30 May 2009

The dilemmas of American journalism, and my tiny role in it

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a few music articles for the Advocate Weeklies, part of an American newspaper group. It was interesting to interview the musicians and the money was good. And what the heck, I got bylines.

I learned this week that this was sort of an outsourcing experiment. Here's their explanation for why they outsourced their issue.

And here are my articles:

Licking it clean (Interview with Cake)

Living up to The Dead. (Interview with Dark Star Orchestra)

A lot of people, Indians and Americans, are upset with the New Haven Advocate staff for this experiment and the debate is getting nastier on their site.

I presented my views to Peter Applebome of the New York Times in an email interview. Read the story here: Made in India, but published in New Haven

Read below selected parts of the email interview:

PA: First, as someone who loves writing on music, I really liked both your pieces. I'd hate to see what would happen if American journalists tried to write for Indian publications on Indian culture. It certainly would not have been half as good as the work you all did.

Were you happy with the result and did you think it was displayed and handled properly?

Me: I agreed to do the stories on Cake and Dark Star Orchestra because it sounded interesting, and it was.

If the New Haven Advocate staff was trying to prove that local journalism cannot be outsourced, I'd say they're laboring the obvious. A city is best reported by people who live in it. Period.

That said, they did not mention the quality work some of us did. At least, I have the NHA editor's word on it.

Anyways, I wouldnt hold this outsourcing experiment against them. I somehow feel this is a defensive reaction against the pressures the NHA staff, and US journalists in general, must be feeling in these hard times.

PA: I think they thought of it as an aesthetic experiment -- how would this work out? -- and, for the most part, the work was interesting and good.

Me: If this was a purely aesthetic experiment, why do they talk of losing jobs? Why do they quote the local theater employee saying, "Outsourcing stories to reporters living abroad is only hurting our wonderful local reporters, who desperately need the work right now."

Are they trying to use the aesthetic point to serve a personal purpose, that is, to hold on to their jobs?

PA: Were you told of the idea of the Outsourced Issue concept and what did you think of it? Did you think it was appropriate, harmless or in any way demeaning?

Me: No, I wasn’t told of the concept. Not telling me was harmless, I’d say. But, I’ll repeat, in not acknowledging the quality work some of us did and in implying that it couldn’t match up to theirs, they’ve been unfair. They say, “We hope this issue will provide insight as well as a strong note of caution.” Caution against what? Losing local flavor, or not matching up to American journalism standards? They’re not clear on that.

Also, this issue cannot be a benchmark on Indian journalism because among the contributors, there are very few journalists. I, for one, am a trained journalist.

PA: Do Indian journalists have the same level of fear about the future of journalism as Americans do?

Me: Well, we don’t have the same fears, that is, I don’t think any Indian journalist thinks her job can be outsourced. India is too intricate for that.
The media industry had been booming in India till the slowdown happened. So, am not sure we have the same level of fears.

PA: What advice would you have for American journalists and media executives afraid of seeing jobs continue to wither away? What should they be doing?

Me: Journalism cannot be outsourced. It is aesthetically and politically important that local journalists retain their jobs. Yes, American newspapers are going through tough times, but outsourcing is not the answer. And, unlike banks and car companies, newspapers cannot go to the government with a begging bowl for ethical reasons.

Will increasing their cover price help? I don’t know. There are no easy answers here.

PA: To be honest, I'm still trying to figure out what I think of this experiment. For the most part, it seems to me a pretty benign one -- you guys put out a really interesting issue, it's absurd to think you're going to take jobs from people in New Haven.

-- End of interview --

Others have been talking about the Advocate's outsourced issue, too:

So Here's What Happens When Alt-Weeklies Start Outsourcing Their Phoners With the Guy Who Plays Trumpet for Cake to India

Will Glide Outsource Hidden Track to India?


Praveen R. Bhat said...

Hmm, interesting indeed. I'm saving your articles for reading still, but I know they are good. I read through the other links and your interview stands out as the best. :)

The experiment itself seems to be a desperate attempt to prove the obvious, as you indicate at the beginning of your interview. I'm quite surprised that a case is being made out about outsourcing "local news" while the topics outsourced were not really local, per se. Interviewing a band on email or webcam is totally different from tasting local restaurant food and its ambience; apples and oranges for sure. Wouldn't you agree that while the latter is a strict no-no, former is still very much fine?

Well, finally, your interviewing the tribute band was *AS EFFECTIVE* as the NY Times interviewing you.


Selamii :) said...

