George Polk Award for career achievement. His leadership made the publication something beloved by journalists — and loathed by Texas officials. Or, as Dugger put it when writing about the Observer for the Texas State Historical Association, the magazine “has been celebrated outside the state much more than in it.”

Ivins, the late legendary political commentator and humorist, called it a “publication in a class by itself” in the 2004 book “Fifty Years of the Texas Observer.”

“Texas, as has often been noted, is a peculiar place: it both deserves and needs an independent magazine devoted solely to its politics and other oddities,” she wrote. “The extraordinary struggles for economic and political justice chronicled in the Observer’s pages go back to the days when it was the only publication read by white people that addressed the problems and concerns of black and brown Texans.”

Its columns, exposés and investigations captured innumerable historic Texas events with human-focused empathy, acerbic wit and razor-sharp accountability. In 1966, Bill Helmer wrote a first-person account of witnessing the University of Texas tower shooting.

“How strange it felt to stand there in such comfortably familiar surroundings, hugging a marble pillar I walked past every day, listening to the constant banging of rifles and the sound of real bullets whacking and whining off stone,” he wrote.

In 1981, former Texas lawmaker A.R. “Babe” Schwartz peeled back the curtain on life in the Legislature — and after it.

“Some go to hell in a basket, damned by new habits of excess in all things—the classic blondes, bourbon, and beefsteak syndrome,” he wrote. “Some go to the Congress. Worse excesses. Some just go a hundred yards from the House to the Senate. It is often said that that raises the average IQ of both bodies. Some of us lucky ones, for our eternal reward, even die and become lobbyists.”

A 2000 investigation from Nate Blakeslee cast a light on the weak criminal cases against dozens of people — most of them Black — arrested on drug charges in a mass, high-profile sting operation in the small Panhandle town of Tulia.

“The reason I love the Observer has more to do with most media being increasingly controlled by large companies, which makes the reader a consumer,” then-coeditor Karen Olsson told Texas Monthly in 2001. “Nobody can start a magazine without at least $1 million. From the content perspective, because we’re not bottom-line driven, we can forget celebrity stuff and service and select things we’re interested in, just because we’re interested in them. Readers call us all the time with story ideas. We let our writers play with words. We’re very flexible about length.”

High turnover in final years

The Observer had had some near-death experiences in recent years, including a seemingly unending turnover of editors and managers. The instability began after Forrest Wilder, who had begun his career at the magazine and was named editor in chief in 2015, left in 2019 to be a senior editor at the Monthly.

The next editor, Andrea Valdez, who rejoined the magazine in 2020, lasted only a couple of months before she was hired away by The 19th News, a nonprofit formed that year by Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, the former editor in chief and audience director, respectively, of the Tribune. Another editor, Abby Johnston, joined Valdez in moving to The 19th News.

Next came Tristan Ahtone, who in April 2020 became the first Native American editor of the magazine, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down the economy. After clashing with several staff members, whom he accused of racial discrimination, he stepped down in October 2021.

Several staffers left after Ahtone, including Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who covered indigenous affairs for the Observer.

Ahtone said on Sunday night: “We could have seen this coming. Current leadership probably could have made a few calls to alleviate some of the financial pressures and staff problems that came after I left.” He said the reason he left was “because the board of directors wouldn’t deal with racism in the organization.”

Ahtone’s resignation was soon followed by those of Mike Kanin, who had been the Observer’s publisher since 2017, and board chair Abby Rapoport, a journalist (and former Tribune reporter) whose grandfather Bernard and father, Ron, have supported the Observer for decades. (Ron Rapoport remains a board member.) Both of them had clashed with Ahtone.

Also in 2021, the Emerson Collective, the social investment and philanthropic entity set up by Laurene Powell Jobs, ended several years of support.

From that point, the Observer became harder and harder to sustain, even though things seemed temporarily to brighten, according to the former board members. James Canup, a seasoned nonprofit fundraiser, joined as managing director in February 2022, and Arana, an editor who had worked at HuffPost and The American Prospect, was hired in April 2022. (He was chosen over the interim editor in chief, Megan Kimble, who then left.) Frump stepped down from the board to oversee day-to-day business operations in July 2022.

October 2022 was a momentous, possibly decisive, month for the Observer. That month, for the first time since 2019, the Observer held its annual fundraising dinner to give out the MOLLY National Journalism Prizes, named for Ivins, the crusading journalist who died in 2007. But it brought in only about half of the roughly $200,000 it used to, Frump said.

