“Bangalore,” I say. “India.”
“Um, okay,” he says, quickly. “I’m just about to go into a news meeting. Can you call me back?”
“Yeah,” I say. “How long will that take?”
“About an hour.”
So I call him back in an hour. And then 15 minutes after that. And then seven more times over the next week. And then I call others, including his boss, but I never find out what he knows about how, and why, his newspaper’s copy–some of it, anyway-travels from Toronto to India.
In the end, though, I do find out what’s going on. There, and throughout the industry. The puzzle pieces are scattered far beyond Toronto and India and involve not one but hundreds of papers. I find some pieces in Hamilton, Ontario, and a few more on Wall Street. Others come from Montreal, Vancouver, London, Miami, New Delhi and a place called Mangalore-not Bangalore, as I’d initially thought-in India. These locations, which differ in culture and history, are connected by well-known struggles in the western media industry: declining print readership, low advertising sales and, of course, a troubled economy. All of these threaten the very existence of newspapers and there are no ready, or free, solutions.
This is a story about editorial experimentation, job losses, union fights, management silence, tough choices at the desk and a big but convenient time zone difference. And it’s a story-copy editors will love this-about the meaning of words: words like offshoring, outsourcing, centralization, pagination and dummies. It’s about spelling and local usage, the difference between NFL and MLB, and even a touch of voodoo.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The search begins in Toronto, last fall, when one of my journalism profs tells me she’s heard rumours that newspapers in the U.S., and maybe even Canada, are outsourcing their copy editing to India.
Well, if they are, there’s a reason.
The Toronto Star was one of the first newspapers to make significant cuts in 2008, announcing in April that it would shed 160 jobs. By the end of the year, the Canadian media had eliminated 1,200 jobs during the final three months alone, most of them at Sun Media and Canwest. Then, in early 2009, The Globe and Mailannounced it was cutting 80 to 90 jobs, around 10 percent of its workforce.
Even during the best of times, large daily newspapers are expensive ventures whose success is easily affected by changes in technology and economic climate. At the mercy of advertising trends, which have seen a shift to niche-specific media and online classifieds, print-based news hardly needed the current downturn. A Deloitte study predicts that in 2009, one in 10 newspapers will have to either reduce its print frequency, move to online only or cease printing entirely. But don’t fret-the report says it isn’t the end of the industry. Instead, newsrooms must emerge with new business practices, including “shared backroom infrastructure.” Nowhere does the document mention outsourcing or centralizing, but by the time I’m finished my research on the changing universe of copy editing, I will know perfectly well what “shared backroom infrastructure” really means.
A major shakeup of the newspaper business happened in the late 19th century, when newspapers were forced to refocus on middle-class interests like entertainment and sports-or close down. During the Great Depression, times were so tough in the industry that the Regina Leader-Post resorted to accepting chickens in exchange for subscriptions. The advent of radio, television and then the internet each yielded major threats for print-based news. So, I wonder, if outsourcing copy editing saves some journalists’ jobs in Canada, if it maybe saves the odd newspaper, is it so bad? Anyway, I start by making calls to the only place I know for certain, at the outset, that has outsourcing going on.
Animal sacrifice, says the voice over the phone from Miami, is done “when you’re trying to appease the gods.” I’m speaking to the first of several North American copy editors who will ask that I not use their names. This individual, along with the rest of the remaining staff on the copy desk at TheMiami Herald, is uneasy about the long-term prospects for copy editing as a profession. Immediately after the Herald announced it was moving some of its copy editing to India last summer, a stuffed rooster appeared on a shelf next to the mailboxes in the newsroom. Voodoo and Santeria are familiar in Haitian and Cuban communities in Miami, and employees recognized the symbolism. A piece of paper taped to the rooster’s body read, “Brought in by a Santeria priest … to help save our jobs.” As fears grew among copy editors, so did the grimly comedic spiritual offering. Employees added a shot glass filled with rum, a few bills of foreign currency and numerous mementoes they’d kept on their desks for years. Though the offering managed to lighten the mood in the newsroom, it couldn’t stop the cuts. In the local news department, taking a buyout was optional. Those at the international edition of the paper, a version of the Herald that is distributed in nine cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, weren’t so lucky. Five were laid off with two to three months’ notice, just enough time for the international edition to work out the kinks with its new copy-editing staff at a company called Mindworks in New Delhi. (“Now the international edition is truly international,” quips one Herald copy editor.) “The mood here is very sombre,” says Douglas Rojas-Sosa, a 34-year-old copy editor and page designer who has managed, so far, to keep his job at the local edition of the paper.