I live in New Haven, and love it as you can see from my new little bloggy blog....Please don't feel like The Advocate, which was highly respected at some point, is representing New Haven residents by any means...

I also had the same thoughts as Praveen...It wasn't local news that was outsourced, so what's up with that?!

I'm surprised that they didn't tell you that it was an experiment!

Moderator said...

Thank you for posting this - quite interesting. I have linked to your story on Design New Haven:


Anonymous said...

Hey Selami (and Praveen),

Thanks for linking up and your comment. Praveen and you are quite right. The food stories do have a local flavor, the pun intended :)

-- Viju

homoscribus said...


Eddie said...

I personally thought you guys did an outstanding job under difficult circumstances. Outsourcing is a touchy subject in the Untied States right now, and the Advocate was trying to open up a dialogue about it -- quite successfully.

Yes, some readers responded with vitriol, and there was some downright racism. But there were others like myself who found the issue quite illuminating.

I am a former newspaper reporter and editor, and have watched with dismay as cutbacks have piled up to the point where many reporters can barely leave their desks. The result is that the overburdened reporters do the bulk of their reporting by phone and Google.

What this issue told me was that unless local newspapers allow local reporters to do what they do best -- take you behind the scenes and give you information you just can't get anywhere else -- they might as well just outsource the reporting.

This issue was a challenge to journalists to set a higher bar.

As I said, you guys did a fine job under the circumstances. But in some cases, it was painfully obvious that you're not from around here.

Maybe newspapers should outsource those stories that don't require special local knowledge or first-person observation. That would free up the local news reporters to focus on other stories that only they can do well.

Anonymous said...

That's a capital idea, Eddie :), that is, outsourcing non-local stories.

I found some of the comments in the debate on the Advocate site unnecessarily nasty. And I am saying this about both sides of the debate.

And this experiment by the Advocate opened a window into American journalism, at least, for me. I have heard views similar to your views from other senion US journalists, and it's sad the economy is pushing journalists into the armchair and keeping them there.

There simply cannot be an alernative to legwork.

I am a strong beleiver in the principles of new journalism as put forth by Tom Wolfe. And, when I was doing those stories, I sorely missed not being able to see the people I was interviewing. What were they wearing, which of my questions made them smile, what was their body language, etc. I had access to none of this information. All I had was their words spoken over the telephone.

Thanks, Eddie, for visiting.

-- Viju.

Mohan said...

It was interesting to read your post and other perspectives on this topic. I guess the challenge for local journalists is how to protect their local turf from globalizing?!

Anonymous said...

You can call it that, Mohan. And for journalism's sake, I hope they keep their turf, when it comes to reporting on issues critical to the health of a democracy.

But what strikes me as very ironic is the way the tables have turned. And this is about the outcry in general about outsourcing.

Someone is getting protectionist, nationalist, and how.

When our farmers fought (and are still fighting) to get a minimum support price for their produce, it was being anti free trade, eh?


Eddie said...

There's always been this protectionist, nationalist theme in U.S. politics, although it ebbs and flows and the target changes. Twenty years ago, it was Japan; now it's India. It's nothing new, particularly during hard economic times.

This example is probably particularly alarming to some because it involves jobs that were traditionally held by middle-class professionals rather than factory jobs or customer service.

Some of the concerns are based on racism, pure and simple. Others are well founded -- with 20-20 hindsight, Detroit autoworkers were justified in worrying that foreign competition would decimate their industry. (It may have served a greater good, but tell that to the GM worker whose factory closed down.)

What alarms me is not that we might lose some jobs here in the United States, but rather that we don't seem to be replacing them with promising new industries at a very fast pace. Our culture tends to promote innovation and entrepreneurism, but our schools aren't doing a good enough job of pairing those traits with the knowledge and skills needed to make them succeed.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Eddie, you're right about the recurrent protectionist wave.

And, yes, this particular example is all the more alarming, perhaps because this was sort of in the creative realm.

Are only American schools to blame for the current economic scene? I definitely respect the culture that fosters innovation and entrepreneurism. But it is also the same culture that says consumerism is good. (This is rubbing off big way in India, too. So, no holier-than-thou attitude here.) Do you think consuming more and more can also force people one day to make do with less and less?

-- Viju

Anonymous said...

Hi, Viju. I came to this site as a result of the NY Times article.

It's interesting to hear what you had to say about the issue. One thing I think is sorely missing in the whole discussion about outsourcing (in America, I suppose) is the voice of the...sourced? It seems like nobody is interested in who the Indian worker is or how he or she sees things. That's a shame.

Thanks for the interesting work.