From Media

Dateline: Pasadena, Calif. (or is that Mumbai, India?)

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.

A sad day for Philippine journalism

Newsbreak, one of my favorite magazines in Manila, has gone to a web-only publication. (I’m biased, I contributed to the magazine while I lived there, and have enormous respect for the magazine’s founders and editors.) While I’m trying to remain optimistic that the rumors of a possible underwriter for a continuation of the print version are true, I’ve also seen many small publications die a quick death after the shift to web-only versions.

It’s difficult to describe Newsbreak’s importance to Philippine journalism without a little context. It wasn’t a news source with broad appeal, like the shows the network I worked for, ABS-CBN, produced. It was for the movers and shakers, the politicians, businessmen, investors, the intelligentsia.

Philippine journalism has a reputation — and that reputation is not always a good one. Since Marcos fled the country in 1986, the country has enjoyed a free press – a pretty big accomplishment for an Asian nation. But as is often the case, when it comes to press freedom in the Philippines, the definition of “freedom” is not so clear.

For years the country held the unenviable title of the most dangerous country for journalists – and journalist murders still make the news on a regular basis. A lot of journalists in the Philippines brush the killings off when the journalists killed are not considered legit – they’re on the take, they pay for radio air time to blast politicians they consider corrupt. But other victims are legitimate journalists working on stories about corruption, professionals who will not take money to stay quiet. In the 21 years since people power, only two people have been convicted of murder for journalist killings. So how free is a press where reporters, photographers, cameramen and editors are threatened and killed on a frequent enough basis as to make most people immune to the story?

But blaming only the party responsible for the killings or government inaction doesn’t look at the full story. The Philippine press, if famous for being free, is also famous for being rife with corruption. Reporters who don’t take money from sources are often considered stupid by their peers. Reporters and cameramen at the nation’s largest stations are paid very little – and the bribes are considered a perk of being in the business – supplementary income that some of the employees desperately need. The act of taking money from sources even has a name — “envelopmental” journalism — named after the envelopes of cash handed to reporters.

Newsbreak’s stories were well-researched, thoughtful, agenda-setting pieces in a sea of one-source newspaper stories with bizarre headlines and brief TV news clips littered with inaccuracies. The editors and writers I met at Newsbreak were motivated and passionate. More important, they were outspoken about and have denounced the unsavory practices of the Philippine press. They’ve been threatened, they’ve been taken to court on libel charges, they’ve been arrested, and, according to their Web site, they’ve been working for a while without pay. I’m hoping they can keep up their passion and dedication long enough to resurrect the print publication — it would be a shame to lose such an important contribution to the Philippine press.

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Here’s more commentary on Newsbreak’s shift to a web-only publication。