The new world order comes to news

May 28, 2007
Changes around the Monopoly board of news media ownership make good copy, and who next takes charge of which industry giant may even matter a little. But when it comes to making a real difference in the journalism you see, the question of which coven of the wealthy and willing sits in which boardroom clamoring for more-cheaper-faster matters less than underlying trends in the way the news business operates.

And so to media outsourcing. The topic made a small splash early this month when a citywide website in Pasadena, Calif., announced it was hiring a pair of reporters to cover its city council from India. They will watch Internet feeds of meetings. One reporter will be paid $12,000 a year, the other $7,200, no benefits.

“A lot of the routine stuff we do can be done by really talented people in another time zone at much lower wages,” James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the Pasadena Now website, told the Los Angeles Times. Macpherson, experienced with outsourcing from a previous career making clothes, said he hopes to hire another half-dozen Indian reporters.

Opinions differ as to whether what’s being outsourced is truly news reporting, and the Chicago Tribune’s public editor, Timothy McNulty, correctly points out that stenography shouldn’t be confused with journalism. But this still represents a disquieting development in a movement that has been building momentum worldwide for the past few years:

– In 2004 the global news service Reuters, which is based in Britain, decided to move copy-editing jobs from the U.S. and Europe to India, aiming to have 10 percent of its workforce there by mid-2006. Reuters was also moving its photo desks in Canada and Washington to Singapore.

– Western book publishers, including Cambridge University, Prentice Hall, Thomson and Macmillan, are increasingly offshoring editorial tasks formerly performed in-house. The Times of India says even the estimable Chicago Manual of Style, an indispensable reference for U.S. wordsmiths, is being produced by Delhi-based TechBooks.

– India’s biggest news broadcaster, NDTV, last year entered the outsourcing field, contracting to digitize archives, move content from one format to another (from audio tapes to podcasts, for instance), do closed-captioning, craft-editing, graphics and set design. The company estimates the 70 percent of all media work that is digital can be contracted out at a cost savings of some 20 percent.

– The New Zealand Herald, along with other papers in that country co-owned by Irish publishing magnate Tony O’Reilly, said in March it would outsource copy-editing and layout to an independent outfit in Auckland, eliminating all but a handful of 70 in-house jobs.

– O’Reilly, whose flagship company has 175 newspapers and magazines worldwide, is already outsourcing production editing at his Irish newspapers to local outside firms.

Plainly, the reassuring idea that outsourcing in the information industries  and now, the news business  would naturally be confined to mindless drudge-work is plain wrong.

Reuters, according to a 2005 report in Global Journalist Magazine, began by saying its Bangalore reporters would cover only small businesses ignored by its U.S. staff. Then they started compiling earnings tables for large companies and conducting polling, all tasks formerly handled by U.S. reporters. Next came writing from press releases, culling through Securities and Exchange Commission filings, posting news of breaking announcements. In short, they were replacing not clerks, but reporters.

“The people of India to whom journalistic work is starting to be outsourced are well-educated,” Gerard Colby, president of the National Writers Union, told Global Journalist. “I know journalists and writers abroad who are just as professional and proficient as their American colleagues, and who are willing to work for much less. They might not understand the [U.S.] idiom, but an editor on our side of the ocean can easily correct their work.”

It’s ironic that an industry that frets endlessly about its estrangement from the public, that claims to want its workings made transparent, accessible and accountable, would seize on a strategy that makes everything it does more remote, more cumbersome, more unintelligible.
It’s even more ironic that a profession that’s dedicated to producing work that’s richly reported and thoroughly knowledgeable would annihilate whole tiers of support staff that in a traditional newsroom are trusted sources of background, context, taste and memory.

The notion that news arises from a breathing, creative collaboration more like assembling a play than assembling a car seems dreamy and quaint. Whether it’s also true may become apparent only in time, as this living business, in its quest for globalized efficiencies, is dismembered.

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