As we South Dakotans watch Gannett cut staff at that Sioux Falls paper, Maureen Dowd reminds us that things can (and likely will) get worse. In her Sunday column, Dowd discusses Pasadena Now, an online daily magazine that covers local news with foreign journalists. No, they don't have Lara Logan running around town snapping photos of Rose Bowl float construction. Since spring 2007, Pasadena Now has paid writers in India to piece together local articles from press releases, phone interviews, and city webcasts and other existing online content.
And I thought paying Lowell Feld from Virginia to blog about South Dakota politics was bad.
With glaring inauthenticity, Pasadena Now doesn't mention this outsourcing on its pages. Its About page brags about creating an online community newspaper "the old fashion [sic] way," with "plenty of shoe leather, and a grueling schedule of personally attending dozens of community events every month." The mission/contact page lists three American staffers and no one else. The news stories generally carry no reporter's name, just a byline of "From Staff Reports."
When I read my local paper, I want to know that Elisa Sand or Chuck Clement wrote the story. I want to know whom to call to correct. I want to know whether it was Terry Woster or Joe Kafka who wrote the explanation of the passage of a bill in Pierre. I want to hear local news from a local voice, from a person who is writing about the place he or she lives in and loves (or at least tolerates).
Alas, the Internet and the economy may kill off that local coverage. Pasadena Now editor and publisher James Macpherson pays his Indian writers by the word: $7.50 for a 1000-word article. I know our man Jon Hunter doesn't pay much, but even Madison wages can't compete against India's low rates.
One would think that local news reportage conducted from thousands of miles away—"glocal" journalism—would constitute a decline in journalistic quality. However, as one Pasadena blogger noted at the beginning of Pasadena Now's offshoring experiment, the decline predates the offshoring. If writers in India can cobble together "local" journalism that draws enough readers to stay afloat, then the onshore media must already be in a pretty sorry state. Our corporate newspapers don't care enough about local communities to dedicate the resources necessary to cover their small-market news. Those papers thus leave the door open for other players—like offshore writers and our own pajamas media—to do the job, if not better, then at least faster and cheaper.
James Macpherson has said offshoring "could be a significant way to increase the quality of journalism on the local level without the expense that is a major problem for local publications.... Whether you’re at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you’re still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview." In October, Associated Press chairman Dean Singleton repeated that notion: "In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter."
From a computer standpoint, no, it doesn't matter. And it flows both ways: we South Dakotans can do a fair job of covering national and international news based on information we can gather from the Web and a few phone calls.
But from a local standpoint, it does matter. I could blog about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but I could never capture the event the way a reporter on the ground at the Taj Mahal Hotel could. Writers in another state or on another continent cannot tell a place's news as well as writers in that place. They cannot call on their personal connections and experiences to recognize vital context and history. They have none of the tacit knowledge, the community memory that's not written down, to guide their fact-finding and reporting. They don't have to live with the consequences of their stories.
If corporate media produced journalism that was really rooted in the communities they serve, patchwork writing from India couldn't compete. Unfortunately for the CEOs and for us, corporate media are only worried about profit, not product, and they can't win that contest in the world of easy digital offshoring.
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