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Media consolidation claims another alternative weekly – ours!

The Baltimore Sun Media Group is buying City Paper, squelching one more independent source of local news and culture coverage

city paper covers

After 37 years of stickin’ it to the man, Baltimore City Paper gets bought by … the man.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Cheeky writing . . . deep dives into city news and arcana . . . culture criticism from well beyond the mainstream . . . sex ads for every possible orientation and Kama Sutra permutation . . . the occasional F-word (and other colorful locutions that would pop John McIntyre’s bow-tie) . . .  cartoonist Linda Barry (back in the day, ahh, those were the days) . . . robust gadfly Larnell Custis Butler (churning out letters-to-the editor, week after week) and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage.

Now what are the chances the Baltimore Sun keeps Savage Love?!

As word spread yesterday that the Baltimore Sun Media Group has reached a deal to acquire City Paper from Times-Shamrock Communications for an undisclosed sum, the reaction was primarily sadness that the city’s 37-year-old free – and free-spirited – weekly alternative to the newspaper of record was about to be absorbed by it.

“Well, that’s really too bad. I always liked them. I found my first apartment from City Paper in the 80s and I’ve been reading them ever since,” said Maureen Walter, of Medfield, who was paging through the latest copy today over coffee at The Evergreen.

“You always find something different in there. I guess now that’s all over.”

“So much for ‘alt,’” former City Paper staffer Laura Dattaro said on Twitter.

Everyone Loses Their Jobs

“This acquisition represents a great opportunity for us to add another successful media property to our portfolio while taking advantage of the combined resources on the advertising and business sides,” BSMG publisher, president and CEO Tim Ryan said in an emailed message.

Sources at City Paper said the staff got the word at a meeting yesterday with Jennifer Marsh, former City Paper publisher who left last year to join BSMG to become Niche Products Director. Marsh, who began her City Paper career as an editorial intern in the 1980s, will now be its general manager.

City Paper February 9-26, 2014 issue.

City Paper February 9-26, 2014 issue.

Ownership will officially transfer on March 12.

The editorial and sales staff will move to 501 N. Calvert Street but, according to Ryan, they will remain independent from the Sun.

What will happen to the staff of 25 full-time employees (who do not have union representation, unlike the Baltimore Sun editorial staff, which is represented by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild)?

“Everyone loses their jobs on March 5. And then we see who they pick up,” said a glum staffer, not convinced he will be among those hired.

“The cynic in me says they’re just doing it this way to get us to move our shit out of the building.”

The Scranton,-based chain announced in August that it was selling off five of its alternative weeklies, including City Paper, which has a circulation of about 50,000 a week. Its website has roughly 200,000 monthly readers.

Brash Alt-Weekly Journalism

Knowing the paper was up for sale, City Paper staff writer Edward Ericson Jr. set off on a brief, quixotic (and ultimately unsuccessful) quest to get the staff to buy the publication and run it as a co-op “with the help of a kindly lender (or partner?) with somewhere between $1 million and $2 million.”

(Ericson floated the idea to media blogger Jim Romenesko, assuring him “We are not high right now.”)

“We are not a leftist political propaganda organ. We are not a repository for mere snark,” he also wrote. “We are not a lightweight vehicle for strip club and bar advertisements wrapped inside a canned celebrity interview.”

Black-and-white art photography, like this portrait by photographer Jennifer Bishop, was a City Paper hallmark.

Black-and-white art photography, like this portrait by photographer Jennifer Bishop, was a City Paper hallmark.

CP may have begun in the 1970s as “a hippy dippy rag” called “City Squeeze” (some would say it was more, even then.) but these days, Ericson wrote, they are “a key resource for civic-minded people.”

The current issue of the paper is a good example of what it has become – the lengthy cover story, “Gridopoly,” wades into the subject of utility deregulation in Maryland with charts, graphs, economic analysis and a grabby bottom line: “Your electric bill never went down as regulators promised.”

Award-winning 1999 City Paper cover designed by Shepard Fairey.

Award-winning 1999 City Paper cover designed by Shepard Fairey.

