Robert Niles, the editor of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism review, has a nifty commentary about a publisher in his hometown of Pasadena who has decided to outsource reporting of city council proceedings to contract hires in -- Bangalore.
As originally reported in Los Angeles Times, the move will allow web publisher James Macpherson of PasadenaNow to pay two reporters less than $20,000, considerably less than if he tried to cover the council from, oh, say, Pasadena.
As easy as it is to scoff and start a office pool about when the first embarrassing gaffe will be published, this looks like an honest attempt to figure out how to cover important local stories that might not otherwise get covered by an enterprising "little guy" publisher.
It's not so much the distance but the credibility of expertise that matters.
But there are real things to worry about. It's not so much the distance but the credibility of expertise that matters. Anyone who has covered a large territory (I covered New England for Reuters in Boston) uses the phone all time time to report "from" places we aren't. If webcasts had been available back when I'm not sure I would have traveled to many or any shareholder's meetings.
Too Far from the Story?
But it is really is difficult to see how the Bangalore reporters can ever understand the story in the way that people in the area do, immersed as the locals are in their surroundings and engaged as they are with their neighbors, local TV, the free paper, etc.
Reuters offshored tons of financial reporting to Bangalore but their stated strategy (besides saving tons of money) was to "free up" people near the stories to do more real reporting (interviews), instead of the rip and storify stuff the Indian unit was meant to do with corporate releases. The commodity work was going to get done either way, but it gets done cheaper (and more of it gets done) with cheaper labor.
Macpherson will edit the stories and shoot his reporters interviews he does to add local flavor to stories they write, so the collaboration and quality control on this small scale bodes well. "When you instant-message someone in Mumbai, it's like looking over her shoulder," he tells the LATimes.
For Macpherson it sounds like outsourcing is the only way to cover this story affordably -- or so he thinks. I wonder if anyone else will enter the space using motivated locals or students in a citizen's (journalism) revolt. Nothing is cheaper than free, after all.
Macpherson's approach will either work or it won't. His readers will decide. If it succeeds he will have created a market someone else may swoop in to do in a different, dare I say, better way.