Who’s still teaching shorthand?

Here in New Zealand all journalism schools require students to be proficient in T-line Shorthand at around 60-80 wpm before they can graduate.

The shorthand requirement is mandated by the NZ Journalists Training Organisation (JTO) as a Unit Standard for the qualification the National Diploma in Journalism. The diploma is a level 5 qualification, the equivalent to the first year of a university degree.

The question for me is this: Is shorthand still the most effective method of capturing quotes and notes? Then there’s the follow up: Who’s going to pay for it being taught in our universities and polytechs?

The journalism training in the Polytechnic system follows this syllabus quite closely while the university-based courses are at level 7 (3rd year undergraduate) or levels 8/9 Postgraduate Diploma and Masters level.

The JTO is an industry-funded body and industry members of the various J-schools’ advisory committees are also strongly committed to the teaching and learning of shorthand.

While it’s a requirement of the level 5 diploma (worth 15 credit points) there is some debate about the suitability of making shorthand a full 15 point paper within the normal academic framework of a bachelor’s degree or postgraduate qualification.

Personally I’m not convinced that shorthand is still a necessary skill for 21st century journalists. I am forming the view that it is an antiquated technology that can easily be replaced with a variety of cheap, easy-to-use and unobtrusive digital recording devices that allow for accurate transcription of quotes and notes.

Here are a number of counter arguments that I’ve heard and I’m keen to see some real debate about this amongst journalism educators.

Arguments in favour of shorthand

  • shorthand notes are a legal document that can be used as evidence in a court case
  • shorthand is a vital skill for court reporters because in most jurisdictions cameras and recorders are not allowed in court during proceedings; further transcripts are hard to get from court officials and they take time to be released to the media
  • in New Zealand reporters are paid a bonus if they keep their shorthand up above a minimum speed requirement

I think things are changing. Increasingly cameras are being seen in courts, though I understand that this is an uneven process. I also don’t think that reporters are called upon to give evidence from their shorthand notes in many court cases; so this is a “just in case” type of argument in effect. Finally, the bonus is a matter of a handful of dollars a week.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that by insisting that accredited journalism schools teach shorthand (often at great expense), the industry is merely pushing the cost onto the students and the tertiary education system. maybe the employers should be paying for it; either by subsidising the j schools to teach it, or doing it in-house once they get their hands on our graduates.

I’m currently looking into this issue in other countries and I’d be very keen to hear from journalism educators and working reporters about the use-value of shorthand. I know that anecdotally some of our graduates are alleged to say things like “shorthand is the most useful thing I learned at journalism school.”

If this is really the case that what are we doing? Surely the value of a good education in journalism is more than 80 wpm of T-line.

The global situation?
A quick google search turned up some interesting material about the teaching of shorthand, including this interesting prediction that it would disappear from the journalism curriculum in 5-10 years…this was in 1998:

Bernie Corbett, national organizer for Britain’s National Union of Journalists, explained that most journalism jobs there require an academic “qualification.” And, he said, most print journalism degree programs require shorthand skills of 100 words per minute.

“Currently, trainers and editors still maintain that it is an indispensable core skill,” Corbett said, “but modern attitudes are against them and I predict the requirement will be dropped some time in the next five to ten years.”

Then again, is shorthand likely to become the next battle ground between the industry and the academy? Certainly that appears to be the case in the UK where the industry training body the NCTJ has been making the argument that journalism courses are too “academic” and not “practical” enough. According to Andy Bull, a senior NCTJ official, shorthand is still an essential:

“For editors and for the NCTJ, shorthand is essential. Universities have a problem with shorthand because they see it purely as a mechanical skill. Never mind that it is hard to manage as a foreign language.”

I found this quote in a blog by Steve Hill, a lecturer in electronic publishing at Southampton Solent University, where he discusses Bull’s piece from the British Journalism Review. Unfortunately the full copy of Andy’s piece is not available online.

I also found an Australian reference to the JSchool run by Professor John Henningham in Brisbane (Queensland). Students in his privately-run programme do get some shorthand training.