Staff writer Van Smith has a piece headlined “Jailer Justice,” detailing the “retaliatory inmate beatings and coverups” in Maryland correctional facilities. (Long before the rest of local media caught on, Smith had been reporting in detail on the Black Guerrilla Family, which operated with impunity within the city jail, thanks to a network of co-operative female guards.)

Also this week, there’s a review of a Japanese film showing at the Charles Theatre, tips on cooking when the power goes out, and lots and lots of ads, including a full-page spread for the “Hotties & Habaneros” contest at the adult entertainment club, Scores.

In 2007, when City Paper celebrated its 30th anniversary, they fished some gems from the archives. Included were a piece on Baltimore’s political bosses by “Black Hawk Down” author Mark Bowden and a 1984 interview with child molester and multiple killer Arthur Goode by filmmaker John Waters.

 Plummeting Circulation

One City Paper tradition that has diminished in recent years is the snarky shots at the Sun, perhaps because legacy media and alternative weeklies have suffered from the same industry malaise of plummeting circulation amid competition from online content.

Baltimore City Paper lost 24% of its circulation in 2012, dropping it out of the top 20 most circulated papers, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Circulation fell to 59,297, down from 77,354 in 2011.

Yesterday’s news of  a sale to the Sun also follows the national trend. In 2012, the Chicago Reader, SF Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian were all sold to the parent companies of legacy newspapers. Last year, the groundbreaking Boston Phoenix called it quits after 47 years.

Asked yesterday on Twitter what the future holds for CP after it becomes a niche product of BSMG, Ericson pointed to the Hartford Advocate example.

The Hartford Advocate, once the archetypal edgy, investigative alt-weekly is now the lifestyle and entertainment-focused CTnow.

The Hartford Advocate, once the archetypal edgy, investigative alt-weekly is now the lifestyle and entertainment-focused CTnow.

Once a  feisty alternative weekly known for investigative journalism and avant-garde arts coverage, the Advocate was acquired by the then-Times-Mirror-owned Hartford Courant and just last year, the now-Tribune-owned Courant finally killed the Advocate off.

Renamed CTnow, the publication is dominated by food and pop music features, along with entertainment calendars and movie news.

Fated to Merge with “b”?

Could City Paper have a similar fate, merged perhaps with “b,” the Sun’s weekly youth and entertainment-oriented tabloid that has been rumored to be losing money?

The Sun itself faces an uncertain future, with its owner, the Tribune Co., exploring a sale of its publishing assets, which also include the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. Recently, the Tribune Co. announced it will spin off its newspapers as a separate company from its television stations.

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  • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

    We need more investigative journalism in Baltimore, especially media outlets like the Brew and the City Paper that keep the Sun on its toes. Now that the Big Media Company has bought one of its most prolific watchdogs — well, If our beloved City Paper ends up another “b” — God help us.

    • Dave Troy

      I want to lead a guerrilla operation that forcibly takes “b” and renders it into the slurry of pulp and puke floating down the Jones Falls from whence it came. Monty Cook, you will pay for the sin of foisting that piece of garbage on this city. If the City Paper is infected with the disease that is “b”, you will pay doubly in hell. Let the City Paper be the City Paper — or die honorably.

  • James Hunt

    Other than Smith and Ericson, CP is a weekly heap o’ bad hipster-inflected writing kept afloat, in part, by ads presenting human beings as pleasure-providing commodities who are just a phone call away. I know, I know: what will we do without the warmed over lefty angst of cartoonist Tom Tomorrow?

    • green lisa

      James…You seem to be all about big and standardized: media conglomerates and mass merchandizing.

      • James Hunt

        Nein, fraulein: “schöpferische Zerstörung” is more my thing. CP had a long, happy run. Times change: smaller, nimbler online entities like the Brew are the mammals to their dinosaur. Same thing is happening to Wal-Mart, and in a decade or so JHU’s Center for Sustainable Communities–now holding down relatively small space in Cylburn Park–will occupy their space in the 25th Street Station. Destruction. Creation.

        • green lisa

          Ok…so we have the Brew. What other platforms do we have for investigative journalism? The Sun misses quite a lot of big stories. And we no longer have the serendipity of somebody looking for the venue where their favorite band is playing and stumbling across an article about corruption in the prison system.

