Nov
01
2008

Outsourcing Journalism

Localism threatened by offshore reporters and editors

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/aranarth

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/aranarth

Brayden Simms had only five months to warm his seat as a copy editor at the Miami Herald before he joined the long list of journalists across the country losing their jobs faster and more suddenly than a breaking story.

But while media companies are slashing their staff rosters, consolidating newsrooms and forcing those journalists left standing to take on the job responsibilities of their laid-off co-workers, there was something unique about Simms’ firing: He would be replaced. But the new copy editor doesn’t live in Miami, or Florida, or even the U.S. The McClatchy Co., parent of the Miami Herald, is handing Simms’ copyediting duties to a company in India.

“My job has been outsourced to India,” Simms wrote—ironically, in a blog for his erstwhile employer (MiamiHerald.com, 6/22/08).

In June, McClatchy tapped the Miami Herald to eliminate 250 full-time positions. “Considering the recent spate of industry layoffs in South Florida, my forced buyout means I may need to relocate to find journalism work,” Simms wrote. He was reluctant to grant Extra! an interview in time for publication, as his severance check had yet to clear.

Taking over for Simms is Mindworks Global Media, a company headquartered near New Delhi. The company website boasts that “Mindworks’ staff edits and lays out newspaper pages, letting publishers reduce operational costs in print while keeping reporters and writers on the beat.”

McClatchy is the third-largest newspaper company in the U.S., behind Gannett and Tribune Co. Last December, the media giant handed over the Sacramento Bee’s advertising production to Express KCS (Sacramento Bee, 12/6/07), a company that offers “world class offshore advertising production to newspapers.”

McClatchy isn’t alone in looking overseas to parcel out newsroom functions. In June, the Orange Country Register announced, after a protracted period of layoffs and buy-outs (L.A. Times, 8/7/07), that it would also turn to Mindworks to copyedit some of the paper’s pages on a trial basis (Editor & Publisher, 6/24/08), and to take over layout design for a sister community paper (LAObserved, 6/24/08).

And in May 2008, the community online newspaper Pasadena Now hired two reporters to cover the Pasadena City Council—from India, via video. “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, the editor of the site, told the Los Angeles Times (5/11/07).

The Register and Pasadena Now did not respond to interview requests.

For the thousands of journalists across the country biting their nails in anticipation of another round of layoffs, this emerging trend doesn’t bode well. Media companies, who often run their business far removed from most of the papers they own, are beginning to think journalism can be turned in from afar. And journalists, media critics and academics fear that such outsourcing is at the expense of quality journalism and localism, something newspapers are already struggling to preserve.

With a hawkish eye on revenues, media companies are cutting everywhere they can to keep profits churning. Ken Brusic, editor of the Orange County Register, told the L.A. Times (8/7/07) that the layoffs weren’t easy. “But the truth is, as we see revenue continue to fall, especially in print, our company needs to take strong action to regain some balance,” he said.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that media consolidation has created a particularly harsh climate for journalism. But he warned that outsourcing isn’t the answer: “The idea of outsourcing journalism, certainly the idea of outsourcing journalism for any kind of community-oriented coverage, is antithetical.”

Professor Bharthur Sanjay at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in New Delhi said there were both pros and cons to outsourcing. “The benefits are that the newspaper can focus more on its constituency in terms of certain editorial framing and leave the rest to others that suits current cost-cutting practices,” he told Extra! via e-mail. “The drawbacks are it affects the diversity and uniqueness of a newspaper/magazine.”

A new era of journalism is certainly upon us, where a newspaper simply can’t be successful without an online presence, and a reporter will fare best if she can come back from an interview with not just a filled notepad, but complementary video footage as well. Still, many journalists like to think that they’re irreplaceable, while media companies are beginning to think that they’re outsourceable.

“If [outsourcing] is becoming a more widespread practice, perhaps it is part of a new journalism in which news finally becomes a true assembly-line product,” said Robert Dardenne, a journalism professor at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. “I’ve always thought of journalism as far more than news, but as the whole process of creation of news, which means it includes some tough-to-grasp elements such as personality, community, passion and inclusion, none of which are part of outsourcing.”

Dardenne was a regional education reporter in Baton Rouge, where he covered school board meetings. Referring to the Pasadena Now reporters covering city council meetings via video, he said, “Sometimes what did come out of the meeting could be covered by someone watching it on video in India.”

Yet he thinks there are elements of journalism that will be lost if reporters simply become long-distance stenographers. “Being [at the meetings] meant that I got to know people and people got to know me,” Dardenne said.

Week after week, month after month, I drank coffee with secretaries, talked to people who cleaned up the place and mowed the lawns, sat with low and mid-level managers, and talked to, interviewed and made myself known to clerks, superintendents, assistant superintendents, teachers and parents—people I looked up and people I ran into. I often ate breakfasts and lunches in local cafes and occasionally had a beer in a local bar, all the while listening to anyone who would talk to me.

While Pasadena Now’s reporter-outsourcing model doesn’t appear to be picking up many followers yet, it’s easier for media companies to justify shipping out copyediting. But Bernard Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, said outsourcing copyediting can be equally detrimental to quality journalism and news that accurately reflects the community.

“There’s an awful lot of changes that can happen to a story, and a lot of interaction that takes place between a reporter and a copy editor,” Lunzer said. “If you’re a copy editor and you don’t know the community, it could be a huge loss in terms of input [to the story].”

Copy editors that don’t have their finger on the pulse on the community, for instance, may not be able to catch a nuance that is central to a story. “You can argue that copyediting is a very particular skill set and that if anybody has the style book, what does it matter where they are and where they do it?” said media critic Dan Kennedy.

But I would tell you as a former newspaper journalist that there is a reason why copy desks are located right next to reporters. It’s not an absolute science; it’s more of an art—there are a lot of conversations that go back and forth through the editing process between reporters and copy editors.

Dardenne is dismayed that media companies have taken the step toward chopping up and shipping out various aspects of journalism in the same vein as any other retail product. “[Outsourcing] is no doubt cheaper, and I understand that’s important,” he said.

But, as a manufactured product, it’s thrown more and more into the retail mix of other products created anonymously and consumed indifferently. Journalism, to me, has always been a craft of passion—as a reporter, I was passionate about making a difference, passionate about giving people what I thought they needed to know, passionate about social justice, passionate about doing the best I could. I am passionate about news; I am not passionate about news product.

While these may be dark days for journalists, with at least 4,000 newspaper jobs lost last year, Lunzer said journalists can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch their profession disappear.

“Journalists are used to being objective spectators, but they’re part of this story,” Lunzer said. “We need them to start speaking out about what’s happening in their newsrooms and in their communities.”

Megan Tady is a campaign coordinator and writer for the non-partisan media reform organization Free Press. She was a national political reporter for In These Times and a staff writer and editor for the New Standard.