Should publishers outsource journalism?

Perhaps by now you’ve read the story of the news website publisher in my hometown of Pasadena, Calif. who has outsourced his site’s newswriting to India. The story blew across the Web yesterday and today; in fact, I did a radio interview with the BBC about it late last night. I think the story’s getting so much attention because it plays to journalists’ fear that the global outsourcing epidemic that many of us have been covering for more than a decade now threatens our jobs.

More importantly, I believe that the attitude behind the outsourcing reflects so much of what is wrong with the practice of journalism today.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times this morning, James Macpherson placed an ad on an Indian version of Craigslist looking for journalists to write for his PasadenaNow website. Macpherson plans to have the workers he hires transcribe interviews, cover webcast government meetings and conduct interviews via e-mail.

The Times reported Macpherson’s site gets about 45,000 visitors a month. From personal experience, I know that it’s tough to support a family, much less to hire employees, on income from a site with that traffic. And that’s assuming the 45,000 number reflects absolute unique visitors, not an accumulation of daily visits, and that the number does not include spiders and automated agents.

For context, my wife and I publish two websites that reach a combined 260,000 absolute unique visitors a month. The sites appeal not to a geographic audience, but to targeted subject niches, and the money we make on these sites would barely allow us to support our family in Pasadena, a high-cost Los Angeles suburb. (Though, to be honest, we haven’t exactly broken a sweat trying to sign advertisers. All our revenue comes from Google AdSense and advertisers who have come to us. Plus, I’ve got the OJR and USC gig and my wife teaches and performs the violin, so we are not relying on our sites to put food on the table.) To make a living wage from a 45,000-visit website would require aggressive local ad sales, plus cut-to-the-bone expenses.

One can assume that is why Macpherson is looking to India. We’ll see if his plan works. (Or if public knowledge of his plan destroys his website’s credibility with the Pasadena community.) I have no doubt that he can find excellent, and relatively inexpensive, transcription services, stenographers and even reporters from India. But journalism that readers and advertisers will support requires much more than that.

Nor should we pile on Macpherson while letting established news organizations off the hook. The largest newspaper in the area, the Los Angeles Times, does not cover Pasadena on a daily-beat basis. At best, the community of more than 140,000 merits a few feature stories each week. The local newspaper, the Pasadena Star-News, is part of a chain of daily suburban papers owned by Dean Singleton’s MediaNews. As a result, the Star-News includes many stories from the other area communities MediaNews covers, instead of focusing exclusively on Pasadena. It seems like every time I pick up a Star-News I find a slew of reports from Whittier, a suburb 20 minutes south of here about which no one I know in Pasadena cares.

My kids attend the Pasadena public schools, and many parents roll their eyes at the Star-News, which recently endorsed for re-election members from opposing factions on the school board without acknowledging, or even seeming to know about, the rift between them. So it is not as if another publication has cornered the market on informed, comprehensive coverage of the Pasadena community, which is home to CalTech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as many legal, business and journalism professionals who work in L.A.’s nearby downtown.

Pasadena is hardly unique. Readers would not be flocking online if offline media had met their needs. People want more informed and more authoritative coverage on a wider variety of topics than old media has delivered. It is that way in Pasadena, as well as for thousands of other communities and topic niches.

Indian contractors might crank out the copy, but engaging newswriting flows from solid reporting. A reporter needs more points of contact with a community than webcast meetings and an e-mail inbox to find the stories that a well-informed readership demands. Yet too many offline news publishers are following a similar model to Macpherson’s: Cut back investment in local reporting, outsource news coverage (usually to the AP wire) and disengage from the community by relying on low-paid, overworked reporters who cannot afford to live in the community they are assigned to cover.

That’s why smart online publishers are transforming their news publications into information-sharing communities. Yes, the economics of online publishing demand that one keep expenses low. Why pay contractors in India when you can solicit more informed coverage from local readers for free?

Of course, while reader-contributed content does not require you cut checks, it does demand a significant investment of time. It also requires a publisher have the talent to engage his or her readers. That’s where so many independent and affiliated online publishers fail. Managing an online community is a new and distinct journalism skill that builds upon skills in interviewing and editing.

But many people have developed it. The Web offers thousands of lively, engaging, information-sharing online communities that offer smart information readers could not find elsewhere in the popular press. I suggest that hiring one or two of them to help build your news website would represent a far smarter, and lucrative, investment than a team of low-wage copy crunchers from 12 time zones away.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.

Comments

  1. Well, they may have to change the lead into their About Us page:

    “In just under three years’ time, PasadenaNow.com founders James MacPherson and Candice Merrill have managed to build an online community newspaper the old fashion [sic] way — daily deadlines, plenty of shoe leather, and a grueling schedule of personally attending dozens of community events every month.”

    Dan Gillmor wants to know why he didn’t hire local bloggers. Did you get a chance to ask?

  2. A colleague raised the question I’d like answered: whatever happened to hiring stringers? They’re plenty cheap. There has to be some other motive behind this move — publicity perhaps? Or provoking conversation?

  3. Actually, I’ve had pretty mixed success hiring stringers on my websites. On OJR, since we’re dealing with a fairly established style of media criticism/coverage, I’ve had decent success. (Obviously!) But on other sites, where the writing model isn’t as well established… well, it is tough to find people who have a good voice for online converation and who are not already overbooked working on their own blog or website.

    And if all you want is someone to summarize the transcript of the city council meeting, well… you might as well outsource that to India. 😉

    Another model? A blogger’s co-op. One person takes the city council, one takes the schools, another local churches, etc., and syndicate to one another using RSS. Pretty soon, you have a truly viable local news publication, with people covering *beats* rather than just meetings.

    BTW, Jon, James made it pretty clear during the BBC show we were both on that he’s doing this because he feels it is the only way he can afford to expand his coverage beyond what he has (which is *very* meager) to the level he wants. He said he can’t find the writers he wants locally at what he’s able to pay.

  4. Wayne Lusvardi says:
  5. larry wilson says:

    Dear Mr. Niles, I’m so glad that someone has finally noticed — or rather commented on, as certainly some ornery Pasadenans who believe there are only two sides to everything have noticed, and couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance: “the Star-News, which recently endorsed for re-election members from opposing factions on the school board without acknowledging, or even seeming to know about, the rift between them.” But you say that as if it’s a bad thing, or as if it shows we are out of touch with Pasadena in some unbloglike way — the evidence supposdly provided by the endorsements, that is. I don’t suppose you would have written the “even seeming to know about part” if you knew me, or about me — a graduate of the PUSD, and 25 years as a newspaper editor in Pasadena. But that’s OK. I wrote our PUSD endorsements, which were of good people who happened to be slightly better, in our editorial board’s view, than the good people against whom they were running. Despite the know-nothing propaganda of, let’s see, precisely three people, we at the Star-News don’t care if a candidate is associated with the Pasadena Educational Foundation, or is not, or is lined up against the nonprofit, which is what you were referring to. That’s not how we make our endorsements. The PEF is a wonderful organization. We endorsed some if its leaders. Bill Bibbiani, who we endorsed and who was defeated, is wonderful, too; he was running as an incumbent against a PEF leader and we went with Bib. Just how making sensible, independent endorsements shows that the city and surrounding area’s 125-year-old daily is out of touch — well, I’m not so sure that it does. All best wishes, Larry Wilson