I’m keen to hear from journalism educators and reporters on this issue.
To kick off some discussion, here’s the txt of an email my colleague Stephen Quinn sent from Deakin University in Victoria (Australia):

The relevance depends on what you are educating J students for. If for
a career in mainstream print media, then you could argue shorthand is needed. Many
years ago I proposed to our dean that we teach Teeline (rather than Pittman’s) on
the journalism major at Deakin. She said that was the role for the local TAFE, and
not a university.

Given the dramatic drop in jobs at newspapers in the US (see my blog squinn.org for
details), and if that trend carries over into Australia, we could argue that more jobs will be available online and in other forms of new media. Then we have
to ask if shorthand is relevant, given many of the newer jobs will involve
re-purposing of content (yes, an ugly phrase but the best I have) and editing rather than reporting.

Bottom line: if educating reporters, then shorthand is still necessary. If educating
editors, debatable.

Over to you.
BTW: If you’re a journalism student, I’d love to hear from you too.

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44 Responses to Who’s still teaching shorthand?

  1. Steve Hill says:

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the link and your comments on my blog.I work in a university in the UK and we’ve just decided to make the shorthand unit an option (it was compulsory before).

    The teaching of shorthand is controversial because it raises debates over the purpose of teaching journalism at undergraduate degree level. How much time do you spend teaching craft skills compared to academic /theoretical issues?

    If you are going to teach shorthand you have to do it well. You need to give the students a reasonable chance of reaching 100 wpm or above.

    This usually involves timetabling in large amounts classroom hours. And if students are spending hours doing this then, guess what? They spend less time learning another important skill.

    It may be my imagination, but I am detecting a softening of attitudes towards shorthand in the industry. The new converged world of journalism requires numerous technical skills to be taught. Shorthand is certainly important, but there are so many other things to consider.

  2. Anonymous says:

    james hollings
    lecturer in journalism
    massey university
    wellington
    This is an interesting issue and one that comes up from time to time. My personal opinion – based on my experience as a journalist, and now educator – is that shorthand plays a very useful, perhaps even vital part in the making of a journalist. Not simply through the acquisition of a mechanical skill, which is what most of the debate seems to be about. What’s just as important are the development of a sense of tradecraft, or professionalism in students; they feel they have something they have learned which sets them apart and this does an enormous amount for their self-confidence; it’s something they have to work hard at and as we all know when you invest in something you value it more; but also, and this is the most important thing – it reinforces the importance of accuracy, of every little word and comma, and of listening. Wasn’t one (not the only one) of the lessons of the David Kelly/ BBC saga that good notetaking is important? Martin’s right to ask where are we supposed to fit in all the new stuff such as convergence and digital tech, but to me that is mostly – as he says – editing or production stuff and not as important as producing reporters who know that being able to report others accurately doesn’t compromise their own critical stance.

  3. Rob's Blockhead Blog says:

    Isn’t the craft versus academic teaching argument a bit precious?

    Law students have to learn about, for example, the laws of evidence, court procedure, etc, as part of their degree. They also do mooting. Basic skills of the craft.

    I suspect that in time the need for shorthand will die out, once voice recognition software becomes cheap and widespread. But for now, I think shorthand needs to be kept.

    And yep, I hated learning it when I studied journalism.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m studying it AUT now. I think it will be useful even though it’s a bit of a drag to learn. There’s always times when you aren’t allowed recording devices, or the place is so noisy it’s hard to pick up one voice on a dictaphone.

  5. [...] had a few posted comments on my recent “why do we need shorthand” post, but it’s been interesting to find out from doing the rounds of newshound [...]

  6. Mark Hayes says:

    Very interesting and timely debate we periodically revisit in journalism education, especially when some older hack mounts a ritual attack on tertiary journalism education.

    A key point is, of course, “Who’s gonna pay for shorthand training?” and the Industry always replies, “somebody, anybody but us” but they want graduates Job Ready for *their* particular newsroom, and not their competitor’s newsroom, and if graduates are not Job Ready for their particular newsroom, we then get the occasional, ritual, whinge about journalism graduates being useless, etc and so forth.

    One way around this is to do a deal with a TAFE institution to provide discounted or subsidised shorthand courses for uni J students, paid for, in part, by the Uni, perhaps with some Industry support, and with a student contribution too. Problems of equity, etc and so forth, can occur, but these can be navigated, methinks.

