Tag Archives: layoffs

Beyond Local News Layoffs: The Mood in the Newsroom–Local Newsers Are Scared, Overworked, and Miserable

Since leaving the day-to-day world of reporting for a local television station, I’ve heard from friends a lot of the same kind of comments when I ask, “how is it?”

“Worse than ever,” is what they say.  News has never really been a place where everybody’s happy (why is that?), but with the money printing machine no longer working, the managers letting their intensity to produce turn into dark humor at best and outright boundary crossing at worst, local newsers describe a business that at times seems to have all the fear and chaos of an industry in the turmoil of change, but somehow devoid of the excitement of the dawning of something new.

This lack of inspiration, I believe, is another indication that stations are deeply invested in the television of the 70s, 80s and 90s, and have turned the screws on employees in an effort to make that fading reality somehow work.  It’s as if you could just whip a horse hard enough, you could make the elegant horse and buggy a competitor to the car.

But the horse is miserable, and in many cases, the horse has had it. They want out.

I got to know John P. Wise during our time at WNYW in New York. A smart guy whose talents spread from the written word to a photographer’s eye and a comedian’s dry wit, he always seemed to me the kind of person who makes a newsroom more enjoyable. In catching up recently, I learned he’s lost his heart for horse-and-buggy work.

wisemugDISPATCH FROM THE FRONTLINES:  John P. Wise

(Back when Pat Forde used to write for The Louisville Courier-Journal, he’d begin some of his sports columns with: “Deathless prose.” That’s your warning that this piece is slightly all over the place. Hope you can follow along.)

What a terrible time it is these days to get laid off from your job, what with the sour economy and all.

And getting fired isn’t much better.

But that’s what happened to me about five weeks ago. I actually got over the ego tweak a few weeks prior when I was told I was being placed on a 30-day probation. That very night, rather than plotting a course to try to save my job, I instead came home, after another unappreciated 11- or 12-hour day, of course, and outlined my next project, a nationwide tour in which I’ll cover the upcoming college football season on the road, an endeavor you can already follow now at http://onegreatseason.com.

OK, back to getting fired. I saw a movie recently in which an actor playing a CIA official told an attorney general who was threatening the CIA guy in some way, something to the effect of, “once we realize that life is finite, it becomes easy to accept everything else.” The guy meant that if something doesn’t work out, it’s OK; life shall continue. Just do something else. It’s up to the outgoing to decide if he wants to go out on his feet or on his knees. Will you play by their rules? Or do you need your own?

Now don’t get me wrong; being let go last month was hardly Hollywood dramatic or even surprising. After six years at Internet Broadcasting and nearly three years at FOX — two successful stretches I’m proud to have under my belt — I just lost the passion to be a news guy. I can admit my share of the blame here, which is to say that I’m entirely responsible for my firing. But let me also offer a piece of advice for big media so it doesn’t lose other talented, enthusiastic, once-passionate journalists.

It’s OK to be friendly. It’s OK to have your act together. It’s OK to be honest. These attributes are things you probably desire in those who work for you. So why would you think you don’t need to return the favor to them? While I can admit it was me who lost the passion, perhaps more supportive superiors could have coached me back in.

I know times are tough. Layoffs are all over the place. Bottom lines boast fewer numbers to the left of the decimal. These facts, however, do not allow you to keep a toxic, negative environment in which the vast majority of your people are unhappy. Think about that for a minute. Let go of your corporate instinct and let that sink in: your people are unhappy. And isn’t happiness what we’re all in search of more than anything else?

Yet many of your people feel guilty just for taking the 15 minutes necessary to venture out for a sandwich with which they’ll promptly return to their desks and work while eating — but surely not enjoying — it.

This plate of sour grapes isn’t addressed to one former employer, but to the industry overall. I’ll never understand how in a communication business there are so many terrible communicators. It has astounded me for 17 years, since I got my first stringing job at a major metro daily and was excited to say hello to a veteran columnist as I passed him in a quiet corridor, and didn’t even get a look back in return.

