Some Outsourced Media Is No Great Loss

A small, Web-based news company in Pasadena, Calif. kicked up some dust last week when it began searching for a pair of beat reporters to cover city government, quietly posting a pair of job openings – on the Indian version of

By Lucy ZHANG/Guardian

Journalists, nativists, anti-sweatshop activists – to the Protestmobile!

The job postings sparked a hubbub around California journalism, as veteran newsmen pondered the implications of what seems to be a new trend in the craft. The Reuters news agency already has a substantial India-based bureau that reports remotely on Wall Street news, and though PasadenaNow is hardly a reporting behemoth, the notion of outsourcing something as immediate as local news rubbed many the wrong way.

“”It just seems so fundamental to journalism to be there,”” Rob Gunnison, director of school affairs at UC Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, told the Los Angeles Times. “”I still can’t quite believe it’s not a hoax.””

Others were even more blunt.

“”Nobody in their right mind would trust the reporting of people who not only don’t know the institutions but aren’t even there to witness the events and nuances,”” University of Southern California journalism professor (and Pasadena resident) Bryce Nelson told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “”This is a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become.””

But the offended sensibilities about what journalism is – and what it should be – shouldn’t take the Pasadena example as yet another instance of the eroding values of American news coverage. On the contrary, contracting out reporting’s busy work can free up resources for other, more important angles that can’t be covered from Mumbai.

For starters, keep in mind that the Pasadena site’s reporting on the local government wasn’t exactly “”nuanced”” to begin with. A quick survey of the last few months of the city government section shows a slew of paint-by-number briefs that, for the most part, read like press releases.

In fact, many of the stories are press releases. “”This Week in City Government,”” the PasadenaNow local government feature updated most religiously, is produced by Ann Erdman, a public information officer for the city. The weekly update is little more than a rehashed version of the city council minutes (which are already available online).

If a city official giving a short restatement of city council meeting agendas constitutes reporting, such articles may as well be written overseas. Clearly, if PasadenaNow has a problem with the depth of its coverage, it’s completely independent from outsourced reporting.

In fact, what may be most interesting about this episode is how it underscores that one of the traditional functions of a news source – the simple reporting of what the government did last week – is rapidly being eroded by the massive availability of information technology.

With streaming video coverage of city council meetings and meeting minutes available on the city of Pasadena’s Web site, a person 9,000 miles away can find out about local government happenings just as easily as the average Southern Californian. More importantly, with such technology, the average Southern Californian really has no need for simple coverage about what happened at the last city council meeting. With an accurate and well-kept Web site in place, that information can be consumed both directly (minus the omnipresent reporter bias) and at the citizen’s leisure (minus the time constraints of work).

Now, the real question: Why would an online news source like PasadenaNow pay anyone to reproduce information that is already easy for citizens to get?

The question is particularly important, given that influential media stalwarts like the New York Times and the Washington Post are continually losing circulation. The availability of information on the Internet is part of the equation, as major newspapers cannibalize print turnover by coughing up information for free online.

But the Internet is not solely to blame for falling circulation numbers. Other print media, like the largely recreational New York Post, have actually gained readership in recent years – mainly because the Post is a hell of a lot more entertaining than the Times. And until New Delhi is hip about the recent hookup of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco (which seems about as likely as American journalists becoming savvy about the haute couture hitting the walkways in Calcutta), domestic reporters will have at least one ace up their sleeve.

More importantly, with by-rote reporting tasks like reprinting council minutes out of their hair, American newsrooms can focus resources on that other thing on-the-spot writers will always monopolize: penetrative, in-depth reporting that simply can’t be done from a computer terminal in Mumbai.