    The NZ JTO seems more rigorous with its certification of J Courses than the MEAA, or Industry, here in Oz, and the industry hooks in to ensure certification is sound, including shorthand skills. Wouldn’t happen in Oz unless a major employer or two demanded shorthand, and then shorthand teachers would be trampled in the rush of J students into their courses.

  7. Mark Hayes says:

    Another point is, of course, “newsroom nostalgia” in that, “When I wuz lad, we ‘ad shorthand belted into uz by old Sub reeking of whisky wif steel ruler and ciggie stains up to bof elbows und Oi reckon yung uns t’die ‘av ta suffer loik we suffered when we wuz young. Team ‘em discipline und respect fer their elders, that would”. “Aye, yer right there, Obadiah.” (Add your own variations of The Four Yorkshiremen.)

  8. Thanks Martin. It’s an issue worth discussing.

    In the recent feature film “A Mighty Heart” there’s a scene where
    Pakistani police go through Daniel Pearl’s possessions after his
    kidnapping. Someone finding a notebook flicks through it and asks
    suspiciously, “There’s some codes?” Pearl’s wife answers: “This is
    shorthand. He’s a journalist.”

    The exchange makes a nice point about a respected tool of journalists,
    even in a world of myriad forms of electronic communication and
    recording. We still write things down, and being able to write people’s words quickly is invaluable. It’s an index of journalists’ pride in
    their professionalism and in particular their concern with accuracy.

    I have encountered amazement from newspaper editors that university
    journalism students don’t routinely study shorthand. Several editors
    have made the point that, with three or more years at their disposal to develop journalism skills, students have the perfect and obvious opportunity to master shorthand. Instead, when (or if) they get a job, recruits have the burden of learning shorthand while working hard at being a useful member of the newsroom.

    Getting ambiguous or even negative signals from their teachers about the value of shorthand is a sure way for students not to bother. It is a difficult and tedious task to master the outlines and short forms and to build up speed. Yet no-one who has achieved reasonable shorthand skills ever regrets it. And it’s a skill with many side benefits. For students, for a start, students can use shorthand to take better lecture
    notes. And it’s a good discipline for students to work hard at
    achieving a practical skill. (Like learning a musical instrument or a
    foreign language, or even memorising great speeches or poetry.)

    At Jschool we require shorthand of our students, and with industry
    advice included a shorthand component in our accredited Diploma of Journalism course. The requirement is for a speed of 60 words a minute, and we teach Teeline. Some students don’t get their diploma because
    they haven’t completed the shorthand requirement, but none of our graduates is ever anything but grateful for being ‘prodded’ to achieve this useful skill.

    Best wishes,

    John

    John Henningham
    Director, Jschool: Journalism Education & Training
    http://www.jschool.com.au

  9. Hi Martin,

    As a few of your commentators have noted above, the role of shorthand is one that keeps reappearing in debates on required journalism skills. It’s a question we get asked from time to time. This was my last response:

    Do we really need shorthand in this day and age of hi-tech wizardry and miniature digital recording devices?

    Now, my personal view is a little old fashioned – shorthand has survived thousands of years and it’s got a few more years left.

    The reader was right to point out that the requirements for getting a reporting job in the UK and US are different. You do need shorthand to get a newspaper reporting job in the UK – and for good reasons, too. Dealing with just journalism, here’s the main argument in favour of shorthand.

    First, an editor has an element of legal leverage if a reporter is accused of making up a quote (which is often levied at reporters when those involved in stories don’t like their words printed in black and white). The editor can check his reporter’s shorthand note, waive a certificate that his employee has 100wpm if needed and shorthand notes tend to carry a good deal of weight as evidence in libel cases (as long as they stand up to scrutiny).

    Secondly, you can take a shorthand notebook and pen/pencil pretty much anywhere, write outside, in cramped conditions etc and you don’t have to worry about digital storage space or power supply.

    Thirdly – and I’ve occasionally used electronic recording devices for contentious news stories – navigating a shorthand notebook to find the quotes you’re looking for is far easier than scanning tape or digital recordings.

    Fourthly, you can’t take recording devices into courts in the UK – so you’re dependent on note-taking the old fashioned way.

    Finally, I’ve found note books don’t intimidate interviewees as much as placing a recording device in the middle of a table.