Also that month, the Observer received what seemed like a lifeline: a $1 million pledge by the Tejemos Foundation, set up by Greg Wooldridge, a retired investor, and Lynne Dobson, a philanthropist and photojournalist whose family started Whataburger. The couple disbursed $400,000 of the gift soon after, and later asked the magazine for documentation of matching funds and other efforts in order to receive the remaining $600,000, some of which would have gone to cover public relations, marketing and other vital business operations that had been long neglected.

Carol Ocker, who manages the couple’s philanthropic giving, did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

However, the good news was fleeting. Arana, the new editor, began to clash with Hernandez Holmes, the board chair, and Canup, the new fundraising director, according to board members. Relations among those top leaders — crucial in any nonprofit organization, and especially a small one — quickly deteriorated, the board members said.

Earlier this month, the writing on the wall became clear. Canup gave notice. Hernandez Holmes announced she was stepping down as board chair; board members persuaded her to stay on until the end of March. As of last week, the magazine had only $170,000 in reserves, about enough for two months of payroll. Typical philanthropic guidelines suggest that nonprofits have at least three months of monthly expenses in reserve, and ideally six or more months.

Peter A. Ravella, the board’s treasurer, and Eileen Smith, a writer and editor who is on the board, voted no on shutting down Sunday morning. Ravella said he had accepted the board’s decision but thought the process for unwinding the organization was too hasty, and made without adequate consultation with donors and staff members. Ravella is leaving the board this week, as he and his wife are selling their home and moving to Olympia, Washington.

The Observer had recently announced that it would host an event at the Paramount Theatre in Austin on May 17. The featured speaker was to be Annette Gordon-Reed, a renowned Harvard historian, scholar of Thomas Jefferson, and author of “On Juneteenth,” about the legacy of racism in Texas.

It wasn’t clear Sunday night whether that event will proceed.

Disclosure: The Emerson Collective, The Paramount Theatre, the Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

We can’t wait to welcome you Sept. 21-23 to the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

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1 day ago
Boston, MA
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Good Practice = Problem Solving!

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4 days ago
Boston, MA
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Hey, local news publishers: Give the people a calendar

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Blairstown, Paterson, and Trenton are three very different communities in New Jersey, but when Sarah Stonbely, the research director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, surveyed residents about what they need from their local news outlets, she found they had a number of needs in common.

Paterson, one of New Jersey’s largest cities, is majority-Hispanic and also has a sizable proportion of Arab residents. (Paterson residents were surveyed in Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali as well as English.) It has a below-average median income for the state. Trenton, another large city and the New Jersey state capital, is roughly half Black. And Blairstown is a small, rural town that is more than 90% white.

But all three communities had lost most of their existing local news outlets over the years. All wanted more service journalism, in the form of information about municipal government meetings or contact information for local leaders. And all relied heavily on local Facebook groups for news, even though they also understood Facebook’s flaws.

Stonbely compiled her findings in this new report and shared them with hyperlocal news outlets that had recently launched in the communities: The Paterson Information Hub in Paterson, which is a news product of the nonprofit hub Paterson Alliance; the Trenton Journal in Trenton; and the Ridge View Echo in Blairstown. All three outlets are grantees of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which we’ve covered here.

I asked Stonbely a few questions about her research.

Laura Hazard Owen: I am interested in your take on people’s impressions of the Facebook news in their communities. I feel like the way that we often hear about local Facebook groups is that they are tricking people, providing bad or biased coverage. But it sounds as if [the residents you talked to] know that these groups aren’t perfect and have mixed feelings about them.

Sarah Stonbely: I got that impression as well. I got the impression that people used [Facebook for local news] pretty grudgingly — they felt like it was kind of their best worst option, because of the drain of local news, plus people are already going there to see pictures of their friends’ kids and dog memes or whatever. I was very pleasantly surprised that they seem to recognize that it’s not ideal, it’s not necessarily “real journalism,” but they’re going to find out things there that they can’t find out anywhere else. They are sort of using it grudgingly because they don’t feel like they have a lot of other options.

Owen: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of doing research like this and getting people to actually show up. It sounds as if that was really hard: In Blairstown, for instance, “For the two scheduled in-person focus groups, 20 and 10 people, respectively, confirmed the day before that they would attend. Of those who confirmed, two people showed up for the morning focus group and zero showed up for the second, afternoon group.” I imagine it’s a common problem doing research like this, but do you have ideas about how you, or a different organization, could address that in the future?

Stonbely: Yeah, it was super frustrating, although not totally surprising. One thing that I think would be really helpful would just be to have more time built into a grant like this — to, for example, dig up more email lists. We were trying to get alumni lists from the high school, because many people who live [in Blairstown] have lived there for 20 or more years, but the high school wouldn’t give us those lists. I would just build in more time to figure out ways to reach people.

