Scary sign of the Times: Newspaper outsources all reporters from India

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Posted by Wow on June 01, 2009 at 13:12:26:

Made in India, but Published in New Haven

Published: May 31, 2009


Alert readers of The New Haven Advocate and its sister publications in Hartford and Fairfield County may have noticed a consistency among the bylines in its newest issue: Annie Rani, Dev Das, Nidhi Sharma, Asmi Rana, Neha Bhayana, Shreya Sanghani, Vijeta Bhatia and others.

Or, alert or inert, they could just have figured things out from the cover: "Sorry, We've Been Outsourced - This Issue Was Made in India." Almost all the stories in the alternative weekly, it turned out, were written by journalists in India.

Outsourcing journalism, one could ask, menace or peril? It might not be the only question, but New Haven is a particularly good place to pose it.

The Advocate, the usual alternative weekly mix of listings, personal ads, entertainment news and local reporting, wasn't the first publication to wonder whether you could do local journalism without local journalists.

The question arose last year when an online publication in Pasadena, Calif., fired its seven staff members and replaced them with workers from India using Webcams and e-mail at $7.50 per thousand words.

The idea in Connecticut wasn't nearly so predatory. The Indian journalists, recruited through Craigslist ads in Bangalore and Mumbai, were paid The Advocate's normal freelance rates (which definitely weren't making anyone rich either) to report on food, art, music, sex and other topics of interest in New Haven. The intent wasn't to cut costs. It was to see if it could be done and, if so, what kind of journalism would result.

"The idea was for the newsprint version of performance art, and I mean that positively," said Joshua Mamis, publisher of the three papers.

And you know what? Most of it was pretty good. Sure there were some clunky sentences and things lost in translation - and it works a lot better for, say, features on music than looking for municipal corruption. But proving that lust is lust, Asmi Rana wrote an engaging sex column exploring topics like a woman's fetish for ambulance drivers and paramedics and a man's question whether in an aroused state, his body weight might rise by three pounds ("You wish," her reply began).

Archana Aithal reviewed movies like "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" and "Drag Me to Hell" (she noted its vomit spewing and "skillful camera work"). Vijayalaxmi Hegde could have been any young hipster from New Haven interviewing the band Cake, or previewing a performance by the Dark Star Orchestra. Nilanjana Bhowmick wrote about shad season in Connecticut and the State Legislature's debate over the death penalty.

What does this prove? Not that it makes sense to report and write a New Haven publication from Mumbai. Even the writers said that. "If the New Haven Advocate staff was trying to prove that local journalism cannot be outsourced, I'd say they're laboring the obvious," Ms. Hegde wrote in an e-mail message. "A city is best reported by people who live in it. Period."

But maybe it showed something else: that breaking the mold did work, that you could reinvent the wheel and come up with something pretty fresh.

THIS, in fact, is exactly what's happened in New Haven, where the most interesting journalism isn't the "alternative" press, owned by the not-so-alternative Tribune Company of Chicago, or the daily, The New Haven Register.

Instead, it's the independent nonprofit New Haven Independent, a five-day-a-week online newspaper begun in 2005 by Paul Bass, supported by grants, sponsors and donations. Mr. Bass, 48, a journalist in New Haven since 1978 who has written for The Register and, mostly, The Advocate, has a skeleton staff that meets at a coffeehouse, but posts 12 to 20 items a day in an interactive format that's drawing interest and imitators from around the country. On June 23, he's starting another one in the blue-collar Naugatuck Valley.

Mr. Bass said he liked the outsourced issue, but it reminded him, alas, that so much of American journalism these days actually can be done from a desk in Mumbai, and that the threat facing most American newspapers isnít necessarily outsourcing or even the new frontier of the Internet. It's dull, stodgy products that have been downsized and bled dry by corporate owners. If what you do can be done, however imperfectly, from Mumbai, he said, then maybe you need to go back to Square One.

"I wasn't worried about India, I was worried about Chicago," he said. "Chicago was the killer. India was fine."

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