An unkind sting

(This appeared in The Hoot , May 2009 Edition)

In February this year, I came across an ad on Craigslist.  ‘Reporting for an American Newspaper on the East Coast’, which if I remember right, was in the Bangalore page in the writing editing section. (The job id is still with me, it was job-1029130779, but the Craigs ad has been taken down for a good reason, which you will know soon). The advertisers were looking for Indian journalists to handle stories in the U.S., sitting in India. The pay offered was ‘competitive’, but it wasn’t mentioned how much it would be.

I applied, giving my resume, a few links to web-publications including an old article on thehoot.org and Tehelka. This project sounded like I would get some bylines outside Mother India and a few bucks as well. The date was the 10th of Feb 2009. I had no reply from them for several days, so I put aside this application as another job that wasn’t a match for me.

On the 19th of May 2009, I received a mail with the Subject “Re: Reporting for an American Newspaper on the East Coast”. It said this : “We’re in need of a journalist to write a story really fast for our newspapers, the Advocate weeklies of Connecticut“.

(www.newhavenadvocate.com; www.hartfordadvocate.com ; www.fairfieldweekly.com) .

It was that old Craigslist advertiser who had come back. He said this: “You replied a while back about your interest in writing for us. It is a one-time gig, with no chance for recurring work, but it’s a good local story.We are in New Haven, CT, the home of Yale University and home to the best pizza in the world (and also the world’s first hamburger was made here!). This is a story involving food, the economy and local business.”

They went on to detail the story they wanted me to cover.

How are New Haven’s restaurants weathering the economy? Do Yale’s upper/middle-class students and employees give downtown eateries a buffer against the economy? How has Yale’s severe cut in its catering budget affected restaurants? What sort of tricks of the trade are restaurants using to bring in customers? How are customers cutting back?

New Haven’s not solely a college town, but does benefit from Yale being right downtown. Yale’s academic year just ended, and most students and some faculty are leaving for the summer. Are restaurants worried about departing students hurting business even more?

The mail then added quite a few contacts I could use to build up the story, including mail ids, phone numbers and names. There were more than a dozen restaurant owners and chefs in the list, so also Tom Conroy, the Yale University spokesman and Suzette A. Benitez, director of communications , Greater New Haven Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Most of the restaurants had websites too. So the research, in a way, was a breeze and half done. How I wished our Indian editors would give us as many leads!

So what was the hitch?

No, it was not the local flavor needed in the article; I was upto handling that, with so much of web content writing and blogging under my belt. What worried me was the deadline! They said they wanted someone to write really fast, by May 25th, to be exact. It was only 650 words, but just imagine mailing all those people or calling them up at their waking hours, which meant losing your sleep and money, and trying to decipher accents. The week-end looming before me didn’t help either. I didn’t think it was worth it, because I would have to pay for the ISD calls too. This was also a one-time gig, so what was the point in sweating it out?

I wrote back saying my schedule was full, so wasn’t interested. The guy, who called himself Andy, came back with good wishes and that was the last I heard of them. At least that was what I thought.

Today I came across a heading on the web.

“We hired Indian freelance journalists to write the paper this week. Here’s why we did it.”

To my shock, here was New Haven Advocate again, with a ‘confession’ about how they went about hiring Indian freelance journalists for their group of newspapers, and set them jobs reporting local events. They, meaning the ‘New Haven Advocate Staff’, planned the whole thing just to prove that ‘Outsourcing could certainly fill pages, probably very cheaply, but what’s lost is the very essence of local newspapers: presence.’

This was their explanation of why they put up more than a dozen Indian journos through a series of mails, discussions and work; all in reaction to a news website in Pasadena, California, outsourcing city hall coverage to reporters in India last year. They planned it meticulously, advertising in the Mumbai and Bangalore pages of Craigslist, asking for ‘journalists to write this issue of our paper — news, arts, food, sex advice, the auto column, the horoscope, the whole pakora.’ (I wonder what they meant by this last word? I would have used the word ‘works’ instead of pakora. Now are they inventing Indianisms to suit them?)

There was an avalanche of replies, it seems, and about 100 Indian writers of varying caliber, from journalists with impressive credentials including one with ‘BBC pedigree’ and asking for $ 1 per word, to ‘content writers” or technical writers “hungry for any assignment we could throw them” threw in their CVs. Well, here’s more from their confession.

We hired the best writers we could find (and afford) and provided them with the sketch details and contacts needed to write their stories. We did not outsource the listings sections because the potential for screw-ups seemed high and because they are some of the best-read and most relied-upon sections of the paper each week. The only pieces generated in-house were ones we couldn’t find an Indian writer to do. (Outsourced material has a “Made in India” stamp on the page.)”

How does that last sentence sound to you as an Indian journalist?  I don’t think they put the ‘stamp’ there as an honour. Is there a limit to which one can be more derogatory to citizens of another country, just to prove to their owners, what they can’t prove by dialogue across the table?

The confession continues.