Now I’m not saying that I’ve found zero happiness in the handful of newsrooms I’ve worked in since 1992. But if you work in news, do me a favor today: ask 10 co-workers if they truly enjoy their jobs, their newsrooms, their supervisors. I’ll endorse my first unemployment check over to you if just one of them says yes to all three.

I’ve enjoyed many of my assignments. Shoot, I’ve enjoyed most of my years. I’ve won a Murrow and a couple of SPJs; I was hoping to get my hands on an Emmy one day. But if it means I have to be “very excited” to ramp up, move forward, peel off, reach out, touch base and circle back before the conference call or the managers’ meeting, forget it. I’ll gladly go back to valet parking cars. I’m totally serious, and I’m totally pushing 40.

Most job ads you see for editorial people include a note like “creativity a must.” That’s a laugh. I’ve attended many morning meetings and watched reporter after reporter bring good ideas to the table and get shot down far more often than not. Long before the tedious gathering, the agenda is already set by someone who’s either never walked the beat or hasn’t in at least 20 years.

Stations say they’re looking for new and creative, but they’re not. Instead, they want the apartment building where a fire was put out an hour ago, but since nothing else is happening, they’ll send the chopper anyway to talk to the one person who was injured so mildly that he’ll give you the all-important exclusive interview right then and there. They’ll call it news, and after the commercial they’ll tell you more about a flap or a controversy or a danger or a Jonas brother.

Certainly I realize nothing’s perfect, but your place of employment, where you spend 40 or 50 or nowadays 60 hours a week, shouldn’t be dysfunctional either. I don’t expect a picnic; that’s why it’s called work. But so many good news people I talk to fully hate going to their jobs. And the fact that most newsrooms aren’t even 60 degrees doesn’t help matters.

There’s been no shortage of talk the last few years of the great changes impacting in the industry. Technology is certainly at the forefront of the new frontier, but what about the other changes? The great managers are those who can do more with less, but in the current climate, where staffs have been gutted and gutted again, is it a legitimate expectation to not only try to maintain the same level of productivity, but to increase it? Having editors write scripts isn’t resourceful; it’s just a good way to turn out bad copy in most cases, and perhaps miss slots. It’s one thing to build a staff of multi-tooled storytellers, but in some cases you just have to be realistic.

Maybe it’s CNN’s fault for starting round-the-clock news two decades ago. Like any TV trend, everybody else — national and even local — played follow the leader. And like any fad, TV or not, we gobble it up, shove it down our customers’ throats, try to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible, then try to stretch it out and fatten our pockets for as long as possible, and then act surprised that blue skies aren’t forever. We flatter ourselves into thinking we’re more important than we really are. Does the makeup-cake reporter really need to tag out of her story with driver-safety tips like “wear your seat belt and obey traffic signals and signs” a couple hours after yourtown’s latest fatal car accident?

At this point, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. The damage has been done, and while exciting changes in technology hog the ink in the trade pubs, other changes in humans will be just as critical if the industry is to survive.

[Wise has left the news business to pursue a passion project he’s been wanting to pull off since 1994. Visit http://onegreatseason.com to find out what it is.]

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Local Newsers: What’s It Going to Be? Innovate or Die? (Huh? You Sure You Don’t Want to Pick “Innovate?”)

3125936268_d71b8a90a1_oIf you haven’t yet read Jeff Jarvis’ excellent book, What Would Google Do?, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Jarvis is a new media guru who produces content across multiple platforms (his BuzzMachine blog is required reading, and his new Guardian podcast is fantastic) and teaches digital media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.  His book “reverse-engineers” Google to see what secrets we can uncover, and then implement, perhaps fueling a new style of journalism that will keep all of us working into the next decade.

In a discussion of financial models, and how Google transcended them, Jarvis writes:  the “winner is likely to be a new player, not one trying to protect old revenue streams and assets.”  Think about that for a moment.  Look at your own company.  Is it innovating into the future?  Or desperately, blindly, obsessively trying to make what’s always worked still work?

In New York last week, News Corp announced its latest round of firings and buyouts, cutting twenty staffers at WNYW and WWOR, cuts that affected traditional news operations and the stations’ web team.  That jumped out at me.  The web, without question, is the future.  What does it say about a company making cuts and deciding to pull back on the one area of the business with a clear, huge and critical role in the years ahead?

