Outrage continues to build about jobs outsourcing

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

On Sunday, Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post made fun of PasadenaNow’s plans to outsource local reporting jobs to India in his column, Hack for Hire.

He does it by trying to show how funny it would be if American reporters tried to cover news in India or China.

Of course, American reporters cover news from India and China all the time.

American journalist routinely parachute into foreign countries and write them. They are obviously taking jobs away from locals with much better understanding of local cultures. Sure, they write in terms that people back home can understand, but I would argue that it is much easier to learn to write in terms that Americans can understand than to figure out what’s happening in, say, China or India.

And many American reporters cover the world without ever leaving home.

They pick up the phone and call people, or send emails to them. A few years ago, it would have been impossible to do this — you would literally have to have someone on the ground, going around and knocking on doors.

Today, my reporters complain when their voice mails to Vietnam officials aren’t returned the same day.

I did a story on the Iraqi stock exchange a year or two back. It was when there was still optimism in the country, and there was actual hope for the exchange. I did meet some Iraq Stock Exchange executives while they were on a trip abroad, but I never took them up on their invitation to visit Baghdad. The interviews for the story were conducted by phone and email.

I also wrote about Indian outsourcing for years before I ever actually visited India. But then, what technology journalist hasn’t?

Usually, my conversations with sources in foreign countries are very specific: What do you think about the new regulations? What does your company plan to do next?

Occasionally — very, very rarely — I might ask sources to describe what something looks like. As webcams proliferate, I might soon be able to ask them to pan the camera across their office.

Electronic communication is already good enough for business, technology, and economics stories. With the rise of blogging, it’s even become possible to do remote “man in the street” type interviews with ordinary citizens, by finding them through their blogs.

Sure, Weingarten may do a lousy job with his first attempt at covering local news in India. But if he were to do it, day in and day out, for a few months, he’d probably get pretty good. Sure, he probably won’t learn Tamil in that time, but he will have probably collected the emails and telephone numbers of all the local players, so he can contact them after the meetings and find out the background of what actually happened and what it means.

An Indian reporter covering the US will have a much easier time of it. Indians already grow up with a steady diet of Friends, Hollywood movies, and all our other cultural exports. There’s no language barrier, and public information is usually easily accessible compared to that in other countries.

Then there’s the “hierarchy of majors” effect on US journalism.

Here’s my theory (in case you haven’t heard it yet):

The toughest majors are the math-heavy ones: physics, mathematics, economics, chemistry, engineering. That’s where the preponderance of the smartest students ends up.

Then there are the tough non-math majors: premed, prelaw, the life sciences, government, history. There’s a lot of memorization of facts and understanding of processes.

After that, you’ve got the language majors, comparitative literature, the softer side of the literal arts curriculum. A student might have to read a few books and write a few papers, but it’s neither rocket science nor brain surgery.

Finally, you’ve got the communication majors. I’m not sure what they have to do. I presume they already know how to communicate before they ever get to college. It’s the major of choice for college athletes and men and women going for the Mrs. and Mr. degrees. When I get a job application from a communications major, I better see a second major in economics or government or something — anything! — else.

So, on the one hand, you’ve got an excess of American communications graduates barely able to add two and two and planning to hop over to public relations the minute they get a chance.

And, on the other hand, you have smart, hungry, driven Indians who had to work like crazy to get into college at all.

You do have a problem with quality control. Even in the United States, reporters sometimes slide fake stories through. Oversight is much, much harder when the reporter is on the other side of the planet, especially when the editor isn’t familiar with the story the reporter is covering.

I suggest the following quality control mechanism for overseas reporters (of any nationality):

* Full transcripts — in English – of every interview. If a quote doesn’t have a transcript to back it up, cut it out of the story.
* Full contact info for each source (including email addresses). Routinely email quotes to sources to check for accuracy. (Not the whole story, just their particular quotes.)
* All source materials (using Google translation if they’re in foreign languages). If a fact isn’t backed up by a source material, cut it out of the story. And, of course, if a fact isn’t attributed at all it shouldn’t be in the story in the first place.

It is a little bit of a pain to collect all this stuff. We use an online relational database in our office. But the investment in a good document tracking and workflow system is well worth it, in my opinion.

Signing off in Shanghai,