Owen: It seems as if a theme throughout was a desire for, like, calendars of municipal meetings — giving people more information about what is actually happening in their communities, things that they can attend. It seems sort of obvious. But you found that news organizations weren’t doing very much of that.

Stonbely: Right. I think this is part of the reason it’s so useful to do [research] like this, right? One might assume that there isn’t a ton of interest in municipal meetings, because they’re kind of boring. So I was really excited to hear that people wanted to know more, to have a list. And it’s easy — it’s kind of low-hanging fruit, right? It shouldn’t be that difficult to keep an updated list of when and where and what the meetings are.

I thought that was really exciting. If you’re a publisher and you’re just in the weeds, starting a news organization and trying to do investigations or something, it just might not occur to you that [a municipal calendar] is something that would provide value.

The research was supported by funding from the Google News Initiative, and one condition of the grant was that “after the initial information needs assessments were complete, each outlet was to make improvements to their product based on the findings.” Here are the recommendations that Stonbely gave to The Paterson Hub, Trenton Journal, and Ridge View Echo.

Recommendations given to Paterson Hub

  • The top two topics of interest for the community members we heard from were safety/crime and food (in)security, which do not readily lend themselves to events, which suggests that a different platform — perhaps an email newsletter or dedicated website — may be of more interest to those community members who want to hear about these topics.
  • However, nearly half of people showed interest in events about exercise/recreation, housing affordability/homelessness, early childhood education, mental health, and music. This list of topics lends itself well to a shared calendar. In addition, the greatest share of survey respondents (more than half) said that they attend events that ‘help me solve everyday problems in my life’ and that ‘connect me to friends and neighbors.’ You can emphasize these types of events in your calendar — focusing on utility and connection.
  • There is a long list of trusted organizations in Paterson; consider collaborating with these organizations on a calendar or news outlet (beyond just asking them to contribute content), so that trust is built in from the beginning. You may also tap people/offices on the list of most trusted sources.
  • Engage to a greater extent on Facebook, and be present on Facebook groups that are relevant in Paterson; this is where most of the traffic is and where you’ll have the greatest visibility.
  • Paterson is extremely diverse; take advantage of this diversity by offering your content in as many relevant languages as possible, but especially Spanish and Arabic.

Recommendations given to the Trenton Journal

  • Create a dedicated section for posting the dates and times of upcoming municipal meetings, similar to your events page; publicize it via your newsletter and social media.
  • Go one step further and cover municipal meetings regularly, even if it’s simply by providing a transcript.
  • Consider adding a section on your website that lists all city and state departments, the services they provide, and their contact information.
  • Consider offering different sub-pages for each ward, that can be tailored to the differing concerns and interest in each.
  • Engage to a greater extent on Facebook, and be present on Facebook groups that are relevant in Trenton, especially Trenton Orbit and Peterson’s Breaking News of Trenton.

Recommendations given to Ridge View Echo

  • Create a dedicated section for posting the dates and times of upcoming municipal meetings, similar to your events page; publicize it via your newsletter and social media.
  • Go one step further and cover municipal meetings regularly, even if it’s simply by providing a transcript.
  • Get more involved on Facebook, both on the feed and in groups.
  • Continue to cover feel-good lifestyle issues in addition to hard issues.
  • Consider adding a section that allows people to recommend service providers; maybe service providers could recommend themselves for a fee (similar to advertising but in a dedicated section)? Could list it as a Directory similar to the others that you have under Resources.

You can read the full report here.

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6 days ago
Boston, MA
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iNaturalist observations: "locals" and "tourists"

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Boston, MA
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Allergies hitting early? Climate change may be to blame, report says.

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“I think a lot of times people think climate change is this very nebulous entity,” said Climate Central meteorologist Lauren Casey. “But it’s happening now, and it’s impacting ... our health on a daily basis.”

The northeast has seen growing season — the period between the last freeze of spring and the first freeze of fall — lengthen by the same amount of time as the rest of the nation, about 15 days on average, according to the new study, based on data from 203 US cities.

In Boston, allergy seasons have gotten 13 days longer since 1970. Some cities saw even more severe changes.

In 31 cities, the season between the last and first freeze grew by at least a month, and Reno, Nev.’s season increased by a stunning 99 days.

“When we have warm weather earlier in the year, buds open earlier,” said Richard B. Primack, a biology professor at Boston University who focuses on climate change and did not work on the new report. “And allergy season can also last longer into fall if it stays warm.”

