By paulgillin | September 6, 2012 - 9:56 am - Posted in Fake News

James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now —  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.



This entry was posted on Thursday, September 6th, 2012 at 9:56 am and is filed under Fake News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. September 6, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    Paul, I see what Macpherson is getting at — and I guess the proof would be in a “blind taste test” to see if the reader could tell which stories were written by local reporters and which were written halfway around the world by British-English-speaking reporters with no context.

    Which is the important thing. The problem with newspapers today is that there is so little critical thinking and analysis — so often, the reporter misses the point of the story, even if reporting the “facts” accurately. I seriously doubt a foreign reporter could write a meaningful account of a Providence City Council budget discussion, for instance — because although they may have seen it on video, there is so much *context* that they don’t have, from living in the city and knowing that Buddy Cianci used to be mayor and that the new guy is supposedly cleaner but not really and that the state legislature recently hiked the car tax on the lowest-income part of the citizenry while being able to say that they technically didn’t raise taxes which they had to do in order to pay back their friends in the public-employee unions… How can you impart some meaning to the facts, without that context?

    But hey, if the final product is good, it’s good, no matter who wrote it or where. I don’t read Pasadena Now — is it as good as the local paper?

    Posted by John Kafalas
  2. September 6, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Totally agree. The proof is in the pudding. In the example you cite, you would need editorial oversight at a local level, but some of the writing and even analysis could be outsourced. That’s the point Macpherson makes. It’s not about throwing away your entire staff but rather knowing where you can add value.

    I personally don’t read Pasadena Now. Looks like a pretty good product, and they’re still publishing after four years without local reporters. Something must be working.

    I’m hoping Macpherson will jump on here at some point and tell us.

    Posted by paulgillin
  3. September 6, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Yes, it’s working. Pasadena Now has been published daily for over eight years. Our readership and ad sales have steadily increased; this is a banner year for us.

    The key to outsourcing is local control — local staff add the context! But the writing can be superb, fast, and cost-effective.

    I once had a Manila-based writer say to me: “James, my computer’s running as slow as the 605 on a Friday afternoon!” So — no, John, you cannot tell the difference between locally-written and offshored content if it is properly done!

    Posted by James Macpherson
  4. September 7, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

    James, I took your paper for a spin, and I’m impressed — I would never have had an inkling that any of the articles were written overseas. Sorry I can’t make it out there next weekend for the Pasadena Greek Fest — looks like a great time!

    Posted by John Kafalas
  5. September 24, 2012 @ 5:19 am

    Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

    Posted by Jonathan Dyer