California: Covering Local News From Where?

Offshoring work to India is hardly new. But, until this week an obscure California online community magazine, has made news by taking the concept a step further. Editor and publisher James Macpherson has announced that he'd hired two reporters to cover Pasadena city government—from Mumbai and Bangalore. Starting Tuesday, the pair, including a University of California, Berkeley, journalism grad, will begin cranking out more than 28 stories a week between them. In exchange, one reporter will make $12,000 a year, the other $7,200, for covering budget battles and zoning meetings in a city of 146,000 best known for the Rose Bowl and Caltech.

Hiring foreign correspondents in reverse makes good sense to Macpherson, 51, a longtime Pasadena resident. His two-year-old site, which gets 45,000 unique visitors a month, has yet to turn a profit, and until now his news coverage has consisted largely of press releases. But noting the wealth of material available online—city council meetings are televised on the Internet and most documents are posted—Macpherson borrowed the offshoring idea from his years in the clothing business, where overseas manufacturing long ago became the norm. In the first known instance of the offshoring of local news coverage, Macpherson hired two of the reporters who responded to his ad on Indian versions of Now, a male staffer in Mumbai will cover city politics over the Internet, while a woman in Bangalore will write features about business and government based on interviews done by staffers in Pasadena, which will be transcribed (in India) and e-mailed to the reporter.

Macpherson says the news has already netted him angry e-mails, mostly from journalists. Area bloggers also seem wary. "The type of journalistic coverage Macpherson is talking about really could be done by someone in another country, largely because their "coverage" often consists of little more than glorified press releases and parroting of the local media," writes an anonymous blogger called Centinel on Macpherson admits that the long-range coverage may lose immediacy, but in a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr, he says that when local news organizations don't exhaustively cover city hall, there's a role for his economical and unconventional idea. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you decide to cover city hall from India?
James Macpherson:
Actually, it was the result of a number of observations. I've been in the clothing business, and I'd manufactured overseas for many years, so I understand how many talented people there are abroad. I also understand how efficient it is, costwise. In Pasadena, our city council meetings are televised on the Internet. They can be seen anywhere. Our mayor [Bill Bogaard] actually watched a city council meeting when he was traveling in China, so I saw that precedent. And also our city council meetings go until the wee hours of the morning. Few reporters actually stay to the end of those meetings in person. Put it all together, and I think we have a chance for somebody who is fresh. In India, it is 7 in the morning, and from 7 until lunchtime they can watch, analyze and transcribe exactly what happened. So I'm hoping it's a much better service for the citizens of this city than perhaps they've been getting.

So are the Indians just transcribing the meeting or writing stories?
They will write news stories, but the transcription element is important because local journalists have been known to misquote, and I don't want any of that.

Most city council coverage involves more than just filing reports on the [weekly] meeting. How can a reporter in India do interviews?
Actually, they won't. The interviews behind the scenes will be conducted by our reporters here. Obviously, I have a great relationship with many of these [city officials]. We will have interviews digitally taped and transcribed, and they'll be available for the individuals who report on the council meetings. Also the council meetings' agendas are published online on Thursday along with PDF attachments that give background. So by the time of the council meeting, I will have had editorial meetings with these staffers so we will know exactly what's up for consideration.

Who are your new Indian freelancers, and how did you find them?
Right now we have two reporters, and I found them through Craigslist, using the ones in Mumbai and Bangalore. We also have five transcriptionists [to make a print record of the council meetings and transcribe interviews].

So how will it work in practice? They'll be writing profiles without having met or talked to the person or doing any interviewing themselves?
That's right. I'll be sending them information packets on the subject, JPEG photographs and, as we go along, probably video, as well as transcripts of the interviews themselves.

All together, what were their duties, and what are you paying them?
Well, both writers are responsible for producing two 500-word [news] articles a day, six days a week, plus two feature stories each week, which will be a little bit longer, probably 700 words. The most expensive reporter is getting $1,000 a month, in U.S. dollars.

And the less expensive reporter?
That individual is getting around $600 a month, a little bit over.

Are their duties quite different?
No, the duties are pretty much the same. The difference is that the more expensive reporter is covering the council. It's harder news, and a lot more factual research has to be done. In fact that individual is reading about 50 different newspapers and Web sites for Pasadena every single day even though he's in Mumbai. The other reporter is doing softer stories, more lifestyles.

And others are doing the transcriptions?
Yes. They are mostly medical transcriptionists. There's a huge business in that from the United States. So these people are very, very accurate. It sounds a little bit like the Nixon tapes, in that you get every hum, er and hiccough. But at least it's really accurate. I've been using the transcriptionists for months, off and on, because I've been overwhelmed by the amount of raw data we have. And I've used data-entry [services] for our events calendar as long as a year and a half ago. But it's the advent of the reporters, which is just in the last two and a half weeks, that has caught some attention.

Have their stories run yet?
No. They've been doing trial stories, but they haven't run yet. I've been editing and critiquing them. We are launching next week, on Tuesday.

Have you heard of anything similar in other news or community-news organizations?
No. I've heard of nothing like this … I have a lot of confidence I can control these people properly and get good results.

Control them in a way you couldn't control American reporters?
No. I mean control them as well as I can control a reporter that I'm paying four times as much to write here.

That raises another question. How much are you saving?
I think it's between three and four times depending on the reporter. Coming out of the University of Southern California, many reporters want $3,000 a month and they've never covered a real story for a local publication. And local reporters are getting between $3,500 and $4,500, plus benefits. We're online. We have to be very lean and mean.

Are you paying the Indian reporters benefits?

Do you think the offshoring of news is going to catch on?
Good question. I can't say. I know that to me it makes good sense when you've got the kinds of dynamics we have in the city of Pasadena, where there is not real in-depth local coverage to the degree there should be and where the city makes all this information available over the Internet. I think we can do a real community service here.

What kind of reception is your plan receiving? What are you hearing?
I'm hearing a lot from other journalists. They seem to be less than enthusiastic.

Can you elaborate?
Any industry in which one introduces the topic of outsourcing, one becomes perhaps the person not welcome in the room at the party. But for small organizations, especially community organizations, it's easy to collect the raw information of interviews and pictures and video. It's really hard to professionally edit and manage that information. And that's what I am attempting to do in a low-cost way. I think I'll serve my readers better in the long run.

How are your staffers in Pasadena taking it?
We're a really small staff, and none of them is in any danger of losing their job. That being the case, they are a little more open-minded, and they are willing to give it a go.

I see myself as a producer, and these people as the actors in the sense that I am going to carefully manage what they produce. I have lived here all of my life. I know many of these officials personally. This is not handing the analysis function off to someone who isn't an American. This is handing off just the vast bulk of a seven-hour meeting and having enough experience to know, "Hey, we're onto a prime topic. I was briefed. This is a big thing. Now let's sit up and listen and watch carefully." I believe it can be done efficiently this way.

Do you feel something's lost in the fact that your reporters have never been to Pasadena and don't know what the local issues are beyond what you tell them?
The answer is yes. But on the other hand, I know what is being lost by the local newspapers cutting back on their coverage and telling reporters they don't have to go to the city hall meetings any longer. That's even worse.