    So, to sum up, shorthand is more reliable, you’re able to use it in court and provides an easier system for finding the notes you’re looking for than its hi-tech counterpart.

    The same arguments apply to many other non-journalistic uses of shorthand – such as secretarial minute taking, recording telephone messages or any other scenario in which an accurate and contemporaneous note is required/desirable.

    But then there’s simply the skill aspect in all of this. One could equally ask, in an age of reasonably accurate voice recognition systems, whether typing is still a necessary skill. Or, with spellcheck systems, being able to spell words. Of course these are necessary skills – perhaps all the more so if we wish to avoid becoming mere extensions of our computers…

    One thing that I did find surprising in your initial post was the very low speed requirement for journalists in New Zealand. 60 wpm is something most students can reach within a few weeks (most longhand writers can achieve 35-45wpm without too much difficulty and a little abbreviation).

    I’d be fascinated to know what the industry standard speeds for journalists were elsewhere.

    p.s great blog!

  10. [...] Late on Sunday evening, I got a message that Lawrence had sent a response to my previous post Who’s still teaching shorthand? I moderated it, which simply means I approved it for posting, but somehow I blew it and then [...]

  11. [...] See previous posts on this topic here and here at Ethical Martini. It’s not an issue so much in north America, but in the UK, here and in [...]

  12. Andrea Jutson says:

    As a relatively new journalist (graduated from AUT in 2004), I have to say that while learning shorthand does give a sense of learning a “craft”, I never actually use it. I know several people from my year who do, but having stopped practising it as soon as I reached the magic 80wpm, with a six-month gap before starting at a paper, I find I’m still much quicker using abbreviated longhand. So it’s definitely not an essential skill, and I think it should be optional only. I think web design or something related is far more important these days. As soon as you can unobtrusively type your interviews on a small computer as you go, I’m there.

  13. David Reade says:

    If you’re full on as a journalist you need shorthand, in my opinion. I’ve spent a lifetime in the words and pictures business, training with East Midland Allied Press Group and working on a variety of daily, weekly and specialist journals in varying roles from reporter to editor.
    Recording devices break down, and you never know when you need to take a note. Telephone conversations can be recorded but you don’t routinely capture all conversations. Shorthand gives you flexibility and security — you’ve always got something to write with and on.

  14. Brooke Donovan says:

    I was one of the grad dip students at AUT in 1997 and one of a handful still sitting in the shorthand class during the holidays struggling to crack 80wpm. Shorthand was a chore to learn but has been invaluable to me in the past 10 years. Sure, we live in a digital society and we now have all sorts of recording devices available, but I’ve seen reporters return to the office and spend an hour or more transcribing tapes, while I can write a story in half the time just reading through my notes. Sometimes tapes don’t work. I think recordings are a very useful accompaniment to shorthand but there’s no replacement for shorthand itself. The legal argument is an absolutely crucial one.

  15. Maria Slade says:

    Not teaching journalists shorthand would be like not teaching children handwriting on the grounds that they do everything on laptops these days anyway.

    There are plenty of circumstances where recording is not appropriate or possible, such as in court. In New Zealand a written application to record proceedings must be made to the court three working days in advance, and permission is not automatic. Also recording equipment can fail. And transcribing tapes takes time – when you’re bashing out a news story it is simply quicker to use your shorthand notes.

    It’s a fundamental tool of the trade, and I believe journalism would be the poorer for it if reporters lost this skill.

    Maria Slade
    New Zealand Herald

  16. [...] Martin Hurst asks whether shorthand should still be taught in journalism schools, with the greater use of digital recording devices. [...]

  17. David Eames says:

    To be honest, shorthand is about the only skill I learned at journo school that did not have to be completely re-learned when I arrived in a daily newsroom.
    It is an invaluable tool in that it allows one to be more selective in what quotes are recorded, and thus quicker in getting the story from the notebook to the keyboard. I occasionally use a recorder – for phonecalls and feature-length interviews mainly – but purely as a back-up to shorthand.
    Shorthand is still the only way to cover court. The argument that recording devices and cameras are becoming more commonplace in courtrooms is simply not accurate. Court officials, lawyers and judges have a very schizophrenic attitude toward them, so to do away with shorthand at this stage would be foolish.

