Outsourcing of city reporting: Will it become a trend?

Pasadena (US), May 17 (IANS) What began as a simple business decision for Pasadena, California web publisher Jason Macpherson to outsource some of his news writing to a couple of reporters in India has become a major media debate.

Macpherson, the publisher of Pasadena Now that covers news and current affairs in the southern California town near Los Angeles, is now dealing with both bouquets and brickbats for his decision to hire two reporters in Mumbai and Bangalore to write about city council meetings.

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“Where do I get this much quality reporting at this price?” Macpherson wondered to IANS during an interview. “We are doing more with less, offering more content to our readers.”

Macpherson conceded that the decision to outsource stories about Pasadena city council was prompted by monetary consideration but also added that it did not “replace” any American journalists to do that.

However, he did not reckon with the ready “willingness” on the part of his Indian reporters “to follow instructions” which sometime American professionals may be less inclined to do. Ask to explain why that was so, he said “It is probably for some professor to explain but it could be cultural.”

Defending his decision to outsource, what his critics would call a purely local assignment, he said, “Were it not for the internet this would not be possible.”

He said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the decision since Pasadena Now editor follow the normal production route of any news organization. “The story idea is generated here and discussed before a packet is sent to the reporters in India with clear instruction as to what to highlight,” he said.

Pasadena city council meetings are available on the net, he said, and can be monitored without any problem from anywhere.

Asked how he was handling the criticism that he was diluting the sanctity of datelines in the news business he said, “This (outsourcing) is a tide that cannot be stopped. The print newspaper industry is imploding, management is looking at many solutions.” He implied that what was being outsourced was more a writing assignment rather than purely reporting work that would require physical presence.

The main reporter working for Pasadena Now out of India is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Macpherson said since the story broke the traffic to his site “has gone through the roof.” He also said he had been receiving many resumes from Indian professionals since it became known that he had hired the two reporters.

The story about his decision came out after the Associated Press discovered the announcement on Craig’s list, a hugely popular web compilation of various list of services and products.

Notwithstanding Macpherson’s explanation there are many in the US who believe that his decision goes against some of the cardinal rules of journalism. But more often than not the criticism centers on the loss of job rather than the question of dateline.

Writing on the popular blog site Huffington Post, blogger Barbara Ehrenreich said, “The world may be flat, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, but I always liked to think I was standing on a hill. Now comes the news that pasadenanow.com, a local news site, is recruiting reporters in India. The website’s editor points out that he can get two Indian reporters for a mere $20,800 a year – and no, they won’t be commuting from New Delhi.”

“Since Pasadena’s city council meetings can be observed on the web, the Indian reporters will be able to cover local politics from half the planet away. And if they ever feel a need to see the potholes of Pasadena, there’s always Google Earth,” she wrote with unconcealed sarcasm.

She also raised the question of dateline and whether the site publisher would let its readers know whether the story was done out of Pasadena or New Delhi.

The print newspaper industry in the US has come under enormous pressure as advertisers shift their focus increasingly to the web where they find more diversity and quicker response. Even the top mainline newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have been forced to pay as much attention to their web site as their print edition in light of the changing preference among advertisers.