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Your Local News — Dateline New Delhi


The world may be flat, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, but I always liked to think I was standing on a hill. Now comes the news that pasadenanow.com, a local news site, is recruiting reporters in India. The website’s editor points out that he can get two Indian reporters for a mere $20,800 a year — and no, they won’t be commuting from New Delhi. Since Pasadena‘s city council meetings can be observed on the web, the Indian reporters will be able to cover local politics from half the planet away. And if they ever feel a need to see the potholes of Pasadena, there’s always Google Earth.

Excuse me, but isn’t this more or less what former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired for — pretending to report from sites around the country while he was actually holed up in his Brooklyn apartment? Or will pasadenanow.com be honest enough to give its new reporters datelines in Delhi (or wherever they live)?

I should have seen it coming. In the eighties, US companies began outsourcing the manufacturing of everything from garments to steel, leaving whole cities to die. Education was the recommended solution for the unemployed, because in the globalized future, Americans would be world’s brains, while Mexicans and Malaysians would provide the hands. Let the low-end, repetitive jobs scatter to the ends of the earth, we were told — the intellectual and creative work would stay right here.

So no one really complained when the back office and call center jobs migrated to India in the nineties: Who needed them? We would still be the brains of global business. When the IT jobs started drifting away, we were at first assured that only the more “routine” ones were outsourceable. As for all the laid-off techies, they were smart enough to develop new skills, right?

But no one can pretend any longer that we have a global monopoly on intellect and innovation. Look at the “telemedicine” trend, which has radiologists in India and Lebanon reading CT scans for hospitals in Altoona and Chicago. Or — and this was never supposed to happen — the growing outsourcing of R&D, with scores of companies opening labs in India or China — “Chindia,” as they are known in the biz lit. In 2005, a Microsoft manager told the Financial Times that “The question is how you make [the Chinese] truly creative, truly innovative.” Whoops — weren’t we supposed to be the innovators?

Still, writing was believed to be safe — the last stronghold of Western creativity. Explaining the outsourcing of almost every newspaper function, including copy-editing, the billionaire CEO of a consortium of Irish newspapers wrote: ‘With the exception of the magic of writing and editing news … almost every other function, except printing, is location-indifferent.” But the magic has clearly been fading, starting two years ago when Reuters started outsourcing its Wall Street coverage to Bangalore. Is there nothing an actual, on-site, American can’t do better than anyone else?

In the Pasadena case, I can’t even complain, as US-based Reuters’ workers did when their jobs were outsourced, that the quality of journalism will suffer as a result. One of the Indian reporters just hired by pasadenanow.com has a degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, which is one of the three or four best j-schools in the country. I have taught there myself, and know that the students are scarily smart. Too bad that they these reporters couldn’t get real journalism jobs, at normal American wages, but American newspapers are axing good journalists even as I write.

No, I don’t resent the Indians for moving in on the kind of work I do. I just wish the next time some managers get the idea of cost-saving through outsourcing they’d go for the CEO’s job. That’s where the big bucks are, and there’s no reason to think a Chinese or Indian person couldn’t do a CEO’s work, whatever it may be, perfectly adequately, and at less than a tenth of the price. As for me, I’m retraining as a massage therapist, at least until they figure out how to do that from Mumbai.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.”

 

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