If “local” news gathering can be outsourced to India and U.S. taxpayers must fund GM to produce cars in China — just what is OUR function???

May 29, 2009

I just read on the Editor and Publisher site that the Hartford Advocate newspaper (out of Connecticut), along with two other alternative newspapers connected with it, in what was first proposed as a joke and then became serious, has published at least one edition in which all or virtually all of its local news was done by outsourced writers – from INDIA!

On my first read of this item I did not get whether this was a one-time thing or a new way of doing things. This is not the first time something like this has been done. And in the case of the Advocate, it seems some of these writers are quite highly qualified, having written for the Guardian (out of England), the BBC, and the Times of India. Interestingly, the Advocate personnel said the whole thing was “not cheap”.  But at least one other U.S. newspaper tried (still is?) outsourcing local news because they could get the job done for a lot less money (really kind of like just accepting the news release written by city hall instead of doing your own reporting – but really the story for the local newspaper is not so much about what happened at the council meeting, but what led up to it and what is the result and so on – good reporting is not transcription). My own local newspaper is starting to use more submitted articles. Back in the old days, local newspapers often used so-called “stringers” who worked on a kind of low piece rate (or maybe for free for their own vanity – kind of like I’m doing here). Back to the oursourced writers from India. Of course they do all of this by phone, calling to the U.S. for interviews from the Indian subcontinent. It’s bad enough they’ve taken over medicine (at least where I live), but our local news reporting too!?

Reading this on top of learning by way of the web and some on cable news that General Motors plans to use taxpayer bailout dollars to make cars in China (and even import some of them back into the U.S.) leaves me to ask the question: just what is OUR function on this planet?

(Maybe we’re all supposed to join the Army. Then again, that could be outsourced — like the French Foreign Legion — not a bad idea.)

Going back and reading the E&P item again I saw that the Advocate is a weekly and the whole thing was done as a kind of spoof to prove a point (or not). They (the paper) explain it themselves and if I can get this link correct you can get that explanation at: http://www.hartfordadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=13171

And if that didn’t work, just Google Hartford Advocate.

They also mentioned that they got the idea from news some time ago that a newspaper in Pasadena, Ca. decided to outsource some local coverage by doing such things as linking up their Indian correspondents via webcam to local city council meetings. Having attended far too many council meetings when I was a reporter (I actually liked them at first), I’d say that’s one job I’d almost not mind giving up.

Seriously. Besides all the obvious logistical, practical, ethical, even cost, considerations associated with outsourcing news coverage, doesn’t one have to ask at what point do we lose our personal identity?

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Outsourcing for local newspaper is like putting a nail in its own coffin…

May 23, 2009

I feel like a Luddite stuck in some kind of time warp or just a run-of-the-mill old timer who can’t accept change (I’m 59, nearing 60) what with my local newspaper with its shrinking page count and shrinking local news coverage, and most frustrating of all right now, its proclivity to oursource what little employment it offers (no I was not looking for a job).

The latest frustration was Friday morning when I called to check to see if the newspaper had received the check my wife and I sent off to cover our late subscription payment. We had received a notice wrapped around our morning newspaper that our paper would be cut off. So I called the number on the notice to inform them that, yes, sorry, our bad, we were late, but please don’t cut us off. My first clue something was amiss is when the man on the other end of the line asked how to spell our street name. Come to find out, while I live at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley in California, the customer service guy for my “local” newspaper was in Mesa, Arizona.

And there was another problem. He didn’t seem to have ready access to my account, and while he was pleasant, the only thing he seemed to want to talk about was signing me up for automatic payment.

Later I called the main number at my “local” newspaper and got that automated runaround and finally the phone hung up without me talking to a real person. Then, on my third try at all of this, somehow I got hold of a real person, she assured me that she was indeed real. She transferred my call to circulation and after waiting some time another real person came on the phone.

I told her my problem and she answered that what would probably happen is that I would not get the newspaper for a few days because although we had sent off our payment it takes ten days for them to post it. I asked why it takes ten days (the mail can’t be that slow). Come to find out it has to go through corporate at Portland, Oregon (430 miles north of here – I knew the mileage; I used to truck drive that route).

By this time newspaper delivery was not my concern. I called the newspaper’s general manager and told her I did not think it was a good idea to oursource customer service (I am in fact against basically all outsourcing they do). She said she was sorry I felt that way but that actually the newspaper is able to offer better customer service by outsourcing. We did not talk long enough for me to hear why that could be. I know I don’t agree, but I also know that apparently the newspaper corporation saves money that way. But of course in so doing they are probably shooting themselves in the foot or spiting their nose to save their face or whatever cliche or metaphor is appropriate here. I hung up on her and then felt ashamed, especially since at least, big wig that she is, she did answer her own phone. So I e-mailed her (see, I’m not a Luddite after all) and apologized and spelled out my specific concerns. As I told her, I realize that she cannot do anything about this. She only follows what corporate tells her.

No, I realize that newspapers are suffering and will probably die out altogether because of various reasons, to include new technology (the internet which of course I use extensively myself), too much competition for the shrinking advertising dollars, the poor economy, the fact that younger people in general, we are told, have no use for newspapers (and why would they if the newspapers give up offering anything?), and so on. But I think that they simply put the nails in their own coffins, especially local newspapers, when they abandon their own community by cutting down on staff and outsourcing work that could be done by local folks and would help stimulate the local economy and create more subscriptions and more money circulating to help potential advertisers.

It is a terrible irony that it was but just a few years ago that our local newspaper decided to put more emphasis on local reporting. They decided that people had already long ago gone to other sources for their national and world news, so they decided to do what they could do best, offering a complete local report, to include devoting most or all of their front pages to local news. Good idea!

But since then they have drastically slashed their news staff. They have outsourced even some of their advertising production work, and their customer service, as I have mentioned.

I even read about a Southern California newspaper that outsourced some of its local reporting. It actually had hired people in India to do phone interviews and write “local” stories. I don’t know how that panned out. I used to work as a newspaper reporter. And while it is true much work can and is done via phone, nothing replaces local person-to-person contact. It is evident that our own local newspaper is suffering from lack of staff. They no longer have a workable beat system. Under the beat system, a reporter covers a certain area and builds up news contacts. In the old days reporters spent a lot of time that today with short staffs would seem unproductive. But from those unproductive hours came a lot of  eventual stories and a lot more understanding and depth in news reporting.

I am told that actually smaller local newspapers, as opposed to the giant metros, have a better chance of surviving because they have a niche.

It seems our local newspaper is abandoning their own community and their own niche.