          • James Hunt

            green lisa: I agree with you on the serendipity issue and will add that I like my milk in bottles delivered daily. That world is largely gone or dying.

          • green lisa

            Creative Destruction. Is it really creative? It is development controlled by those who have the most investment capital. Hardly creative except in the narrow sense of something appearing that wasn’t there before. Have you looked around you at the built environment lately? It’s dreary and depressing with shiny signage doing a poor job of hiding the soul-killing temporariness and vacuity of it all.

          • James Hunt

            FWIW, the idea of “creative destruction” originated with Marx, but thinkers on the right have embraced it in a difference sense than he intended. I saw it first hand when a former employer, the Baltimore City Life Museums, crashed and burned: a lot of talented co-workers (writer Jonathan Scott Fuqua, to name one) went on to expand or build their own enterprises, while others took the lessons learned to other museums. I don’t wish joblessness on anyone (I’ve had several stretches of it, and it s*cks), but every human enterprise dies eventually and from the remains new ideas and opportunities emerge. This is the upside of creative destruction.

            As far as the built environment goes, I’ll take our capitalistic dreck over the monotony and lack of opportunity in the Marxist “workers paradises” around the world. At least the capitalistic stuff can, over time, be transformed into something interesting and even attractive (e.g. the Can Company)

            Mr. Mencken empathizes with you though. See “The Libido for the Ugly.” http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/hlmlibidougly_2.htm

          • ushanellore

            Every new enterprise dies–from some new ideas and opportunities emerge and from others nothing–zulch.

          • James Hunt

            “zulch” = gulch mulch, natch. New growth by the batch.

          • ushanellore

            Poor attempt at rhyme–
            not worth a dime.

          • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

            But quite funny at the same time.

          • ushanellore

            James doesn’t need our applause,
            the man KNOWS he’s sublime,
            his contrived comic timing
            Is not exactly benign.

          • ushanellore

            Then you should start a company to deliver bottles of milk daily.

            Like something? Do it yourself! Hate something? Change it yourself. Criticizing something? Get off your behind and see if you can do it better or make it better. Aphorisms of and by Hunt for the hunters on this venue.

          • James Hunt

            Goodness, poetesse/ you seem distressed/though somewhere in your mental mist/you seem to have gotten the gist

          • James Hunt

            … and the milk delivery thing? It’s been done for a decade– http://www.southmountaincreamery.com/pages.php?pageid=3–and with luck it’ll last at least that much longer.

    • John Reinan

      I must rise to the defense of Tom Tomorrow. Warmed over lefty angst? He’s a genius.

      • James Hunt

        My next door neighbor has an RN, MD, JD, and an MML. She’s done path-breaking research into cystic fibrosis at Hopkins, and now is on the verge of landing a $25 million gift from a single donor to study macular degeneration. That, sir, is genius.

        Tom Tomorrow is a chap with one idea with a thousand iterations and a modest gift for drafting. That he’s able to feed and house himself with that modest talent is commendable, but not genius.

        • green lisa

          once again James, apples and oranges.

          • James Hunt

            once again, fruit obsession

          • ushanellore

            And your reply–no reply–
            just a diversion,
            as usual a self indulgence.

          • green lisa

            lol

        • ushanellore

          But the only blot on her genius? She landed up as your next door neighbor.

          Would you be the single donor uncharacteristically hiding your light under a bushel, because you fear cat burglars?

          By the way what is an MML?

          • James Hunt

            Masters in Medical Law.

            Love a good insult, even if directed at _moi_. Will return fire 55 days hence on the 98th Easter Monday since the Rising in Dublin. Keep on riding the that winged horse.

          • ushanellore

            I know not for long, with your sharp arrows directed at Pegasus and Usharephon O Zeus.

            This woman is a phenom.

            On Easter Mondays you are expected to love your friends and embrace your enemies. I hope you’ll remember that even as you sharpen your pen for a retort.

            Instead soften your pen and swallow your pride. You will admitted through the pearly gates with alacrity and be bored immensely in heaven where sharpened pens have been put away and sharp wits are dead with too much happiness.