    David Eames
    New Zealand Herald

  18. Kate says:

    I regret almost every working day that I did not keep up my shorthand learnt in 1991. Following on from a comment made on this site, one of the reasons was because I got to 80wpm and said phew, that’s over, and never made it to 120wpm which is apparently the average speaking speed. I say keep it up. I say make it correspondence school and I would be the first to sign up.

  19. Bill O'Byrne says:

    I use tapes, but by jingoes I wish I had shorthand.

  20. Lauren Bartlett says:

    I graduated from the AUT BCS with a major in Journalism in 2006. While I found learning shorthand tedious at the time, I am grateful to have this skill. I still use a dictaphone when interviewing, supplemented with shorthand notes. Technology is not infallible, and I thank AUT every time my tape runs out or batteries go flat. I think it’s also important that new junior journalists going into the workforce should have the same basic skills as senior journalists – plus more.

  21. [...] me, a whole bunch of staff from the New Zealand Herald have decided to comment on my “Who’s still teaching shorthand” post of a few weeks [...]

  22. Frank Veale says:

    Yeah, let’s keep dumbing down. Grammar isn’t taught anymore, it’s not important apparently. Why teach kids to read and write when they can get it all from the tele and radio? Really! Shorthand is a basic skill that a journalist should have.

  23. Yvonne says says:

    If you’ve ever sat next to someone listening to and transcribing a tape of a two hour interview with Jason Gunn, yo will immediately recognise the benefits of shorthand. It’s faster, more efficient, doesn’t require batteries and isn’t susceptible to breaking down. Sure it take time and effort but god it’s wonderful to master something you can apply to so many areas of life – not just journalism.

  24. Julie Middleton says:

    Teeline shorthand is a fundamental and essential for journalists – for all the reasons (practical, legal etc) that have already been discussed.

    I initially struggled with shorthand while in training (ATI 1987). But I realised I had to get on top of it and have never for one minute regretted getting up to 120wpm and keeping it more or less there ever since. I use it in other parts of my life as well (ie study and shopping lists (!) and use it a truncated version when interviewing in French).

    Proficient shorthand is, to me, the mark of a truly professional journo who has ensured they have gone into the workforce well-equipped.

    Faced with two candidates of equal merit but one without shorthand, I will take the one with shorthand. I know that it takes a certain discipline to master shorthand, which implies an certain attitude I want in my team.

    Tapes and digital recorders will never be a substitute (esp in the field, or on deadline). And it is amazing how litigious people will shut up when you wave your shorthand-filled notebook at them.

  25. Martin Johnston says:

    Money for shorthand
    Journalists earn an extra $15 a week if they can write shorthand at 100 words per minute, $23 for 120 and $31 for 140 under the NZ Herald Journalists Collective Agreement. I use shorthand constantly for news as it is faster than transcribing recordings — Martin Johnston, journalist and union delegate.

  26. Nate says:

    Hey, what type of shorthand do they teach at AUT?

  27. Nate, we teach T-Line at AUT.

  28. Barbara Kaye says:

    I teach shorthand at a University in the UK. We teach Teeline and expect our students to achieve 100 wpm within the year, indeed some even manage above that in one Semester. There seems to be difficulty finding people who can teach shorthand. Is that the same in other parts of the world?

  29. VK Parthasarathy says:

    I teach pitman shorthand. 60 wpm, 80 wpm, 100 wpm , 120 wpm & 150 wpm. I have 28 years of experience. I also teach our national language hindi shorthand and our regional/mother tonue language i.e., kannada in Bangalore. For any assistance interested candiates/institutions may contact me.

  30. [...] been debated fairly recently – from being passionately defended by Dave Lee, to having the relevance of teaching it here in Aotearoa queried by Martin Hirst at AUT, to other journos around the world having their [...]

  31. Gill Wray says:

    I am a shorthand tutor at a British University. I worry about the future of shorthand, but I would make the following points.

    Whilst shorthand may not be regarded as an academic discipline (it suffers by this assessment), it IS a little like learning a foreign language and even the most able students do find it very challenging. Shorthand also requires and promotes listening skills, motivation, self-discipline and a good standard of English. All of which, I would venture to suggest, are vital qualities in professional journalists.

