Friday, December 11, 2009

Next for outsource? News production jobs

The jobs of news editors, photo editors, copy editors and page designers may face wholesale elimination at some newspapers in the new year as publishers seek to cut costs by outsourcing editorial production to cheaper vendors.

While several publishers struggling to sustain profitability over the last few years have shipped ad production to low-priced contractors, they largely have kept editorial production in the building out concern for the integrity of the product. But that may be about to change.

The relentless decline in advertising is prompting publishers and senior editors to look more favorably on what many admit is the unsettling idea of turning their news product over to vendors who say they can edit stories, write headlines, crop pictures and lay out pages for up to 55% less than it costs for papers to do it in house.

Dean Singleton, the CEO of MediaNews Group, told fellow publishers at a convention in October that his company is looking into having “one news desk for all of our newspapers...maybe even offshore.” In an age of computers and instantaneous communication, he told USA Today, it doesn’t matter “whether your desk is down the hall or around the world.”

Outsourced editing moved from talk to action last month at the Toronto Star and the New York Times Co.

To save about $4 million a year, the Toronto Star eliminated 78 editorial positions, or nearly a fifth of its newsroom staff, by contracting editing and page production to Pagemasters North America, an affiliate of an Australia-based company. Production will stay in Canada for the time being, but be located in a less expensive location than Toronto.

To save an unspecified sum, NYT is shifting up to 30 New York-based editing positions to the offices of its Gainesville Sun, which already provides editorial production services for some of the company’s other papers in Florida. “The plan for the news service calls for the Gainesville Sun, whose newsroom is not unionized and has lower salaries, to take over editing and page design,” a NYT spokeswoman told Editor & Publisher, which itself will close at the end of the year.

Bigger and far more dramatic deals may lie ahead, said Tony Joseph, the chief executive of Mindworks Global Media Services, a company that runs outsourced editorial production in India for publications in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and already has done a few pilot production jobs for U.S. publishers.

In an email from New Delhi, Joseph said two large U.S. publishing groups are in “advanced” stages of discussions to move their editing operations to India and that three others are in the “early” stages of such talks. He declined to identify the potential clients or provide further details.

“Our experience with newspapers suggests that improvements in work flow and productivity could generate savings of up to 30%, even if outsourcing is done on-shore,” said Joseph. “Off-shoring could provide additional savings of 35% to 55%, depending on the location and cost structure of the client newspaper.”

For publishers running out of options to shore up their profits after four years of steadily shrinking revenues, those are seriously big savings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a truly dumb idea. But you are absolutely right that it is currently in favor in corporate board rooms, especially of the chains. The idea is to farm out national and international pages and features pages to outside operators, leaving the front page and local metro pages to the paper. For the chains it will be one-size fits all.
This is an idea that Copley tried a decade or so ago, and it was a miserable failure. Rather than being provocative or edgy, centralized desks tend to chose non-controversial, off-news or feature stories to put together for everyone. They do not want to to piss off one of their subscribers or members. It is the subscribing paper which is going to get the angry calls from readers, so it is understandable that the non-controversial story is picked. A story on gay marriage won't create a ripple in San Francisco, but it will create holytance of cont hell in Bible Belt circulation areas. Solution: avoid the issue.
You can see this just eventually leads to boring and non-provocative pages.
What I also resent is how much this discounts the importance of content. Declining circulation figures are screaming to the industry that we are not putting out an exciting or interesting product that readers want to read. This is particularly true with a younger generation that finds newspapers stodgy and boring. Centralizing inside pages and sections just leads to even more unexciting papers.
One size fits all fits no one.

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Mike Donatello said...

Interesting. I wonder when more papers will begin outsourcing the role of publisher? That could definitely save some coin.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mindworks has been doing some (mostly substandard) copy editing of wire stories for the Miami Herald, so McClatchy is probably one of the two large publishing groups with which the company is in "advanced" stages of negotiation.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Benjamin Lukoff said...

This is going to accelerate the decline. It's sad to watch, really. I can think of no faster way to drive off paying customers than to reduce even further the quality of the product. I used to hope and think some of the legacy companies might survive and prosper in the new reality. Now I'm wondering if that's even going to be possible under current ownership and management.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Keep cheapening the product. That's the key to unique editorial material and local content.