More than 24 million people in the United States suffer from pollen-induced respiratory allergies, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Though we “normalize” allergen-triggered diseases like hay fever — technically known as allergic rhinitis — we shouldn’t minimize their effect, said Caroline Sokol, a physician in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Allergy and Clinical Immunology Unit.

“Allergic rhinitis takes a huge toll in terms of missed time at work, because people feel horrible, people feel sick,” she said. “So many people are walking through a fog right now because their immune system is basically fighting off an allergen just like it would a virus, making us feel exhausted and miserable.”

Seasonal allergies can also have dangerous health impacts, including by triggering or worsening asthma. Other environmental factors, like poor air quality, can exacerbate risk.

“All these problems with allergies are going to be compounded by air pollution,” Primack said.

As carbon pollution warms the planet and lengthens spring seasons, it’s also increasing allergen production, the new report says, making allergy season not just longer but also more severe.

“Plants use carbon dioxide and photosynthesis. They take that carbon dioxide and transform it into energy,” Casey said. “So you see more plant growth which means more pollen.”

Research also suggests climate change-fueled increases in rainfall and extreme weather are increasing the amount of nitrogen polluting rivers and other waterways. That is likely causing some allergens, like ragweed — a flowering plant common to New England which is often found along streets and vacant lots — to produce more pollen, Primack said.

“There’s really much more nitrogen in the soil now than there was, say, 50 years ago,” he said. “And ragweed does better in high nitrogen environments, as well as high CO2 environments.”

An earlier study published in the journal Nature Communications last year looked specifically at 15 types of pollen from different plants found in the United States and found, in computer simulations, that pollen counts are increasing. And if the world keeps emitting carbon, things could get worse. The authors found that by the end of the century, pollen production could double.

Pollen isn’t the only trigger of seasonal allergies. Mold can also exacerbate allergy season, and climate change is making that worse too, the report says.

Mold thrives in warm, wet conditions, which are becoming more common in much of the United States as climate change drives up temperatures and increases the frequency of extreme rain events.

The report also highlights the link between allergens and thunderstorms, which research shows are becoming more severe amid the climate crisis. During torrential downpours, pollen and mold spores can spread through the air more efficiently. Strong upward winds during storms can lift up pollen grains, which then get dispersed across a wider distance when downdraft winds begin. To make matters worse, when pollen grains get wet, they rupture, and they break into smaller pieces.

“Once those tinier bits dry out, they’re more easily dispersed by the wind and they’re more easily inhaled,” Casey said.

Respiratory issues triggered by pollen can be exacerbated by air pollution, which tends to be more severe in highly industrialized urban centers, and often has the worst effects for poorer areas with higher percentages of people of color, Primack said.

Allergies can also pose financial challenges, said Patrick Kinney, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. Medications can be expensive, as can devices like air filters that can help lessen symptoms.

“Allergy season is a big deal from a quality of life and health perspective, as well as from a medical expenditures perspective,” he said.

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.

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7 days ago
Boston, MA
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Tesla vs gas cars: Here's how far EVs can go on a California road trip

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This tool assumes that a driver will depart with 80% of their battery charged and arrive at their destination with at least 20% left. Manufacturers typically recommend drivers keep electric vehicles within that charging range to avoid extra battery stress.

Our trips also don’t allow EVs to drop below 10% battery level without stopping for a charge. Charging times vary based on the EV and the charger being used.

The gas price comparison uses the statewide average per-gallon price in California for March 1, when the average price of gas was $4.79 according to AAA. At that time, drivers in the state typically paid $1.44 more per gallon for gas than the national average. 

The comparison also assumes the gas car has a full tank at the start of the trip and that it gets 24 mpg and holds 13 gallons of gas, which is typical of the average car. The tool allows gas cars to take a different route than electric cars, and does not account for time spent at the gas pump.

The tool also takes into effect each EV’s unique consumption and charging curves. The consumption curve determines how much power it uses at a certain speed. The charging curves determine how fast an EV will charge based on its current battery percentage. EV charging typically slows down as the vehicle gains more battery juice.

Vehicle prices are from Kelley Blue Book listings for the 2022 Tesla Model Y, 2022 Chevy Bolt, 2022 Polestar 2 and 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning. Other vehicle stats are from the U.S. Dept. of Energy / EPA, ACEEE, <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>, EVcompare and Car and Driver. Routing directions are from Mapbox

Editors note: A previous version of this page included the Tesla Model Y RWD, which is not widely available in the U.S. It has been swapped for the Tesla Model Y Performance AWD.

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11 days ago
Boston, MA
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