Journalism vs. Journalists

I somehow missed the ruckus round Pasadena Now last year. They have had the nerve to outsource some of their work to Indian journalists and producers, who according to the publisher, who was on BBC Newshour yesterday, are providing stories for $5-$7 a pop, whereas local journalists come at at least $30,000/year plus benefits. As a small independent businessman trying to make a profit off his site, he explained that he had come to the conclusion that he couldn’t afford to have all his journalists on staff anymore, and would now try to cut cost by doing more of the work off-shore, especially back-office stuff like production of videos and the like, and also some content production. Hardly a novel idea in business, but in journalism, oh boy (of course, Reuters and others have done this for years now, as Robert Niles points out).

The case gives a complicated twist to the whole ‘future of the media’ discussion, because it shows how the future of actual journalism in a community may not be as narrowly tied to the future of traditionally employed journalists in the community as one would think. The professional role of the journalist as we have inherited it includes a wide range of tasks, and only some of those are acts of on-the-ground reporting, including the building of a network of trusted sources–others include writing up, editing, a lot of work over the phone and based on press releases and videos, and, increasingly, new media production work to put stories including video and pictures up on websites. News as a the reader/user/consumer meets the product is, as Dave Cohen always points out, the outcome of a process.

Those who resist outsourcing and similar examples of commercial media enterprises catching up with practices that are by now commonplace in most of the private sector may inadvertently be taking the side of journalists versus the side of journalism that covers a given community. I don’t say this because I am a fan of people loosing their jobs due to outsourcing, but because I like the idea of all communities being served journalistically at least in some form. And the dominant model in the U.S. has, like it or not, for the last hundred years or so, been to leave newsgathering to private enterprise.

The BBC had found a grumpy old journalist to say the usual things about how Pasedana Now was fake journalism etc. Pasadena’s publisher counted with what I think was a pretty good, basic point, that as far as he was concerned, it was not a question of American workers vs. Indian workers, but of no workers and no site, or of Indian workers contributing to a Pasadena site. He still wants to maintain a presence on the ground, and agreed that community coverage is impossible without a journalistic presence in the community (it is unclear to me how many people doing on-the-ground reporting in the community we are talking about, does anybody know?), but also wanted to make a living. Fair point, really (does anyone out there now how profitable/not Pasadena Now is?).

Here is how Reuter’s explain it’s decision, made back in 2004, to run some of its Wall Street coverage out of a Banaglore bureau (from PBS/Mediashift)

“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.””

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, who wrote the PBS/MediaShift story on this, gives both pros and cons, but goes on to argue that “local news reporting from abroad is an area of journalism where outsourcing is least likely to work”. Sure, for some parts of the journalistic process, such as the actual on-the-ground reporting, but I don’t really see why post-production stuff can’t be done at night in India? Is it important that the multi-media producer is in the community covered?

Look at the site: Pasadena Now is an online site that provides local coverage, mostly consumer and community-oriented stuff, nothing special, about Pasadena, an affluent LA suburb. Do you need to live there to format the photo feature of the Christman Musical?

The city is home to two newspapers, the chain-owned Pasadena Star-News and the (chain-owned) alt weekly Pasadena Weekly. OK, Pasadena Now does not look like it is aiming for a Pullitzer for its investigative reporting, fearless muckracking, and so on, but nor are the others really. The site provides a modicum of publicity for community events, largely friendly covereage, probably to a large extend based on press releases and pre-packaged content, but hey, who knows, maybe they will break an uncomfortable story one day too (anybody know of any cases?) or in some other way move into watch-dog territory too.

I don’t see that it is less likely to do this that the two local newspapers, who seems at least equally dependent on local advertisers and elites for content and business, and may be even less embedded in the local community than Pasadena Now, which at least only serves Pasadena, and does not seem to fill its site with canned content from a chain (Pasadena Star-News top stories right now include an AP story about an arrest in Las Vegas and a poll about whether Illinois Gov. Blagojevich should resign. Pasadena Weekly has a cover story about President-Elect Obama). Are they all collectively dragging down the standard of what qualifies as ‘journalism’? If so, they are hardly ahead of the curve, and I’d rather have three competing stenographers for power and commerce competing in a community than have only one or two–even if one of them is only able to maintain the business model that sustains its journalism by firing some of its journalists, and doing more back-office work in India.

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