Monday, May 21, 2007

Reporters must ‘be there’ in more than spirit

The Tribune-Democrat

This is a real job advertisement: “We seek a newspaper journalist based in India to report on the city government and political scene of Pasadena, California, USA.”

Has outsourcing – already carving its way through manufacturing, information technology and other industries – set its sights on journalism?

The notion is as frightening as it is absurd. But it is real.

The Web site is turning to reporters based in Asia to cover local news in California.

The labor will be cheaper than U.S.-based reporters, figures James Macpherson, editor and publisher of the Web site.

Individuals sitting in front of computers in India can watch government meetings online and write up stories, just as if they were seated in the audience, he says.

Macpherson sees the outsourcing plan as “a way to increase the quality of journalism on the local level without the expense that is a major problem for local publications.”

Less expensive? Perhaps.

Better quality? No way.

It is true that the world seems to grow smaller by the moment. Someone in Thailand can call me in Johnstown and ask me if I want to subscribe to a magazine published in London. I can go online and read newspapers in Utah and Uzbekistan, Canada and Cambodia. I can receive an e-mail from someone in Nigeria offering to make me rich if I’ll just make a small contribution to a bank account in Switzerland.

But journalism – especially local journalism – is best when done through eyewitness experience.

Reporters don’t go to meetings merely to tell readers what happened; they go to tell readers why and how it happened.

They talk to the newsmakers and also to the people affected by the news. Reporters attempt to chart and describe the nuances, the discourse and the mood of a event. You can’t do that unless you’re in the room.

Readers rely on journalists to provide context. To answer the big question: What does it all mean?

Macpherson contends: “Whether you’re at a desk in Pasadena or a desk in Mumbai, you’re still just a phone call or e-mail away from the interview.”

It’s hardly that simple, as any reporter who has attempted to contact a source during off-hours can attest. But that’s not even the point.

Journalists need proximity to the news to be effective.

They must be able to ask questions, to challenge decisions, to write about what officials say and what they don’t say. And whether they’re uncomfortable or poised, angry or confident, as they say it.

To fulfill their watchdog role, journalists must be more than information conduits.

They must report with firsthand knowledge, and write with a level of authority.

Sometimes they ask difficult questions and report information that public officials would prefer was downplayed or ignored.

Reporters who spend even a short time on a beat come to know what really matters to those affected by the news.

They develop an understanding of how things work and can place events in the spectrum of ongoing history.

They know that there is a cause and consequence for every action and decision that is based on what has happened in the past and ripples forward into the future.

And they realize that local news events – even seemingly mundane council meetings in California – can’t be covered from India.

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