Offshoring/Outsourcing Journalism: The Unstoppable Bad Idea?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 09:09 PM

You probably didn't hear about this unless you work for a newspaper, but last month the head of newspaper conglomerate MediaNews Group said to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, "One thing we're exploring is having one news desk for all of our newspapers in MediaNews ... maybe even offshore." Now that's a terrific idea, don't you think? Yet it may be unstoppable, at least in the short run.

Understand that MediaNews is not a small player. The group owns 50+ newspapers in the US, including the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, LA News, and the Oakland Tribune. And its head, the author of the quote, is Dean Singleton, the group's founder & CEO, as well as a Board member of the AP.

The background first. Newspaper's have been experiencing a triple whammy:

1. Growth of the web and other non-print sources has hurt circulation.

2. Dwindling circulation brought dwindling ad revenue.

3. Recent inflationary pressure on the components of a newspaper has driven up fixed costs at the very time that revenues were falling.

The net result has been wave after wave of staff downsizing, consolidation of operations, and the occasional death of a paper. The result of that result has been an ever more lustful eye on the dirt cheap labor overseas. In fact, in the same speech to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Singleton also said that newspapers should think about outsourcing everything they can given the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves.

After all, the thought process goes, what part of putting out a newspaper really needs to be performed locally? The bulk of the news these days already comes from outside sources like the wire services and press releases that various people deliver right to the doorstep of the paper. Layout, copyediting, proofreading, ad sales, classified ads--why does it matter whether these functions are performed in San Jose, Bangalore, or Hanoi? You worried that local news, the classic "good news" items on community people and events, won't get to a paper produced offshore? Au contraire. If Mr. Lansing really wants to see his volunteer efforts lauded in the paper, Mr. Lansing will damn sure send the item to the paper himself. And if he wants to see his incredible visage reflected in the local rag, he can damn well get a spouse or neighbor to take a digital photo and transmit it to the paper's web site. In Bangalore or Hanoi. Worried that local events like City Council meetings won't be covered? Well, don't be: the assigned editor in Bangalore can watch a video of the meeting. What do you mean it isn't the same?

This is far from a joke. Under Knight Ridder, the former owner of the San Jose Mercury News, that paper outsourced the production of its Spanish language paper Nuevo Mundo to Mexico. That was back in 2005. In July of this year, the now-defunct Eureka Reporter reported that McClatchey has outsourced the copy editing of the Orange County register to India, outsourced the advertising design department of the Fresno Bee to India, and had intended to outsource the copy editing of the Miami Herald to India but ultimately changed its mind on that one.

And the future? Well, here's how Rick Edmonds at Poynter Online described it back in December of 2007:

2008: The Year of Newspaper Outsourcing

A wave of outsourcing is beginning in the newspaper industry according to a survey of 15 private company executives by Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Ginocchio. (His report is not online.)

As advertising revenues continue their swoon, outsourcing is emerging as one more way to shrink cost structure.

Anxious newsroom types might pause for a moment in sympathy for colleagues elsewhere in the building who are performing backroom functions like payroll or fielding circulation complaints. A bunch of those jobs are going away soon.

Ginocchio's annual survey provides a check on whether public company financial results and presentations to analysts are representative of the whole industry. In fact, there are more similarities than differences. During the Global Media Conference in New York earlier this month, McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt said bluntly that only news and advertising sales remain as essential internal functions of newspapers.

And as you can tell from what I've said above, I wouldn't don't get too confident about the news and advertising sales. There's no reason in the world that advertising sales can't be conducted largely by phone, e-mail, and web, which would allow that function to be performed any place that has electricity. As for news collecting/reporting, please.... How many newspapers really have a full staff of reporters who go out and personally interview, investigate, etc? Read any paper from a mid-sized city and you'll be lucky if there are two pages of those kinds of stories. I can easily foresee a time when most newspapers have no local reporters, relying largely on press releases, wire services and, at best, a few local stringers who identify potential stories and notify the offshore office, from which any "reporting" is conducted by phone and web.

Can this absurdity be stopped? My guess is that only currently unforeseeable "market forces," or a sudden resurgence of popular opinion against the idea of offshoring, can stop it. If the move toward offshoring newspaper functions continues, we'll inevitably see a decline in the quality and/or usefulness of the news as offered by newspapers. Which leaves us with the question of what news sources will replace those papers?

The web is obviously a possibility, but the current format of most web sites that traffic in news is not encouraging. For every Raw Story or Buzz Flash, there are 100 sites with no organization, no reportorial skill or resources, and no real value. And for the significant slice of the public that isn't equipped to evaluate objectivity, accuracy, or other important characteristics of the content, web news may be worse than quicksand.

What worries me most is that any suitable replacement for newspapers will likely take quite a while to develop. In the mean time, we're left with a situation resembling news chaos. And you know which kinds of people, and which viewpoints, tend to flourish in chaos, right?


Quality journalism is really hard to find nowadays. Most "journalists" don't focus on the real issue that may concern the truth or the efficiency of the news. What was more important is how many people would even care to read their writings. Have you heard about JournoList? No? Well most of people haven't heard about JournoList because it is a list of journalism entries from newspapers, bloggers, and other sources and it is supposed to be off the record, that is why. It has its critics that claim most, if not all of it, is contaminated by subjective truth and left-wing ideology and agendas. Some of the more ardent opposition would take a cash advance to put a stop to it. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere, however. The site remains a haven for bloggers and others for discussion and review in a forum devoted to merely discussion, some of which has wound up purported as fact. Makes you wonder how much credibility JournoList has.