My answer:  they’re doing whatever they can do to cut costs and stay alive until the economy improves.  Then they’ll go back to that internet stuff.

Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis

Jarvis calls this the “Cash Cow in the Coal Mine:”  “Cash flow can blind you to the strategic necessity of change, tough decisions, and innovation…How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?”

Local news refuses to see.  As Jarvis writes, station owners are losing their “destinies” because they want to “preserve their pasts.”  And you know it’s true.  As I’ve written here, there is incredible innovation happening in the world of video storytelling and news.  It’s just not being done by television stations.  Newspapers are trying new ways of including multimedia content to make their reporting more impactful, interesting and different. In cities across the country, folks are creating web-based newscasts that look nothing like the stuff stations continue to produce–just the way they always have.

Watch this promo for a new Australian newscast that debuts this month.  Aside from the cliche-ridden nature of the promo itself, is there anything here that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago?

Think about it.  What’s so different about the six o’clock news?  Sure, it starts in some cities at 4.  It’s shot in HD.  And… well, beyond that, it’s the same product we’ve been selling for decades. That reminds me of senior citizens who will buy a new version of the same old car time after time because that’s what they like.  And looking at the demographics of a lot of news, these are the same reliable viewers keeping some local newscasts alive.

Where’s the innovation?  What’s one new thing that would’ve been unimaginable to the Action News teams of the 1970’s?  Doppler radar?  That’s an improvement of the same old thing.  New ways of doing liveshots?  What am I missing?

Take the computers out of the newsroom and put typewriters back, replace the cell phones with hard lines, put the AP wire back into a noisy printer in the corner, and go retro with the set, the over-the-shoulder graphics (FIRE!) and men’s lapels, and this is the same old cereal in a new box.

It’s depressing, when you look at the environment we’re in:  a once-in-a-career time of change, with a life-or-death incentive to innovate, and yet stations still believe in the tried and true rules of innovation in local news:

1)  New Set

2)  New Graphics

3)  New Anchors

4)  New News Director

Seriously, people.  News isn’t dying.  Someone’s going to be making money giving our viewers the information they want.  But there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be us.

I guess times are just too tight to risk taking chances.  And we’ll staff the web team back up when the car dealers start spending again.  Sound good?  Yeah, that’ll work.

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And Now, at the Risk of Sounding Insane, Let Me Say It: All is Well

Yes, It Does Look Bad.  No, We're Not Doomed.

Yes, It Does Look Bad. No, We're Not Doomed.


It’s going to be okay. One way or another, we will all be fine. Take a moment and let that sink in.

Now, sure, yes. Spend a day in a newsroom–TV or newspaper, doesn’t matter–and you’ll find most people are just not in the “it’s okay” mode right now. The news at the top of nytimes.com at this moment? “G.M. Notifying 1,100 Dealers That They Will Be Dropped.” That’s 1,100 fewer sources of revenue for local television stations across the country, and not exactly the gust of desperately needed fresh air the sales folk were lighting candles and praying for. And yet, today, I insist, it will be okay.

Ariane de Bonvoisin’s new book, “The First 30 Days,” suggests that times of change happen–because we either make the change or, in local news these days, it’s made for us. And yeah, that’s scary. When P. Kim Bui was laid off last year, she feared for more than just her career: “When I got laid off, my whole world crashed. Journalism was and is my life. This is what I was meant to do and all of a sudden, I had someone telling me I could no longer work.”  And she’s not the only one, not by a long shot.  I received a lot of supportive feedback for my recent post about the loss of a my journalist’s identity and the fear that I might never get it back.

Ariane de Bonvoisin:  "The First 30 Days"

Ariane de Bonvoisin: "The First 30 Days"

Ariane de Bonvoisin argues “life is on our side,” and that if you can get through the first 30 days, you can not only survive, but thrive. “The first few days and weeks are often the hardest, most emotional time. It’s when we have the most questions, emotions, doubts and fears, and when decisions need to be made. This is also the time when we are most in need of direction, information and support.”

