While much has been made of the outsourcing of American jobs to foreign countries, until recently the field of journalism had remained largely untouched. Earlier this month local news website Pasadena Now announced its decision to outsource work to India, specifically reporting of City Council meetings. The site’s owner, James Macpherson, said the meetings are streamed on the Internet, eliminating the need for a reporter’s physical presence in Pasadena. Indian journalists could simply watch video of the sessions and report as if they were there.
Not surprisingly, this ruffled quite a few feathers in journalism circles. How can you report local news from thousands of miles away? While some say a case can be made for reporting from afar — with technology such as email, IM and webcasts helping bridge distances — local reporting isn’t local when it’s done from half a world away.
A few reasons why this experiment is bound to fail:
> Distance. While emotional distance from a topic is necessary to report with objectivity, physical distance is a serious impediment, especially in local news. It’s impossible for a person on the other side of the world to report on a locality that they know nothing of. How could you report on the pothole problem on Main Street when you’ve never seen Main Street? And most political news goes on in back rooms and not in public meetings. That requires more on-the-ground reporting.
> Cultural differences. While our world has become smaller and smaller with the help of the Internet, we might be able to read news online about Mumbai, India, but that doesn’t mean we can report news about the city if we aren’t familiar with the culture there. The issues discussed at a City Council meeting in Pasadena will undoubtedly be as much of a mystery to an Indian reporter as election debates in his or her community would be to me. And a reporter from India might have a very different take on a local debate around same-sex marriage in San Francisco than a local journalist.
> Trust. The reporters don’t live in the community (or even the country) they are reporting on, so readers likely won’t trust the reporting, which they know isn’t first-hand. A dateline assures readers that what they are reading was reported from the actual location where the story happened. What dateline would a reporter from India use when reporting on Pasadena?
On the issue of trust, Barbara Ehrenreich contends on the Huffington Post that this is no different from “what New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for — pretending to report from sites around the country while he was actually holed up in his Brooklyn apartment.”
> Lack of savings. PasadenaNow claims they had to look to India because they simply couldn’t afford to pay someone local to do the job. Instead of paying one local reporter $30,000 per year plus benefits, they were able to get two Indian reporters for about ten thousand dollars less. But the problem is that they will need to spend time and resources on training these reporters to “know” Pasadena. Plus there’s the added cost in time of having to more heavily edit the stories, and to do fact-checking on the ground, or the publication risks making egregious errors. And is the money they save by outsourcing — which isn’t that much — actually worth the lack of connection these reporters will inevitably have with readers (not to mention the bad PR for the publication)?
The Reuters Precedent
Outsourcing of reporting jobs to foreign countries didn’t start with PasadenaNow. Back in 2004, media giant Reuters announced that it would be outsourcing Wall Street reporting work to a newly created bureau in Bangalore, India. At that time, Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger assured the skeptical that these reporters would only be handling rudimentary tasks such as fact-checking and data filtering, leaving the real meat of the matter to American reporters. “Now we can send our New York journalists out to do more interesting stories,” he told the BBC last February. “This is good for our business and good for journalism.”
While it might make sense for Reuters in the area of basic business reporting, local news reporting from abroad is an area of journalism where outsourcing is least likely to work. However, there are a few arguments in favor of outsourcing reporting to India:
> High-quality labor. While many equate outsourcing with shoddy workmanship in other industries, there is no reason to assume that journalists in India might produce lesser quality work than their American counterparts. Many (including one of PasadenaNow’s recruits) have graduated from American journalism schools, so they could be just as good (if not better in some cases) as an American candidate. Plus, many Indians are fluent in speaking and writing in English.
> Technology. While journalists employed full-time at newspapers are physically present at their offices from 9 to 5, many others are not, working remotely. Indian journalists could do teleconferences with their editor over the phone, or via webcam or IM as some American journalists do. Reporters here in the U.S. use technology such as email and IM to interview their subjects, often never hearing the voice of the person they are interviewing. Someone in India could use these tools to do their interviews as well or just call sources on the phone.
Sniffer Dog, a former managing editor for the London Observer, takes all the outsourcing opponents to task:
Can an Indian journalist with an Internet link on his desk do as good a reporting job as a junior American journalist in the council chamber? I don’t really see why not. At this level of journalism you need to be able to see and hear what’s said accurately and report it diligently and accessibly. Or at least well enough for a copy editor to knock it into shape. You can only, in my view, regard this as a threat to good journalism if you have no knowledge of the standards of journalism historically applied at this level.
> More local content. Macpherson says he wants to give Pasadenans what they want: more local content — content that they wouldn’t have otherwise. So isn’t it better to have that produced in India than to not have it at all? In recent years, we’ve seen buyouts, consolidations and watched smaller papers disappear. We’ve also seen people go from getting news from their local paper to relying on large media companies’ websites for information. Perhaps outsourcing — in the right circumstances — could help reverse this trend.
While some of the arguments in favor of outsourcing journalism make sense in some cases, in the end it’s unlikely that this experiment could actually bring accurate, quality content to readers who are looking for a local take on what’s happening in their communities. And while outsourcing can’t replace quality local reporting, the trend toward citizen journalism in news could help fill in the blanks for local media outlets that don’t have the resources to cover every story. Reporting from afar might work on trend stories or features that might not require a local presence, but local stories will still remain best reported locally in the flesh.
For more reading on the Pasadena Now controversy, follow these links:
It’s official: local reporting is doomed by PeoriaPundit
Uh-oh: L.A. Web site outsourcing local news coverage to India by Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune
Pasadena Now outsources newswriting from India by Tony Pierce at LAist
Outsourcing stories to India? Get used to it by Robert Rector in the Pasadena Star-News
Nasty downside of globalization can be avoided by Rick Wartzman at the LA Times
Pasadena Now Outsources Local News by Foothill Cities blogger
Links for Following the Pasadena Now discussion online by Jill Davis Doughtie at Eye Level Pasadena
What do you think of Pasadena Now’s decision to outsource local reporting to India? Is this hurtful to the craft of journalism or helpful for local news? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.