Bill Oates, the editor of the international edition, says the push to outsource came from the Herald‘s parent corporation, the McClatchy Company. Executives had originally targeted the small, regional community inserts in the local paper, known as the Neighbors editions. Instead, they chose to outsource the international edition, which was more conducive to copy editing by people living outside Miami. Also, many of the stories in the international edition have already been copy edited for the city edition. It’s the repurposing of those stories for an international audience-changing the headlines, creating a new layout-that is now done in India. Oates admits, “There are a few wrinkles, but we’re improving.” Aside from technological inconveniences such as electronic file sharing, language differences have occasionally posed problems. Some English words don’t carry the same meaning in India as they do in America, and stories sometimes come back from the Indian company missing the articles “the” and “a.” Still, Oates says, “We’re getting a little better result than we got when we started. We’re almost where we want to be.”
Though the Herald initially dubbed its attempt at outsourcing a “trial,” Oates hints that the likely price of failure is the end of his edition: “It’s an all-or-nothing thing right now.”
For British media giant the Press Association, newspapers’ cost-cutting imperatives are a business opportunity for outsourcing operations. “Why tie up valuable manpower on national and international news pages,” its website demands, “when our unit can do the job for you-often at a lower cost?” For years, dailies have bought external pagination services for sports statistics and financial agate columns, but India offers new advantages, such as a steady supply of English-speaking university graduates, a convenient time zone difference that allows for overnight turnaround and, of course, labour costs that are among the lowest in the world.
Information technology companies, customer service operations, law firms, real estate agencies and Wall Street financial offices have been sending jobs to the subcontinent for up to a decade, so why not newspapers? A backgrounder on the Mindworks website outlines its “pioneering mission: to make a significant and positive difference to the media industry worldwide during a period of dramatic change.” ButHerald copy editor Rojas-Sosa chuckles about one news item that was forwarded to him via newsroom instant messaging. The Mindworks team’s headline announced that the Florida Marlins, a baseball team, was playing the Houston-misspelled Houstan-Texans, a football team. Given the importance of both sports in the south, it’s a good thing a local copy editor caught it before it went to print.
But the shrinking local desk can’t catch everything. As one of the paper’s few remaining copy editors puts it, “We’re just makeup artists.” Instead of fact-checking and making detailed style and structure corrections, the job now consists of “making sure the copy is in English, that it’s not libellous, and crossing our fingers that it doesn’t need to be corrected in the next day’s paper.”
It’s like one of those little flying-under-the-radar operations with a lot of genius in them,” says Kirk LaPointe over the phone from Vancouver. LaPointe is the managing editor of TheVancouver Sun and he’s praising a Canwest move to save money without sacrificing either papers or copy editing. “They do it all out of a shop in Hamilton with a few dozen people and they’re very efficient at it,” he says. This part of the story isn’t about India, and it isn’t, strictly speaking, outsourcing. It’s something called centralizing, and the Hamilton-based Canwest Editorial Services (CES) is the “genius” group that handles copy-editing services for about 160 newspapers around the world. CES has centralized the pagination duties-laying out pages, copy editing, headline writing, story cutting and photo cropping-to varying degrees for all of Canwest’s newspapers, including LaPointe’s Sun. Vancouver’s South Asian Post is produced entirely by CES. In most cases, though, the CES “operators” communicate over the phone and via e-mail with local copy desks to produce pages.