Direction, information, and support rarely comes in the pile of paperwork HR hands you on your way out the door.  It can come in the form of loving support from friends and family, and with the help of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, it can come from social media connections and networking. There is power in talking and brainstorming.  It can also come more directly from a coach.

Coaching, in this case, does not mean picking up the phone, calling your agent and bitching about the lack of leads, the loss of work, and the generally sucky state of the business.  And it’s not necessarily surfing the couch at your therapist’s office.

It can be refreshing a resume that’s looking a little too, well, 1999.  Deborah Brown-Volkman, a coach to senior corporate executives, says “no one is going to give you a chance to explain yourself. If you want a job, it’s up to you to prove that you can do it. Your resume is your proof.” And if you’re trying to translate a reporter’s skill set to a new line of work, like PR or social media, re-writing your resume to make your case will be critical.  A little professional help couldn’t hurt.

As Brian Curtis at KXAS/Dallas reported this month, an executive coach can help you reinvent yourself by developing a personal brand beyond the “guy/girl from the news” and, as Curtis writes, “understanding who you are and what you need.”

Julia Stewart

Julia Stewart

A coach can help you leap from what you know–to what you never thought possible. As coach Julia Stewart puts it: “your skills are just as valuable as ever – maybe more so – the need for your skills is just showing up differently.”  Stewart says the trick in coaching laid off journalists is getting past the past–and to the future.  “I might shift the conversation away from what’s being lost to what you really want. That’s usually where the opportunities are and there are probably more opportunities than ever for journalists.  Or I might ask, what do you see as the biggest problem that the media has and how could you help fix it? Or what does the world/your
community/your family/etc need most and how could you help with that?  After the big questions, you can narrow down to actual opportunities and that’s where it gets fun.”

Maybe it’s the dream you put off–and off–because you couldn’t break away from what always seemed like a pretty decent gig: bigshot TV reporter or anchor or news director.  “But I’m Channel 7’s…” Well, now you’re not.  So what are you? Maybe it’s time to get back to that crazy dream.  What was it?

P. Kim Bui:  Loss, then a New Direction

P. Kim Bui: Loss, then a New Direction

For P. Kim Bui, it was a move onto the internet, though she made the move without the help of a coach.  “I write a lot about feeling lost in my own journals and I wonder if having someone to help me think things through would help. It definitely would have helped with my initial panic and depression.”  Those feelings, coaches like Stewart say, are absolutely part of the process:  “Self image can be the biggest hurdle and it can take some time to get over it. It’s not unusual to feel grief over something like this, although it may show up as anger or depression.”

I had a chance the other day to spend some time with a Coney Island sword swallower and fire eater. Not a personal or professional coach by any stretch. But she helped me see something nonetheless.  If I sat down–by myself–and tried to think my way from reporting local news to eating fire, I’d never get it done.  I could read a thousand books on the process and the history and the economic upside, but when it got down to the nitty gritty–the you know, eating-the-fire part, well, that might’ve been a problem.  As it was, I needed the one-on-one stop-thinking-and-just-give-it-a-try motivation to actually light that thing and put the flame in my mouth. The result:  euphoria.

The Power of Coaching:  a Journalist Learns to Eat Fire

The Power of Coaching: a Journalist Learns to Eat Fire

I did it twice more. The rush came in part from doing something I would have–on my own–thought my way out of trying.  My coach, covered in tattoos and ever so patient, showed me I had a talent inside I never knew was there.

We’re all going through massive change.  We will find our new paths.  Some of us will even create the new model of local news and become very, very rich. Others will just hit the jackpot by discovering ourselves. Whatever:  All is well.

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Mike Sheehan Fired After 16 Years: Fox’s WNYW Cuts a Classic New York Character

NYPD Detective-Turned-Reporter Mike Sheehan

NYPD Detective-Turned-WNYW/New York Reporter Mike Sheehan

 

Way back when then-WNEW introduced the 10 o’clock news to New York City, the shop was known as a real New York newsroom: filled with quirky, gritty, honest-to-God New Yorkers, warts and all. They weren’t spit-shined, manicured and pretty, but damn did they know the City. And Channel 5’s newscast was worth watching.