  • http://www.timwindsor.com timwindsor

    While local ownership would have been a better solution, ownership with a local presence seems at least a step up, and certainly much better than a sale to pure bean-counters. CP has been struggling for years with an aging audience — not much younger than The Sun’s — in what *should* be a young medium. Here’s hoping that some of the same spirit that drives Brew and Fishbowl and Slumlord and Baltimore Crime and Technically and, even, b will make it to the pages (and, is it too much to ask, its digital presence) of CP. It’s almost a certainty that b will go away now; between that and the savings at CP on back-office expenses and printing that are now redundant, there’s at least the possibility that some of that savings could be directed at the editorial team to beef it up, not eviscerate it.

  • ecogordo

    The City Paper needs to be transformed into a better digital publication in order to hang onto and expand its readership. Whether the Sun can pull that off will be a true test. This change makes financial support of the Brew’s by its readers even more important to the evolving Baltimore.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?ref=name&id=1118134806 Doc_S

      One word: paywall.

  • davethesuave

    I’ll consider it a win if we can get CP delivered to our driveway, in lieu of that instantly-recyclable stupid Sun Plus.

  • Matthew Riesner

    Another nail in the coffin of critical thinking. The last print newspaper to have any real journalism in Baltimore is now in the hands of the nod and agree devil. No more print exposés uncovering the underworld, cracking the jails, and following the money trails. It’s all about making these guys look good and ignoring the problems for now on. I think this is a very happy day for the SRBs and O’Malley’s of the Baltimore area,

  • River Mud

    Bummer :(

  • Tom Gregory

    Now, more than ever, is the time to make a generous contribution to The Brew. Give Fern and Mark your financial backing and they’ll keep shinning the light on those dark corners of Baltimore where The Sun, with all its resources, conveniently ignores.

  • Andrew

    Good riddance to Savage Love and the massive prostitution ads section! That was where so much human sex-trafficking transacted. I hope they clean up this paper so it becomes less of an embarrassment and a positive step for this troubled city. That said, this could be a good opportunity for BB to be a bigger alternative voice of journalism in this town. The Sun is certainly no help.

    • ushanellore

      Come on Andrew,
      don’t be puritanical,
      Savage Love– a play on words–
      was sparkling and theatrical,
      a self anointed moral cop
      disapproving and stoical,
      by focusing his attention
      away from the comical,
      misses the mark
      that all the world’s a stage,
      in it a prostitute can be wiser
      than a sage–

      On a bed of nails–
      as you lie
      looking at life
      with a jaundiced eye,
      remember that if every
      seemingly unseemly transaction,
      is dealt a swift redaction
      it may give you immense satisfaction,
      but there are many others whose reaction,
      will be to cry
      that their freedom of speech is a lie.

  • Barnadine_the_Pirate

    There is zero chance that the City Paper remains a readable publication after this. Everything the Sun touches turns to shit. It is the anti-Midas of journalism.

    • ushanellore

      Love anti Midas. Doesn’t look like you can exist in the anti Midas state without a gas mask.

  • Andrew

    You really should consider going professional as a comedian.

  • ushanellore

    Everything is a business

    City Paper tongue in cheek,
    Sun weak on tongue in cheek,
    City Paper thorn in the flesh
    of the stuffy and the staid,
    Sun–a one paper parade
    for stuffy and staid,

    In the cosmos of news
    City Paper–edgy–
    Sun Paper stodgy–
    City Paper frothy–
    Sun Paper desperate for frothy–

    City Paper brazen
    an in your face sensation,
    Sun Paper broken–
    a predictable frustration–

    City Paper an astonishing gyration
    of facts and fiction,
    A giant ego–
    with tremendous conviction–
    a potpourri of sex and slander,
    with gems of art and nuggets of culture
    excavated by news spelunkers,

    Sun Paper an astonishing gyration
    of shrinking stories,
    of largely absent investigation,
    A giant– mostly crushed and fallen–
    A prey to publishing police blotters–

    Dearly beloved,
    You are herewith invited
    to view the inception
    of the wedded “bliss”
    of City Paper and Sun Paper–
    on March 12, 2014,
    at 501, North Calvert Street,
    Baltimore, Maryland.

