A Penny for My Thoughts?
A Penny for My Thoughts?
By MAUREEN DOWD
I visited the future, and it was wearing a bow tie and calling itself “Thomas Edison.”
The newspaper business is not only crumpling up, James Macpherson informed me here, it is probably holding “a one-way ticket to Bangalore.”
Macpherson — bow-tied and white-haired but boyish-looking at 53 — should know. He pioneered “glocal” news — outsourcing Pasadena coverage to India at Pasadena Now, his daily online “newspaperless,” as he likes to call it. Indians are writing about everything from the Pasadena Christmas tree-lighting ceremony to kitchen remodeling to city debates about eliminating plastic shopping bags.
“Everyone has to get ready for what’s inevitable — like King Canute and the tide coming in — and that’s really my message to the industry,” the editor and publisher said. “Many newspapers are dead men walking. They’re going to be replaced by smaller, nimbler, multiple Internet-centric kinds of things such as what I’m pioneering.”
I wondered how long it would be before some guy in Bangalore was writing my column about President Obama.
“In brutal terms,” said Macpherson, whose father was a typesetter, printer and photographer, “it’s going to get to the point where saving the industry may require some people losing their jobs. The newspaper industry is coming to a General Motors moment — except there’s no one to bail them out.” He said it would be “irresponsible” for newspapers not to explore offshoring options.
He said he got the idea to outsource about a year ago, sitting in his Pasadena home, where he puts out Pasadena Now with his wife, Candice Merrill. Macpherson had worked in the ’90s for designers like Richard Tyler and Alan Flusser, and had outsourced some of his clothing manufacturing to Vietnam.
So, he thought, “Where can I get people who can write the word for less?” In a move that sounded so preposterous it became a Stephen Colbert skit, he put an ad on Craigslist for Indian reporters and got a flood of responses.
He fired his seven Pasadena staffers — including five reporters — who were making $600 to $800 a week, and now he and his wife direct six employees all over India on how to write news and features, using telephones, e-mail, press releases, Web harvesting and live video streaming from a cellphone at City Hall.
“I pay per piece, just the way it was in the garment business,” he says. “A thousand words pays $7.50.”
A penny for your thoughts? Now I knew my days were numbered.
I checked in with one of his workers in Mysore City in southern India, 40-year-old G. Sreejayanthi, who puts together Pasadena events listings. She said she had a full-time job in India and didn’t think of herself as a journalist. “I try to do my best, which need not necessarily be correct always,” she wrote back. “Regarding Rose Bowl, my first thought was it was related to some food event but then found that is related to Sports field.”
Macpherson admits you can lose something in the translation — the Pasadena City Council Webcast that the Indian reporters now watch once missed two African-American lawmakers walking out in protest — but says the question is, how significant is it?
At first the reaction to covering Pasadena from 8,000 miles away and 13.5 hours ahead was “absolutely brutal,” Macpherson recalled. Journalism professors keened and Larry Wilson, the public editor at The Pasadena Star-News, called it “nutty.”
But then in October, Dean Singleton, The Associated Press’s chairman and the head of the MediaNews Group — which counts The Pasadena Star-News, The Denver Post and The Detroit News in its stable of 54 daily newspapers — told the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association that his company was looking into outsourcing almost every aspect of publishing, including possibly having one news desk for all of his papers, “maybe even offshore.”
Noting that most preproduction work for MediaNews’s papers in California is already outsourced to India, cutting costs by 65 percent, Singleton advised, “If you need to offshore it, offshore it,” and said after the speech, “In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter.”
Macpherson feels “vindicated,” but also “conflicted” about the idea of having an American newspaper industry fueled by Indian labor. “I mean, I am an American too,” he said. “I had two ancestors in the Revolutionary War. My mother was in the Daughters of the American Revolution.”
It’s not easy being a visionary, he said: “I have essentially been five years ahead of the world for a long time, and that’s a horrible address at which to live because people look at you, you know, like you’re nuts.”