    For my own part, I find that it acts as a pretty good primary performance indicator. Those who begin to fail early in the shorthand element of our degree courses, seem to fail across the board – I spot the ones who are not going to make it very early on and can then liaise with my colleagues so that such students are monitored and, if necessary, counselled about their prospects.

    Cameras may have found there way into some courts, but this is by no means universal and the courts are not the only areas to prohibit the use of digital voice recorders. Additionally, what about reliability? Batteries run out, equipment malfunctions – short of spraining a wrist, you should always be able to write things in shorthand, once trained.

    Editors we speak to say that copy produced from shorthand notes is of a consistently higher standard than that produced by any other method. They still regard shorthand as an essential component of the journalistic package and recruit on that basis.

    Long may it continue to be so!

  32. Sira Gaffoor says:

    Hi
    i have been using Pitmans Shorthand for the past 30 years earlier it was for letters but now it is for minute taking at meetings. i want to know if i can get permission to teach Pitmans Shorthand to others. I know it is a copyright but i am always admired for this skill and there seems to be a big demand for those holding secretarial positions. please advise.

  33. Carla says:

    I learned Forkner shorthand in high school in the 70s and was able to get credit when I went to journalism school as the same course was taught. Now, 30 years later my daughter is in the same college taking journalism and shorthand has been omitted. I have used my shorthand skills in other areas of my life and now my daughter wants to learn shorthand because it’s certainly a useful skill for a journalist to have.

  34. VK Parthasarathy says:

    Dear Mr. Carla,

    I read yr message of December 31, 2009. I am teaching Pitman English Shorthand since 28 years. I have passed 150 WPM in English. Please get in touch with me for learning English Shorthand. My contact No. is 97311 53909. I am residing in Bangalore.

  35. [...] palavras por minuto. Na Nova Zelândia, em torno de 60 a 80ppm, conforme podemos ler no site: http://ethicalmartini.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/whos-still-teaching-shorthand/ Em ambos, o método aprendido é o T-line, que de há muito vem superando o método Pitman, até [...]

  36. Anjum Sheikh says:

    I am in this field since 1979 and taught in the early days. Now once again I would like to do the same, but I believe the technology has changed now and computerized teaching/training is very much necessary. In this context, kindly let me know from where can I get the powerpoint presentations and lecture notes etc.
    Thanks and regards,
    Anjum

  37. Maureen says:

    I would like to learn or revise shorthand here in christchurch nz – does anyone know of any person or school that is teaching Pitmans shorthand – many thanks
    Maureen

  38. rose bryan says:

    I teach Pitman Shorthand privately – please get in touch if you are in the South East London area. I am a very patient tutor and teach up to 110wpm .
    07940 373201. Regards. Rose

  39. NTEGE FREDDIE says:

    Very interesting comments about shorthand. I teach Pitman Shorthand in Kyambogo University in Uganda. We teachers of this subject should make it very interesting so that students would like it in the long run because it is still an essential skill in record taking. There is no other recording system that beats it to-date. It helps the learner to acquire other sub-skills e.g, concentration, listening and reasoning. In fact, it is mostly passed by intelligent students.

    [Ntege, or is it Freddie?,
    thanks for this, I am keen to talk to you and others who've commented on this thread to discuss WHY shortand is still on the books and universities and how do you pay for it. We can't charge students because Shorthand is not seen as a tertiary subject.
    EM]

  40. binda naomi says:

    I wish to learn how to teach shorthand ie what are the techniques of teaching this skill? I am a professional having a speed of 180 words per minute.I would like to learn more to facilitate my work.

  41. NTEGE FREDDIE says:

    Binda,
    Your speed is impressive. You can learn how to teach shorthand by joining a National Teachers College in Uganda. Alternatively I could help you by recording training materials on tapes. Let’s just keep in touch.

  42. Lesia says:

    I haven’t been able to locate a Teachers College in Australia for Pitman shorthand. I reside in Sydney and travel to Western Australia regularly. Many years ago when I achieved my RSA certificate to 120wpm with credit, I proceeded to undertake a Teaching Certificate which regretfully never completed as I moved to Australia from the UK. Can anyone help? Thanks heaps!

  43. Pankaj Shah says:

    Short hand should be made compulsory.

  44. lorr1e1 says:

    Hi,

    I am interested in learning Teeline Shorthand, is anyone out there willing to teach it?

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