No one knows where journalism and the traditional media is headed, but outsourcing news writing may be one direction to watch. Journtent, which bills itself as a “publisher’s dream come true,” makes the following offer: you keep local control while outsourcing the writing to lesser paid temporary staff in other countries.
Can it work? First impulse is to say no, but if you look back over the past century, we’ve had this debate about outsourcing before – and in every case, textiles, autos, computers, smart phones are all being done somewhere other than in the United States even though at one point it appeared that the goods could never be outsourced. Perhaps in this case, it goes against what we perceive as the relationship between a writer and his/her words, that one always writes the draft and an editor rewrites (or requires the writer to rewrite) the final version. But what if it was reversed and someone else did the initial draft and it was fact-checked and revised by journalists here? Ultimately who is the author? Who the editor? The roles, as they have in other instances, may begin to break down.
It’s an admittedly strange landscape – freelance writers in Mexico, the Philippines and elsewhere churning out text after watching video streams of local events and sending copy back to be edited, fact-checked and published in the States. But is it any stranger from a broader historical perspective than placing a customer service call that is handled by someone in India? And ironically enough, in some respects writing is easier to outsource than durable goods – there’s no shipping and inventory issues to contend within.
Perhaps this will get no further than Journtent and a few other attempts, and there has already been an outcry against the use of outsourced writers producing content under fake bylines. But I wonder if the controversy back in July with Journatic was entirely about the outsourcing or if was not more the issue of deception, of people in other countries being given fake American-sounding bylines? Journatic seems unable to recover from the controversy and is laying off staff. But if the news organizations Journtent supplies are above board and do not deceive their readers will the public resist? If you look at the dynamics underlying the digital revolution, how many other sacred bonds have been broken, or are in the process of being flayed alive somewhat like Saint Bartholomew losing his skin?
Fred Grimm once wrote a satire for the Miami Herald that said in part:
A team of software engineers, call center operators, tax accountants and street urchins now assembles this column in Calcutta, cobbling together 20 inches of verbiage, checking the spelling, writing a headline and transmitting the product to Miami hours before deadline — a feat unobtainable under the old system. All this for a tenth of the cost of employing an aging American journalist. Without the mood swings. (Poynter)
It may have seemed funny back then but now, “the joke seems a little less funny, and no longer so improbable.”
Sadly, one thing we know for sure. Given the wage that freelance writers earn these days, they increasingly need to live in a country like the Philippines as they not making a living wage here.