Outsourcing Journalism

By Martin Bosworth

The L.A. Times had an interesting article today about the creators of online newsmagazine Pasadena Now, and their move to outsource city council coverage to reporters based in Bangalore, India:

“A lot of the routine stuff we do can be done by really talented people in another time zone at much lower wages,” said Macpherson, 51, who used to run a clothing business with manufacturing help from Vietnam and India.

I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, what is MacPherson doing that’s different from any independent news magazine, Web site, or blog community? He’s providing a useful service for his community and keeping that most vital of resources–local news–alive and well.

It’s also feasible to think that the news can be constructed without people being there. Many an article I’ve written has been cobbled together from statements, press releases, and cobbled quotes–I try to get the source whenever possible, but sometimes you just go with what you have.

But on the other hand, I can’t believe that MacPherson is so hard up for money that he can’t contract out to a few freelancers to cover city council meetings part-time. I have no trouble thinking of a few struggling journalism students or copy slaves that wouldn’t mind the extra scratch.

And the idea of using Webcasts of the hearings to build articles from is also entirely feasible–I’ve done it myself–but then again, I am not from Bangalore, India. What kind of nuances or important details will be lost because of the cultural, technological, and physical gaps between the reporter and their subject?

I hate myself for thinking this idea has merit, but being an employee and consultant for several small businesses, I see the outsourcing of practically any and every function as a reality every day. I just can’t shake the idea that MacPherson–who says openly that he wants to serve his community–is doing his community a disservice by not working harder to recruit fresh talent closer to home.

What do you guys think?

7 replies »

  1. Let me see can I reduce this proposition a bit. How many years do you think it would take for you to reach the point where you understood the culture, nuance, idiom, assumptions and invisible yet critical character quirks of local government in India well enough that you could cover Bangalore city council meetings for the citizens of that city?

  2. Let me ask a service related question. How many people do you know who are satisfied with technical support they receive from Bangalore on, oh, anything?

    So what can possibly make you sanguine that the complexities of American culture and politics can be accurately described by some guy named Vishnu who’s been told to introduce himself to “consumers” – er, readers – as “Brad”?

  3. It’s interesting that you guys would both jump on this point, as that’s the point I’m least convinced by.

    It’s one thing to outsource content creation (and even that bothers me for many reasons), but it’s quite another to outsource the kind of work that requires first-hand physical experience, presence, and ability to separate simple stenography from true journalism.

    I guess I can empathize with both sides, thus my uncharacteristic ambivalence on the issue. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is, as a fellow said, just another tactic to depress wages for the writing class.

    If people like us, the creators and writers, can be outsourced, our business future will be nothing but diploma mills for MBA management types who have no clue how to do anything but push paper and duck responsibility.

  4. It gets worse. When you look at the bullshit being committed in the name of accreditation at the university level as closely as I have, it becomes clear that there’s a rage to standardization that serves an administrative master. Get everything standardized and all of a sudden you don’t need all those noisy overeducated professors anymore.

    How long before they start offshoring the 400-level Shakespeare seminar, I wonder….

  5. Another point I thought of:

    I don’t know how Pasadena fares when it comes to the ever-thorny issue of illegal immigration, but if the attiudes are at all similar to other SoCal cities, it can’t be pleasant.

    So how do you think the locals feel about the idea that their “local” Web site of record is, itself, passing up American writers to save bucks?

  6. A note about Sam’s point: I just left a “graduation celebration” at my large state university – the mood there is somber – administrators are looking to “reduce operating expenses,” so they’re asking dept. heads to teach full loads, assistant deans to teach half-loads, and looking at “laying off” faculty! This for a university that is bringing in money like an oil company….


    So that “profit margins” get wider – although there aren’t any damned stock holders – other than the Republican lawmakers who see my university as a cash cow that’s being used as a cushy sinecure by professors – those guys who are “paid to think” – I mean who the hell wants to pay people to think?

    I guess more “Deciders” can be hired then – you know, administrators who can lay off faculty and have those left teach an ever growing student population for less pay and no benefits….Sound like every other field of work?

    Or maybe this can be outsourced to Bangalore once all the university’s courses have been “standardized” with “common” exams – in other words, the thinking is removed and rote response to pre-prepped queries is given primacy.

    This is all of a piece with devaluing any intellectual endeavor. It’s evil. Just evil It’s what makes people who are supposed to be “educated” believe crap like fundamentalist dominionism….

    I don’t mean to get so worked up, but I find such “performance standarization” and ” indefensible in any form. As Robert Reich would argue, I’m willing to pay more for some things to have them be of value….

  7. I hear you, Jim. And this is a big part of why I appear to have set aside some of my earlier attempts at bridging certain kinds of divides. There are things in life that I’m declaring war on. Step one – know them better than they know themselves….