Second Thought: Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Outsource of Trouble

If copyediting moves to India, journalism quality might pack its bags, too.

By Tracy Everbach

Good journalism requires accurate know-ledge of local people, places, and practices. A no-brainer, right? Apparently not.
The Orange County Register announced June 24 that it is outsourcing some copy- editing and page layout jobs to India. Now, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram earlier this year moved some advertising design jobs to India, that was strange enough (and sad enough for those who lost jobs here). But the idea of sending editing jobs overseas should alarm anyone who follows news about their own city.
Copy editors are a publication’s front-line soldiers of fact-checking, grammar, spelling, punctuation, context, and institutional memory. Without these meticulous folks, print media would contain a plethora of careless errors. I know their detail-oriented talents saved my butt many times when I was a newspaper reporter.
News organizations everywhere are desperate to find ways to cut costs these days. But outsourcing the task to India? What are those folks in the O.C. thinking?
The Associated Press quoted a deputy editor at the Register as saying that the outsourcing move is only a test. But if the overseas editors pass the test, I predict this will be another leak in the crumbling levee that is the newspaper business. Other publications, seeing another way to cut costs, will follow suit. And the quality of journalism they offer will continue to erode.
That’s what has happened in North Texas in the past four years because of cost-cutting efforts. In June, 130 Fort Worth Star-Telegram staffers lost or left their jobs, representing 10 percent of the newspaper’s workforce. About one-third of The Dallas Morning News’ newsroom staff has been cut since 2004. Talented journalists continue to trickle out the door.
With smaller staffs, newspapers obviously can’t produce as much hard-hitting journalism. Usually the first stories to go are long-term investigative projects — the kind that lead to changes in institutions, policies, and laws. Some investigative reporters I know say their newspapers’ resources are stretched so thin they fear they could lose their jobs any day.
Across the nation, newspapers have been laying off and buying out staffers while slashing the space allotted to news. Advertising revenues are plummeting. Readers are turning away. Some think the industry is dying; at the very least, it is going through an extremely painful, scary, and in some cases poorly thought-out transformation.
Outsourcing copyediting “is one more step in degrading the quality of the printed word,” said Gene Zipperlen, a copy editor for more than 30 years, who has taught journalism at local universities. “I know they said they were exploring ways to work efficiently ‘while maintaining quality,’ but copy editors at an Indian company will never master the intricacies of American English idiom,” he said. He noted that most Indians learn British — not American — English in school.
Can a reporter or copy editor in India know the difference between I-35W and I-35E, having driven neither? Can someone in Mumbai understand the structure and districts of the Fort Worth City Council? What about the background and history of the Fort Worth Water Gardens, including the terrible 2004 accident? Or that the Dallas Cowboys play in Irving but will be moving soon to Arlington? Perhaps on a technical level, but never from experience and connection.
Lest you think that newspapers have now reached their absolute low point in terms of outsourcing, consider Pasadena Now. Last year, the California online news site hired reporters in Mumbai and Bangalore to cover Pasadena City Council meetings via web broadcasts, the Los Angeles Times reported. Hey, at that point, why even write the story? Just stream the broadcast on your web site.
The fundamental tools of journalism include accuracy, facts, and news judgment about what readers want and need to know. Trained reporters and editors who do their jobs well understand the communities they cover, make contact with people, and build trust.
Outsourcing destroys that bond. How can someone thousands of miles away know local business names, local politics, the layout of roads and streets, intricacies of the criminal justice system or the local school system?
Perhaps we don’t even need journalists anymore. People could sort through the millions of pieces of information on the web and decide what they need to know instead of having trained professionals observe and interpret it. That would produce a nation of ill-informed, ignorant people — precisely what the founding fathers were worried about when they protected the press in the First Amendment.
But who can protect the press against economic assaults or their managers’ own bad decisions?
Tracy Everbach, a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, can be reached at

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