It's hard to decide which is more amusing: the revelation that a rinky-dink Pasadena, Calif., Web site is outsourcing its "local" news reporting to journalists in India, or the shrieking response of the journalism establishment. It just goes to show that when it comes to the outsourcing and offshoring of services and jobs, no industry is unscathed.
In case you missed the j-sourcing brouhaha, the editor and publisher of Pasadena Now is paying two reporters--one in Bangalore and one in Mumbai--cut-rate wages to cover the Pasadena City Council from afar. Now, Pasadena Now, an online rag that attracts about 45,000 visitors a month, doesn't pretend to be The Los Angeles Times. Yet journalism professors and other high-brow media pundits came out of the woodwork to decry the site's offshoring arrangement as ill-conceived (you can't possibly chronicle the inner workings of city government from 9,000 miles away!), impractical (the time and energy spent checking the facts and cleaning up the copy will offset any cost savings!), and a bone-chilling precedent (Pasadena Now today, CNN and the New Yorker tomorrow!). "Nobody in their right mind would trust the reporting of people who not only don't know the institutions but aren't even there to witness the events and nuances," seethed USC journalism prof Bryce Nelson in an L.A. Times story. "This is a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become."
Haven't we heard these kinds of protests and this line of reasoning somewhere else? We're told that offshore developers and call center agents don't have the tech chops or communications abilities of their U.S. counterparts, and that they can't possibly appreciate the business nuances that are a big part of the job. And with all the training and hand-holding and do-over work required, these cheap offshore workers are terrible investments in the long run.
If that's truly the case, U.S. companies will realize the error of their ways soon enough. Dell, for one, moved some technical support back onshore after its U.S. customers complained. MONY, Sprint Nextel, JPMorgan Chase, and scores of other companies have reclaimed outsourced IT operations after figuring out that they were losing a competitive edge. Other companies burned by offshore projects have learned to be more selective or to manage them differently. Ultimately, the people who run Dell and JPMorgan Chase (and Pasadena Now)--not a bunch of disengaged critics--will decide whether their customers and financial interests are best served by offshoring. Offshore experimentation is inevitable and unstoppable, but it's also reversible.
Related to this rancorous offshoring debate is the practice of importing tech professionals from India and other countries under H-1B visas. Legislators and public policy critics are trying to right the program's "abuses"--which boil down to companies in the United States bringing foreign nationals here to work because they're skilled and relatively inexpensive, and because they fit into the companies' global aspirations. This hiring is deemed unfair to displaced American workers.
As evidence that the offshoring and H-1B visa paranoia has spiraled out of control, a site operated by the Public Broadcasting Service reported last week that IBM plans to terminate 150,000 U.S. workers, even though the company doesn't have nearly that many U.S. workers. Meantime, a worker group at IBM called on U.S. colleagues to walk off their jobs for 15 minutes on May 15 to "tell IBM to stop abandoning good U.S. jobs." While you're at it, why not hang "expendable" signs around your necks?
The best way to prove that your job or function isn't easily or economically outsourced or otherwise replaceable is to prove every day that you're hungry, flexible, creative, and thus indispensable to the organization. If you're not, then yes, you're vulnerable. It's just the way this global economy is and will always be.
ROB PRESTON, VP/EDITOR IN CHIEF