    No bands will play,
    no cocktails will be sprung
    upon the guests,
    no caterers will bustle about,
    Tim Ryan will officiate–
    he will come dressed in a tuxedo,
    blowing smoke on the scene,
    he will skip over the objections
    to the union.

    The 37 years old bride
    defying all tradition will
    wear a short black mini
    and a Voodoo mask –
    the ceremony
    will be marked
    by the doddering groom–
    Mencken’s picture plastered
    on his forehead–
    saying, “I do!”
    before he’s asked to–

    And while the lone bridesmaid Jennifer Marsh–
    pitches from her niche,
    the congratulations and the toast–
    the bride besieged by last minute nerves–
    that a mistake has been made–
    will weep inconsolably–
    praying for a voodoo spell
    to smite the groom down,
    she’ll escape into the streets
    to paint the town
    one last time before she’s trapped
    like a fox by a trapper–

    And later–much later– found in a bar
    with a man more dapper
    than her groom–
    she’ll confess she’d rather be trafficked
    for a cool two million
    than be married to a centenarian—

    She’ll declare she wants to be set free–
    but being an acquisition,
    she’ll be arrested and placed in detention
    by Batts and the other meow cats
    who run the show in Baltimore–
    she’ll be toast before you can wink an eye
    or count to four–

    Dearly beloved,
    I am not saying I am sure
    or I know how
    this Shakespearean tragedy
    will play out–
    I am speculating it might take
    the path I have outlined–
    so come witness it for yourselves
    on March 12
    the 12 ways by which a coquette
    can be turned into a puppet–

    Because everything is A BUSINESS!

  • Matthew Riesner

    When the Sun goes bankrupt, which will happen, especially under the control of the Tribune, which has a history of throwing other newspapers that they own under the bus to save their own ass, we will now have no viable print news outlets in Baltimore. Just imagine the level of corruption then.

    • http://housingpolicywatch.com/ Carol Ott

      The Sun is just coming out of a recent bankruptcy filing, no? How many times does a company get to “go bankrupt”?

    • Walter

      Matt, we have Mark & Fern to keep an eye on EVERYTHING going on in Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs. Even an old retired coot like me now has a Kindle and I can tune in at home or even with free public wifi at McDonalds and loads of other free wifi hotspots.

      The Sun has not taken on corruption or dug into a story in decades. Just wire service reruns, yesterday’s news and fillers, and the editors on their out of touch high horses. I hope that they close up as fast as Beth Steel did when after 125 it vanished into thin air leaving Sparrows Point the world’s biggest ghost town! The Brew is more than – ABELL – to continue giving us the real news and keeping them honest!!!

  • David Eberhardt

    City Papers would print my letters- Sun never (I am a radical (mostly non violent) -lefty and Catholic Worker peacenik)-…Will the new City Paper muck rake and still have the coverage and distribution I have enjoyed?

    We had a Liberation News Service and underground papers in the 60′s and then the young fogies seem to take over most media.

    Good and just writing has always required a good education which seems lacking in most media- especially radio and tv. The writers are sell outs and shills for auto dealerships.

    Real issues are not covered except by “Democracy Now” or a newsletter like “The SPARK”.

    Our voices seem even less heard. A media outlet that is afraid to rock the boat- WYPR is an example- while entertaining and articulate (at least compared to rabidly right wing BAL 11 AM)- just ends up giving more pablum.

    Hope that won’t happen to the City Paper.

    • ushanellore

      Pabulum is mother’s milk to the sheeple–that’s what they are thinking. That’s how much respect the media has for the masses.

    • ushanellore

      What boat do you want rocked? All the boats have already sunk or are in the process of sinking–the Maryland boat, the Baltimore City boat, the Baltimore Sun boat–they are all past rocking.

  • Walter

    The Sunpapers is a has been rag on the way out ever since Abell sold out and they stopped printing Sunday Brown Section Magazine with all of those Audrey Bodine sepia brown photos of the harbor and us steel workers sweating over at the old open hearths, its been down hill for decades!

    In the old days, I loved to read the Sunpapers from cover to cover, but for the least 25 years (even before the internet was born) the Sun’s editors were the biggest jerks in journalism!

    If I had a new puppy, I would not even paper train him using that washed-up, anti-common sense, common-man rag!