A lot has changed, and most of those characters–and the solid, serious, in your face news that made Channel 5 different and so legitimately New York–have been replaced with fresh faces from El Paso and Orlando and beyond. Even the name–the original 10 O’Clock News (and, to my ear, the best damn news open this side of WABC’s Cool Hand Luke)–has been reduced to “Fox 5 News at Ten,” which could be the name of any newscast in any town.

And tonight comes word Mike Sheehan is out. As the set got glitzy and the wrinkled faces got shown the door…as the New York accents faded and the station’s news turned more and more to American Idol and Lindsay Lohan…Sheehan remained. The NYPD detective who earned his bones breaking cases like Preppy Murderer Robert Chambers was a throwback to the gold old days at 5: an honest to God trenchcoat and pinky ring wearing New York original.

Full disclosure: I worked at WNYW, and my desk faced Mike’s. This is a man who can tell a story over a beer like few I’ve ever known. And I know deep under his gruff Irish exterior, he was proud to do the job he did. Losing his job, as he told the Daily News’s Richard Huff tonight, was “a kick in the chest. Sixteen years I’ve been there. I can’t believe it.”
But anyone who watches local news in New York–or anywhere–shouldn’t be surprised in the least. Longevity is no longer an asset. Years on the job and contacts at One Police Plaza? That got you a big salary and influence back when television stations were powerhouses that could afford such things.

Sheehan told the Richard Huff the station ended its relationship with a letter delivered to his home. This is, sadly, the new normal in our business: nobody tells you to your face. It’s a way of doing business that reduces us all, and it’s shameful.

Yes, Mike has had his problems, including a recent accident involving a police horse and an arrest for reckless endangerment and operating a vehicle while intoxicated and impaired. Whether that’s really why Sheehan got the axe is valid fodder for debate. But believe me, in this environment, people like Mike Sheehan walk tall–too tall–and the networks are moving on.

For years, Mike ended his crime stories with an appeal for folks to “do the right thing” and pick up the phone if they knew anything that could help police. Too bad managers at Fox couldn’t do so little as to pick up the phone and give it to him straight.

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Gannett “Company Gal” Gets Fired in a Letter Left at Her Door: “And This is the Thanks I Got”

For 15 years, Marty Matthews has been a “company gal” at WTSP/Tampa, anchoring the main newscasts at the CBS station, and when times got tight, she did everything the company asked to help tighten belts and get through until things got better. She says, “I even chose to take a five-day furlough in the 1st quarter to help them save money and a be a good ‘company gal.’ And this is the thanks I got.”

The thanks came in a manila envelope left anonymously at Matthews’ front door. Inside, a letter from the station saying, essentially, you’re fired. WTSP management told the St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans the letter was a last resort when efforts to reach Matthews in person failed. Seriously? Efforts to reach your 4 p.m. anchor “failed?” Do managers know where their own studios are located? The newsroom? These gutless people who can’t even find the courage to look a person in the eyes and tell them what’s happening… how did they fill the management ranks in this business?

WTSP/Tampa's Marty Matthews

WTSP/Tampa's Marty Matthews

Matthews called suggestions she was unreachable a lie: “They sure could find somebody to drive over to my house and leave a manila envelope here…why didn’t they find time to ask me while I was in the office?” Matthews told Eric Deggans, who reports she struggled to contain her anger.

Am I missing something? I get that times are as bad as they’ve ever been in this business. And I completely understand that decisions will be made and good people will lose their jobs. What I have trouble with is the “have their agent tell them” or “wait until they finish the newscast and have security escort them out–oh, and make sure you get their bio off the site ASAP.”

You’d think–in Matthews’ case–fifteen years of service to a company would require a little something better than a letter dropped at the door by a person who took off without so much as knocking. When did local television become junior high?

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Mysteries of Local TV News: What’s With the Bum’s Rush?

I must admit this is one I’ve always been puzzled by:  why, when managers decide they’re getting rid of someone, does the axe drop so swiftly–without warning in many cases–and the body, still warm, get carted off the premises so damn quickly?

