When fears arose a few years ago that journalism jobs would start to be outsourced to India, I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever heard. How could a guy in Mumbai report on the minutia of local politics in the United States? But, as seemingly crazy things tend to do, it became a reality, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon.
At the end of 2005 Reuters had already set up a 1,000+ media workforce in Bangalore, India that reports on Wall Street. Information about Wall Street aside — after all, stock quotes can be analyzed as quickly on the other side of the globe thanks to our friend, technology — I’ve still been skeptical that the trend would worm its way into local journalism.
But in a recent post in Information Week, blogger Richard Martin writes about PasadenaNow.com, which recently outsourced its city council reporting beat to two journalists in India.
Hatched by Web site publisher James MacPherson, who has the temerity to call local reporting “the routine stuff” that can be done from 9,000 miles away, this scheme has already attracted a legion of scoffers, most of them U.S.-based journalists, naturally. Speaking to The Associated Press, USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson called it “a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become.”
So why is this happening? I think there are two reasons.
The first is obvious, it’s the reason for outsourcing in all industries: cheap labor. The Indian journalists’ combined salary is less than $20,000 a year — a real coup for a local news organization that is probably like most local news organizations in the U.S. Local news organizations as I know them have one major goal: to constantly increase their already high profit margins (most U.S. newspapers make rake in a 20 to 30 percent profit margin as it is). One starting reporter at a small community newspaper makes all of $20,000 a year in more markets than most people would believe. Of course, as reporters gain experience, move onto bigger papers, or gain seniority, their salary increases some what. Either way, two reporters for the price of one starting reporter most likely has accountants in the media industry salivating. And with recent industry trends — falling circulation, falling ad sales, reader traffic moving to the web, which most news companies have yet to find a way to make profitable — outsourcing reporters must seem like a great way to keep profit margins high.
The second reason is less, well, nice: U.S. journalists are getting lazy. I know, I’ve been there, and I’m just as guilty as the next person of lazy reporting. We reporters make excuses for our lazy reporting — being overworked, a small staff, no overtime budget. These reasons are valid, and I know writing ten or more stories a week will make anyone want to dash a few stories off without proofreading or confirming facts. But when the most local of local reporting jobs, the bread-and-butter of beat reporting, gets outsourced to India, it should be a wake up call. Journalists should be taking a second look at their own work. If we were producing unbeatable, compelling stories, our work couldn’t be outsourced.