    The City Paper’s personal section contained more real news and positive information than the sequestered back-room-out-of-touch editors over at the Sun.
    They insulted the reader’s intelligence more than Don Rickles. At least Rickles was sometimes funny and made you think!

    The Baltimore Brew does more hard hitting, in depth, breaking news, make you think stories in one year than the Baltimore sun has covered in the last 40 years!
    And Mark & Fern and handle a camera to make Bodine smile and a pen H. L. Mencken would approve of!

    Even the little East Baltimore Guide and Dundalk Eagle cover and break more news then that nasty and rude old has-been Sun.

    Now it is the reader’s turn to rub it in to the Sun’s editors – just like they did to the the good folks and institutions of Baltimore for the last three decades – how does it feel boys when the show is on the other foot?

  • David Eberhardt

    to usshanalllore- glad to see poetry on disqus- what boat to rock? that’s simple- the obscene boat of capitalism- which results in many of these problems-to a degree I’d rather b active doing something to overthrow this system to be a whiny, complainy blogger- why do you exaggerate abt baltimore and maryland- they are clearly NOT sinking boats (they may be stinking boats)

    • ushanellore

      The people are trying to make them lovely boats–but the politicians and their donors and lobbyists make them stinking and sinking, both. I am not hopeful that the people will win.

      The obscene boat of capitalism is vindicated by many as better than the rest of the systems out there. You should be fighting the vulture capitalists. There are many small capitalists–restaurant owners, web designers, engineering firms– a whole host of them part of the capitalist fabric providing jobs, supplying services and being ethical.

      If you are against crony, baloney hypercapitalists then we see eye to eye. Do you want to destroy the whole system to save it and would you or your many friends in the same cause be able to do it?

      The system certainly could use a lot of tweaking, reform and even destruction in some areas but it is tried and true for the USA and your pursuit may be self defeating.

      Out of blogging come new ideas and complaints are good for the system. Airing them flushes out the toxins and, believe me, politicians care about one thing–image. If a whole lot of people are writing negative things about them they and their PR folks soon realize that their future is going south and their jobs are in jeopardy.

      Politicians never leave politics. They play around its edges or at its center. Once a politician always one. So complaining and carrying on have their value. We are monitored by the powers that be and their CONSULTANTS.

  • Days of Broken Arrows

    I’m not knowledgeable about anti-trust laws, but how does this sale not violate that? Back when the Sun bought the community newspapers in the 1990s, the sale took a while because the Justice Dept. had to make sure no laws were being violated. Now the Sun not only owns the community newspapers, but will own the City Paper too? Isn’t this what anti-monopoly laws were crafted for?

  • cwals99

    People need to consider what the future may look like real soon. Neo-liberals in Congress and Obama intend to end net neutrality making the internet open for profiteering by monopoly corporations and they will indeed soak you and I. Instead of doing what he campaigned to do in 2008 in protecting net neutrality, Obama has failed to categorize the internet a utility. NO, IT DOES NOT STIFLE INNOVATION AS NEO-LIBERALS AND CORPORATIONS SELL! Categorizing the internet as a utility would have placed rates in the same category as your electric bill….everyone pays the same and gets the same access to electricity,….or in this case to the internet. What ending net neutrality means for example…..streaming videos, websites with videos or advertisements having video will keep many people from accessing most stuff on the internet because the cost of accessing high-speed and streaming videos with mega bits will be really high. This will place most people with very slow service that cannot open many websites or facebook/social media. THIS IS HUGE.

    Now, think how we are losing our print journals that are public and politically open in content. Where will people go to get any information besides Baltimore Brew? WATCH OUT BREW—-YOUR FUNDING MAY BE NEXT! This is all deliberate as America is now ranked with the former soviet nation of Romania for free press……and all this consolidation takes this ranking lower. IT IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR PEOPLE…..YOU CANNOT HAVE A DEMOCRACY WITH FREE PRESS AND CITIZENS ABLE TO ACCESS FAIR AND BALANCED NEWS. ALL WE HAVE NOW IS CORPORATE NEWS WITH EVEN OUR PUBLIC MEDIA CAPTURED!

More of the Daily Drip »

Below the Fold

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