It happened today in Minneapolis.  WCCO anchor Jeanette Trompeter thought she’d be doing her regular gig on the anchor desk at 5 p.m.  Instead, she got the axe–and ten minutes later, she was shown the door.  She was talking to Star-Tribune reporter C.J. a few minutes after that, apologizing for crying about the sudden loss of her job.  “I feel like a wimp,” she told C.J.  “In this economy you’re stupid if you’re on TV and you don’t know it’s a possibility.  All I’ve ever asked for was give me a head start to go look for something else.  I didn’t think I’d have to leave ten minutes after.  I thought I’d be doing the five o’clock news tonight.”

WCCOs Trompeter

WCCO's Trompeter

She didn’t.  Why?  “They said, ‘you’re no longer an employee.'”

Welcome to the Kinder and Gentler Street, where we all know the business is in trouble, and obviously, some cuts will be made.  But surely we can do this like professionals and with some degree of tact and grace.  Or, maybe it’s just easier to jump somebody with their IFB in and their scripts in hand and divert them away from the studio, up to HR, and then out through the loading dock.  Maybe that averts a “scene” or an on-air farewell (Heavens no!  That would let people know we’re a company like other industries where people are being laid off, right?) or maybe just a few days or weeks of having to, you know, work with them.

What’s the rush?  There are anchors in New York who’ve been pulled off the air in a flash, only to be sent home to ride out month after month of a contract–cashing the checks, but doing no work.  Anybody see the logic of cash-strapped companies paying employees to stay home?

Maybe they just are such lousy local newsers it makes better financial sense to get them out of the building at any cost?  Well, not at WCCO.  Trompeter says she got this Kafkaesque sendoff:  “They said, You’re a great employee and this has nothing to do with that. It’s a purely financial decision. I just got a great [job] review about three weeks ago.” 

Ponder that when you’re called into the news director’s office for that review.  You did great!  Might want to take your personal photos home just to be safe, though.  Never know if they’ll let you back to your desk after they fire you.

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Sam Malone’s Advice to Laid Off Local Newsers: “Network”

Eddie Doyle, Legendary Bartender, Now Unemployed

Eddie Doyle, Legendary Bartender, Now Unemployed

Eddie Doyle’s the real-life bartender who worked 35 years at the Bull & Finch in Boston–the basement bar that became a senstation in the 1980’s when it was used as inspiration for NBC’s hit sitcom, “Cheers.” 

Eddie Doyle was the guy who literally knew everybody’s name–and their drink–and enjoyed nothing less than serving pints to his friends from the neighborhood and talking, often for hours.  Doyle was the guy Ted Danson’s “Sam Malone” was based on, and after the show became a smash, Doyle became a star in his home town, in turn using his fame to raise over a million dollars for charity.

I bring up Eddie Doyle, because like a lot of local newsers, Doyle got laid off this week.  And like a TV reporter or anchor, his celebrity–and his longevity–didn’t save him when the time to cut the budget hit the bar.  “I’m going to miss it,” Doyle told me when I talked to him on the phone this week.  He described packing up 35 years of memories and preparing to walk away.  So many of us know exactly what that feels like.

Doyle’s 66, and he told me he’s not worried for himself, but for the young “kids” who also got laid off at the bar.  When I asked him his advice to the newly unemployed, he said it in one word:  “network.”  He told me, talk to people, volunteer, do charity work.  “It’s a way to stay active, and you might meet someone who can open a door.”

In TV, we learn how many people we know when the layoff hits.  We hear from old friends and former co-workers at stations from years past, and often, they have ideas.  They know people.  They say, “call this guy.”

It’s good advice to remember when the lack of TV jobs out there gets scary.  Keep talking.  Stay involved, even if it’s at a homeless shelter or a charity you care about.  Don’t stay at home in front of the computer hitting “refresh” every three minutes on journalismjobs.com

Nobody knows how long this will last… and the folks who find jobs may be the ones who know somebody, even if it’s not somebody they knew beforehand.  Since I wrote about my own departure from WPLG, I’ve heard from all kinds of old friends.  Many with excellent ideas (and some bad ones), and lots and lots of leads.  It’s a reminder that in this very small business, we do touch a lot of people, and there’s no shame in asking for help, or simply, in taking it when offered.

So go ahead and hum the theme from Cheers.  (You know you want to) And take Eddie Doyle’s advice.

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