The job posting was a head-scratcher: “We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA.”
A reporter half a world away covering local street-light contracts and sewer repairs? A reporter who has never gotten closer to Pasadena than the telecast of the Rose Bowl parade?
Outsourcing first claimed manufacturing jobs, then hit services such as technical support, airline reservations and tax preparation. Now comes the next frontier: local journalism.
James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the two-year-old Web site pasadenanow.com, acknowledged it sounds strange to have journalists in India cover news in this wealthy city just outside Los Angeles.
But he said it can be done from afar now that weekly Pasadena City Council meetings can be watched over the Internet. And he said the idea makes business sense because of India’s lower labor costs.
“I think it 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,” said the 51-year-old Pasadena native. “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.”
The first articles, some of which will carry bylines, are slated to appear Friday.
The plan has its doubters.
“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,” said Bryce Nelson, a University of Southern California journalism professor and Pasadena resident. “This is a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become.”
It is a shaky business proposition as well, said Uday Karmarkar, a UCLA professor of technology and strategy who outsources copy editing and graphics work to Indian businesses. If the goal is sophisticated reporting, he said, Macpherson could end up spending more time editing than the labor savings are worth.
This is not the first time media jobs have been shipped to India.
The British news agency Reuters runs an operation in the technology capital of Bangalore that churns out Wall Street stories based on news releases.
Macpherson appears to be the first to outsource community journalism — work that by definition has been done by reporters who walk the streets they cover.
Macpherson said his Web site, which he runs out of his house, gets about 45,000 unique readers per month but is not yet profitable. Up until now, his main help has consisted of his wife and an intern.
Macpherson posted the help-wanted ad Monday on the Indian edition of craigslist.com. Within days, he said, he had hired two Indian reporters, one a graduate of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley.
He wants them to broaden pasadenanow.com’s content from news releases and event listings to analyses of issues before the council, and perhaps eventually to investigative reports.
Projected annual cost: $20,800 for the pair. Not bad wages for an Indian journalist and cheap by U.S. standards, especially if each one produces the expected 15 weekly articles.
Pasadena city spokeswoman Ann Erdman said coverage from afar shouldn’t pose problems if the articles are well-edited. In any case, she said, “Local government is certainly not in the practice of dictating to local business who they can hire and where those employees should live.”
The Los Angeles Times reports today:
“One of the two chosen had attended the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rob Gunnison, the director of school affairs there, is dismayed. ‘It just seems so fundamental to journalism to be there,’ Gunnison said. ‘I still can’t quite believe it’s not a hoax.’
“Macpherson plans to hire half a dozen more Indian reporters. He’ll add some local flavor by doing interviews, then e-mailing the recordings to India. ‘When you instant-message someone in Mumbai, it’s like looking over her shoulder,’ he said.
“Larry Wilson, editor of the 30,000-circulation Pasadena Star-News newspaper, scoffed. ‘To pretend you can get the feel and the culture of a town as complicated and interesting as Pasadena by e-mailing and doing things over the Internet is nutty,’ he said.
“Ann Erdman, spokeswoman for the city of Pasadena, thinks the approach is a little odd. But ‘as long as they get their facts correct, I’m a happy camper,’ she said.”