Friday, January 23, 2009

Could editorial outsourcing save newspapers?

Editorial outsourcing has frequently been presented throughout the Western world in a very negative light. The idea of trained American or European journalists and copy editors losing their jobs to workers across the world in India or Australia who will work for far less has appalled many, and others worry about a drop in quality. But is it really as bad as it sounds, or are people rejecting a good business model in favour of a misplaced emotional attachment to traditional values and a fear of change?
The Editors Weblog spoke to Tony Joseph, CEO and co-founder of Mindworks Global Media, which takes on copy editing, layout, and website optimization for clients around the world, and James MacPherson, Editor of, who has taken the controversial step of hiring a staff of writers in India for his site which reports on local events in Pasadena, California.

Mindworks: an extension of client's newsdesk
Tony Joseph explained that what his teams essentially do is become an extension of the client's news desk. Each member of staff only works for one publication as part of a dedicated team, and the team keeps the same hours as the newsroom with which they are working so that they can stay in constant communication via instant messaging, phone and email. He stressed that his editors only come in after the content has been generated, and after a senior editor has decided where the article will go.
Each member of staff works as one only one publication and stays in constant communication with the client's newsdesk via instant messaging
One of the fears of editors when contemplating outsourcing is that workers will be out of their sight and hence out of their control, and mistakes will be made. Joseph explained the steps that Mindworks takes to reduce this. Two crucial principles which he described as "absolutely essential" are "zero loss of visibility and zero loss of control". The work of Mindworks' staff
is visible to everyone in the newsroom chain, as they access the client's content management system, and Joseph insists that his editors work within the client's existing hierarchies. A six to eight week alignment and training period is used to ensure that the work of the Mindworks team is fully integrated into that of the client. Various indicators are used to track the alignment process, such as headline editing; Joseph explained that in the first week of alignment 25-30% of headlines written by his staff are changed at the client's end, so they analyse and assess why these are being changed and make it part of the training.

Pasadena: doing away with reporters
MacPherson has adopted an unusual strategy for news reporting, one which he compares to the work of an intelligence agency, or newspapers in the 1920s. He has entirely separated the process of content gathering and writing. In fact, none of the people he employs could be described as 'reporters' in the traditional sense, rather he has 'observers,' who are "boots on the ground" in Pasadena, and 'writers' in India. The observers attend events and gather data, generally in the form of audio and video clips. Macpherson or his wife then put together an assignment package, containing interview transcripts, video clips, links to web resources or anything else relevant and this is then sent to the writers in India. The writers save their articles within the site's CMS, where it is checked by management before it is published. "It would be absurd," commented MacPherson, "to put anything out to the public that had not been proofread here in Pasadena."
Observers are "minimum wage workers," MacPherson explained, and the India-based writers are paid between $7.50 and $10 for each article, which usually takes them under an hour to produce. So compared to paying American journalists, this is undoubtedly a cheaper option. MacPherson was vehement that he had not hired Indian writers to replace Americans; rather he hired the Indians first, then hired five additional Americans in response to intense criticism, and was forced to let the Americans go when advertising revenue was showing no increases. Outsourcing writing "has saved our publication," he emphasised, "we wouldn't be a viable business without it."

Trained journalists
Both Joseph and MacPherson only employ trained journalists for their outsourcing. Joseph clarified that his recruits are either from India's top journalism schools, or have ample experience in the field: an average of five years amongst junior staff. Many of his staff have worked in the US. MacPherson explained that he found high quality writers via Craigslist and other websites and he has six people employed on a part time freelance basis. One of his Dehli-based workers is actually originally from Orange County, California, not far from Pasadena itself.

Is outsourcing the future?
Tony Joseph is confident that his company will continue to grow: "our engagements are increasing rapidly both in terms of number and size of operations." Currently, Mindworks handles 13 or 14 titles. He believes that the outsourcing concept is "gaining momentum" as newspapers look to make cost-cuts and increase efficiency in this time of crisis.
MacPherson is considering hiring more writers in response to a "huge influx of advertising," as a result, he believes, of the fact that "small community websites are beginning to supplant print newspapers." He explained that he is developing "a proof of concept website that the industry can look to," and expressed his hope that the methods he develops can be used by small and medium size community newspapers and websites to keep "doing what they are doing and survive." As a general business model, he proposed the idea of having a few veteran journalists and editors, the kind of people who are "the heart and soul of the local newspaper," supported by 'observers' on the ground and writers, researchers and designers in India.
The Telegraph Media Group was recently the latest major news organisation to announce that it was outsourcing sub editing of some of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph weekend supplements. It is using Pagemasters, an Australian company owned by the Australian Associated Press, which counts Fairfax media among its clients. Telegraph digital editor Edward Roussel explained that his belief that "Newspaper-web companies should focus internal resources on what they do best: creating premium editorial content." Another option is to adopt a form of in-house outsourcing, such as that which Reuters has been operating for several years. It employs a team of about 100 financial journalists in Bangalore who cover Wall Street news. Editor in chief David Schlesinger justified the move by explaining that the New York journalists could now be sent out and about to cover more interesting stories. A crucial difference is that these journalists are Reuters staff and their office is a Reuters bureau, but the fact remains that they are reporting on things happening on the other side of the world, and doing so successfully.
If newspaper revenue continues to fall, people will have to look for more ways to cut costs and editorial outsourcing may well become more and more appealing, even if there is initial reluctance at the staff cuts and modified work practices that have to be imposed. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to get the work done wherever it can be done cheapest, as long as the quality is maintained, and doing things as cheaply as possible is increasingly becoming a must. As MacPherson put it, "people keep saying they don't like what I'm proposing, but what's the alternative?"


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