If our owners want to replace us with Indians, all we can say is good luck! If they find locating, hiring and keeping after these writers half the challenge we did, they might think twice about replacing us. Far from giving us a week off, it took the staffs of all three Advocate/Weekly papers to assign, edit, manage and assemble this project. Some of that would surely be made easier by having Indian reporters on retainer (rather than building an entire freelance stable from scratch). But other challenges we encountered seem more universal.

How do you coordinate an interview between an Indian journalist and a California musician used to dealing with American writers, with a 12-plus-hour time difference? How can you review restaurants and plays when you can’t taste the food or see the show? How do you get the news tips people drop in casual conversation in the town clerk’s office or the local pub?

They have given a full list of ‘outsourced’ articles, 14 of them …. I don’t think the journalists on the list had any idea that they were helping out with the cause of humanity of a country so affected by recession. The mail I received from the New Haven Advocates didn’t tell me anything of the sort. If that wasn’t enough, here is a little more in confession,

Our sister papers, the New Haven Advocate and the Fairfield Weekly, also used freelancers from India for this week’s issues.  See what our readers in New Haven and Fairfield have to say about our outsourcing experiment”.

It is only natural that the public support these schemes, right? The comments section has plenty of ire from the reading public, with a few voices in dissent too, I was happy to note. And it was not just the reading public who supported the cause of the local reporter. The Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford was ready to connect us with famed director Milos Forman for an interview ahead of his appearance at the center, until they learned the piece would be outsourced. “Outsourcing stories to reporters living abroad is only hurting our wonderful local reporters, who desperately need the work right now,” a theater employee told us.

Really? Will any of our great artists refuse to connect with a ‘pardesi’ reporter for an interview? Maybe if he is told that he has replaced one if us on the Times of India or Deccan Herald or the Hindu, and he has enough time to realize this was a sting operation in progress! Now we come to the greatest balancing equation of it all, the economy of it. The beginning of the confession mentions a Pasadena site which ‘fired its staff, and replaced them with Indians who’d crank out 1,000-word stories for the rock-bottom rate of $7.50.’

They make another point by talking of the ‘cheap rates’ which they found wasn’t cheap after all. (So is there another reason why the work is outsourced? Perhaps that could be their story this week!)

We can’t tell you exactly how much we paid the writers, but suffice to say, we didn’t get any 1,000-word articles for $7.50. I can tell you what I was offered for a ‘good local story involving food, the economy and local business’, of 650 words, to be turned in within 4 days, after talking to and mailing umpteen people across the globe at my expense.

It was just $ 75. Yes I mean seventy five US Dollars, which is approximately Rs.3750. And I still don’t know if they meant to pay by Pay pal. Even some Indian magazines pay well, and for stories for which I didn’t have to lose sleep and spend on ISD calls…Oh, I know about Skype, and IM! Tell me, how many of these people will bother to sit down at their PCs and type off answers to emails or talk to us with their head sets on? I was to talk to chefs and food-kings… not programmers and writers who spend their days on their laptops. It is possible, but not worth the trouble was what I thought.

The heading from the website of the New Haven Advocate, just made a point on outsourcing, or they think they did. But as an almost-victim of a ‘sting’ operation on Indian journalists by these fellow-journalists in the U.S., I think I should beg to differ. This point was made not about outsourcing alone; I guess I can make a million points about globalization here, and the concept of the global village. Isn’t that the argument you throw at us about all those MNCs doing business in India? At the end of the confession, talking about the quality of the articles the confession says this.“Presence is what sets local newspapers (dinosaurs though they are sometimes) apart, and what outsourced news could never replace. But don’t take our word for it. Have a read and decide for yourself.

Yes, I do understand the point they need to drive home about the loss of their jobs and the need of local talent in reporting local flavour. I get the frustration they have over their jobs shipped overseas and their rightful reaction and objection to this. But was there a need to ridicule a group of professionals who do the same job as they do, just because they live in another country with a different economy and currency conversion values?

Why couldn’t they have sought methods, effective ones, to confront their employers, rather than shoot the messengers each time? In plain words, more decently? And I thought we journos were a tribe sans borders… Perhaps I was wrong. In case you want to read the whole confession here it is, complete with the comments.

Tailpiece1:

I was livid when I heard about journos, yes journos and not content writers agreeing to write 1000 worded ‘reports’ for a mere Rs.375 for the Pasadena website… whose rates would go down so much?  But later when I went through another article mentioned in this confession. I found that the reporters employed by the website were on monthly salaries of US $ 12000, quite a pittance, I should say.

Tailpiece 2:

I can’t imagine any ‘staff’ in an Indian Newspaper/website outsourcing without the consent of their bosses, even if it is only to prove a point. Here the owners of the website/newspaper don’t seem to have any objection to this ‘performance’. U.S. is really the land of freedom, I envy you!

Tailpiece 3:

To the fellow journalists who really had bylines on their outsourced page, this is definitely not meant in any way to offend you at all, this is my opinion of what a journalist on this globe shouldn’t be doing to another. After all, sting operations are meant to be done on the unsuspecting non-journo public, right?

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