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September 12, 2007

Outsourcing journalism

John Stoehr

Update: I couldn't find this link before writing the post below about outsourcing journalism. Now I have. A community newspaper in Pasadena has outsourced coverage of Pasadena's city council meetings to two reporters in India. The move got a lot of play in Newsweek and the LA Times. Here's a helpful link from the New York Times' Freakonomics blog.

I'm very worried about small-town newspapers. The Savannah Morning News, where I am the arts and culture reporter, is down to 16 reporters (plus seven non-executive editors; if you take away three features and three sports reporters, you have 10 in metro) since the beginning of the year. There are now two reporters covering arts and entertainment.

Make that one. I tendered my resignation Monday.

Morris Publishing LLC, which owns the Morning News, reported last month that income was down 49 percent compared to this time last year. The company cut 60 jobs from its flagship paper, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

The news came as other publicly traded newspaper chains reported second quarter results that were worse than expected (expectations were already negative): McClatchy, Gannet, Tribune, Dow Jones all saw revenue fall by about 20 percent.

According to Media Life Magazine, more than 900 newsroom jobs have been slashed since April. 2007 may end up being a turning point in the history of American journalism. That, of course, presumes that things have gotten as bad as they are going to get. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

As newsroom jobs are cut, there's more talk about "hyperlocalism" or "citizen journalism" -- the first is the idea that unique and valuable stories can be found on a local level, as opposed to just running pre-packaged wire stories; the other idea is that a community benefits when its members share their knowledge, skills and expertise. It's the Wisdom of Crowds Doctrine.

I think both ideas have merit. I like Steve Yelvington's description of hyperlocalism as a means for individuals to connect with the place in which they live. In a wired world that's virtually connected, the importance of being connected to a place and the people there will become more desirable.

I like the way citizen journalism is practiced at the New Haven Independent, where a small staff of motivated and passionate editors and reporters provide the leadership needed to create a participatory web-based newspaper that truly aims to amalgamate the collective wisdom of its high-educated crowds.

Hyperlocalism and citizen journalism are schools of journalistic thought that aim to benefit society. They are ideas born in the absence of marketplace concerns. They are a means to an altruistic end: serving humanity.

But, like a lot of good ideas, hyperlocalism and citizen journalism are being co-opted, I fear, by corporate managers who hope to press them into the service of the marketplace, not humanity. In others words, why pay a staff to write about communities when you can invite people to write about what's happening for free.

Consider what's happened to the Sudbury Star in Ontario, Canada, just north of Lake Huron. Its website appears to have transformed into a citizen journalism portal that's a mishmash of staff reports, wire copy and bloggers from around the community. The featured blogger today writes about "Taking Photos as Special Events" and notes about the local hockey league.

To their credit, these bloggers don't seem consumed by narcissism. But in the end, all of this effort, while charmingly reflecting the interests and character of the local community, is much text without context, much information without knowledge.

In other words, it's no replacement for the daily, dogged and determined reporting of a traditional newsroom.

Cast in a different light, citizen journalism done like this is another name for outsourcing. Newspapers are already outsourcing ad production, but blogging by writers writing for free could be seen as yet more outsourcing. In a climate that fetishizes profits, outsourcing journalism, like outsourcing income tax preparation, tech support and x-ray examinations, makes sense.

I don't think newrooms will be replaced at larger newspapers, but smaller papers are more vulnerable. As I said, the newsroom reporters at the Savannah Morning News are down to 16, minus one (me) next month. We're bleeding to death thanks to superior classifieds competition from Craigslist and a stalled housing market. At the same time, there's more talk from corporate about "hyperlocalism," "mojo journalists," "reverse publishing" and "reader-generated content." I don't think this is coincidental.

Good hyperlocalism and good citizen journalism require a newspaper to lead the cause for adding to the overall knowledge base of a community. But it can't be done right if the traditional roles of editors and journalists are outsourced. A newspaper's leadership requires it to ante up the resources needed to make hyperlocalism and citizen journalism good for humanity.


Posted by John Stoehr at September 12, 2007 10:28 AM

COMMENTS

As a resident of Augusta, Ga. (and a former resident of Savannah), I'm happy to hear the evil Billy Morris is losing money.

Viva La Bloggers!

Posted by: Walter Ego at September 16, 2007 5:21 PM