5:25 PM  
Anonymous DS said...

There are several big impediments to this idea:

1. Content-management systems and infrastructure that eventually tie stories directly into the web sites. These systems were expensive and customized.

2. If you lose your editing staff, who is really left in the newsroom? An assigning editor and reporters and the top editor?

3. Local sports production and editing ... Sounds difficult to outsource.

4. Photo archives - are these centrallized production centers going to tap right into a myriad of different photo systems? Would all the images be loaded up? Would they call down to a photo editor onsite for archive shots?

I could see it possibly happening, though, the next time they decide to ditch their current systems because they are too outdated. I also could see it happening among chains already all on the same production system. I also could see it happening if an organization decides their complicated expensive production system is hamstringing their efforts to be innovative online.

6:12 PM  
Blogger dave said...

This is not as impending as implied. It is already happening. I work for a magazine in New Delhi, and a few acquaintances of mine have jobs in the southern city of Mangalore--outsourcing in what is essentially a media sweatshop for Associated Press. They don't write or report, but layout pages for certain North American, European newspapers, edit copy (which judging by levels of english comprehension is distressing enough), and generally perpetuate both the decline of in-house production over there, and the uroborus of cheap labour over here. It's no surprise to hear this is making news in the West, I just wonder why it took so long.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Mike Lange said...

The New Havel Advocate outsourced much of their editorial copy to India in one issue as an experiment earlier this year.

Here's a link to the story:

1:47 AM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

After teaching full time at Columbia for 20 years, I teach journalism all over the planet, and usually spend 5 weeks a year at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. I've visited the huge operation Reuters has in Bangalore to do economic polling worldwide.

Of course it is silly to think of covering a city council meeting in Peoria from Pune. Even with advanced telepresence equipment, the reporter in Pune will miss the context. But why don't we think it silly for the NYT to send a reporter to Somalia to do a "man on the street" interview with a Somali supposed pirate? Or to hire Iraqi reporters to help Americans translate and write stories that the Iraqis could do themselves? Certainly, the Iraqis have more contextual knowledge of the situation!

Many of the journalism students I teach abroad have advanced degrees in other fields. Many are (and I use the term carefully) geniuses. Many are actually interested in real news rather than long service articles on what brand of underwear lasts longer and fits better.

All have a skepticism (bordering on unhealthy) when it comes to statements by NGO heads, government sources, and corporate spokespeople.

A student of mine from Bhutan last year stayed up all night for three nights to digest a book I recommended on international securitization of debt (she wanted to discuss it in depth with me before I left). She's already making a mark for herself as a professional. (And I hope she's ditched the amphetamines she used to go 72 hours without sleep.)

Bottom line: US newspapers use foreign talent badly, because, well, they use domestic talent badly. But sooner or later, someone will figure it out.

6:50 AM  
Blogger Richard Kendall said...

News could turn into a purely mechanical process, disparate groups across the world slotting things into place.

At the heart of it all, quality journalism must survive, otherwise the product won't be worth the paper or monitor its read on.

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love India, but the quality of the copy in Indian English-language newspapers is often laughable. Stilted sentences and many mistakes, even in places like the Times. I enjoy reading the Hindu, but I always have to make allowances. This problem will probably improve over time, though not before a lot of damage is done to the newspapers here.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a sentence from the Mindworks site:

"Acquaintance with global media and other regions of the world would be an advantage."

10:12 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Anonymous is absolutely right about quality of English in much of the Indian press, although I can point to many great Indian reporters with perfect English -- much better English than my Tamal and Hindi.

But why not use them to cover India? Why do a few (and dwindling) number of American outlets still send reporters from the US? It is cheaper to edit their perceptive copy than to travel from the US, and the reporting quality and context are better.

The same goes for almost any country I can think of.

5:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

McClatchy is definitely considering doing this.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No imagination left among those at the top. Just folks who get a bonus if they cut people.

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've spoken to Mindworks and their numbers for editorial production were not low enough to persuade us to use them. But our intent was to improve the product by increasing the amount of conent we could provide within the same editorial budget thus allowing us to retain subscribers and have a room for price increases. Oursourcing Editorial and editorial production does not pay for us.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Tfly said...

wow, didn't think of outsourcing can lead to news production.. thanks for the blog!

5:08 AM  

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