Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cheap Tricks

My journalistic colleagues engaged in some high decibel howling recently over the news that Pasadena Now, an online publication that purports to be the pulse of Pasadena, was outsourcing its reporting jobs to India.

That's right, folks. The people who brought you sacred cows are now going to be covering the politicians down at city hall.

The reason? It's cheap. After all, since city council meeting are broadcast on the Internet, why not have some low-wage reporter half a world away armed with a laptop do the job?

Publisher James Macpherson sees it this way: "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. 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."

There are a lot of things wrong with this, of course. Accepting the bluster of a sitting politician at face value is nonsense (see George Bush or Bill Clinton), a nuance that will be lost on a reporter who has never been east of Punjab peering at a flickering computer screen.

And as any discerning reader knows, the behind-the-scenes arm twisting and deal making that precede a public political stance, be it a vote in Congress or one in Pasadena, is often more revealing and important than the vote itself. That kind of analysis isn't broadcast on the Internet.

Then again, expecting in-depth reporting at Pasadena Now is like looking for lobster amid the fish sticks.
The web site is mostly a compilation of press releases, hand out photos and parroting of local media, just the thing that a minimum-wage staff can crank out. It's not bad. It's just not going to shape opinions.

And Pasadena Now isn't even the first to embrace outsourcing.

Reuters began farming out financial news reporting to India some three years ago. The beginnings of an outsourcing move to China have already started, a place where the pay is even lower and the job pool even larger.

If that's not bad enough, Thomson Financial, a business information group, has been using computers to generate some stories since last year and is so pleased with the results that it plans to expand the practice.

By using previous results in Thomson's database, the computer stories say whether a company has done better or worse than expected. "This is not about cost but about delivering information to our customers at a speed at which they can make an almost immediate trading decision," said Matthew Burkley, senior vice president of strategy at Thomson Financial. "This means we can free up reporters so they have more time to think."

And what will they be thinking about? How they could any day lose their jobs to a land far away. Or worse, to a machine.

In the meantime, let's take this outsourcing idea and run with it.

I suggest we outsource the entire Pasadena City Council.

Think of how we could fill up the coffers if we farmed out these seven folks and cut back on their $1200 plus perks monthly salary. We'd live in a world free of pot holes.

Think of how free from influence and collusion our council members would be if they were thousands of miles away, operating in complete isolation from one another, perhaps in the Himalayas, far from those pesky constituents.

Think about how cheap elections would be. It would almost be like American Idol. No endless campaigning. No fund raising. One phone call or mouse click and, bang, we have a winner.

Mayor Bill Bogaard has been a fine leader but by outsourcing his job, we might find another Gandhi. Shirtless. Noble. And cheap.

OK, so maybe outsourcing won't get to that point. But I never thought I'd see media jobs shipped overseas in my lifetime.

I have a feeling we better learn to get use to it.

As an old Indian proverb goes, "If you live in the river you should make friends with the crocodile."

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