“There’s sort of a polite tension,” says Jordan Zivitz, a copy editor at TheGazette in Montreal, whose union is currently fighting to stem the tide of work sent to Hamilton. “There haven’t been shouting matches in the halls,” he says, “but it’s sort of the elephant in the room.” So far, favourable contract wording has allowedTheGazette to avoid sending out anything but page-design duties-keeping editing, copy cutting and headline writing in-house-but at the time of writing, the contract itself is up for grabs as the paper gears up for a strike.
On the phone from Ottawa, Scott Anderson, senior vice president of content for Canwest Publishing, tells me that centralization frees up local staff “to concentrate on creating local content, which is where our future lies.” The point of CES, he says, isn’t to cut newsrooms but “to do things as efficiently as possible.” So I ask Zivitz, does sending the layout to Hamilton save you time? He pauses, and then replies, “It’s something that we continue to have discussions about.” Officials of the Communications, Energy and Paperworks union and the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild (SONG) are less diplomatic about what they see as cost-cutting attacks on newsrooms, but even a SONG vice president, Maureen Dawson, says that in order to fight such measures SONG would have to come up with a better idea to cut costs. “And are we going to agree to cut people’s wages for those savings?” she asks. “My answer would be no.”
LaPointe says CES’s critics assume that CES is involved in creating editorial content, when in truth, “We have not lost one scintilla of our own decision making.” Anderson adds: “People are always nervous about change.” Communication between local copy editors and CES “operators,” he says, is no different than if they were sitting in the same newsroom, and there’s no effect on the resulting pages. When discussing the Hamilton operation with potential clients, Anderson says, he’ll “put two pages in front of someone and tell them to pick the one that was done in Hamilton and the one that was done in their own newsroom; they can’t tell the difference.”
But if hyperlocal coverage is the way of the future, as Anderson says, wouldn’t cutting local staff be viewed as a step backward? Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society and a copy editor atTheDallas Morning News, which does not outsource copy, says readers’ expectations of a newspaper include knowledge of its community. Someone in India might not know the difference between the Dallas neighbourhood of Oak Lawn and suburb of Oak Cliff, he points out, and while an overseas copy editor could look it up on the internet, he first has to recognize they aren’t the same.
At a time when newspapers are struggling for credibility, Philip Meyer sees copy editors as “the last line of defence in protecting a newspaper from error.” Meyer is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a leading researcher on the newspaper business. While copy editors don’t routinely fact check, they’re expected to notice a misspelled word, a location that doesn’t exist or a puzzling statistic before a story goes to print. In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, Meyer analyzed correlated community-penetration circulation data, the rate of errors requiring correction, the number of copy editors employed by newspapers and satisfaction surveys among those editors. Among other things, he found that “the number of copy editors explains 25 percent of the variation in spelling accuracy,” and treating copy editors better relates to circulation success. “Newspapers whose copy editors score a two or better on the five-point respect scale hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points” of circulation penetration. Newspapers with healthy copy desks, he concluded, were better able to hold on to readers.
That was five years ago, and the threat of newspapers vanishing is darker today. To prevent it, newsrooms must change in dramatic ways that include merging, shifting resources from print to online, investing in quality staff and technologies with the hope that their investments pay off in the long term, or simply folding their tents. “I don’t think there’s a newsroom in the world that isn’t feeling the pressure right now,” says Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press. His organization doesn’t outsource its jobs and has no plans to do so, but he admits CP has had to make some sacrifices to deal with the downturn. “I think most of our bureaus right now are running at least one reporter under,” he says. “Ultimately, it just means that everybody works harder. You just learn to prioritize and that’s really all you can do.” To alleviate his stretched staff, White says CP is working on developing a computer software program that can switch the American spellings in Associated Press copy to Canadian spellings. You might call it digital outsourcing.
Canwest dropped its CP membership in 2007 to rely on its own syndicated news service, but the media company might well be considered the poster child for the industry’s troubles. In November 2008, Canwest shares plummeted 35 percent, following news of $33 million in losses. The company is heavily in debt, has put some properties up for sale and is trying to stay afloat. In short, Canwest is in even greater need than some of its competitors of what LaPointe calls genius innovations.
On a grey afternoon in late January, I take the bus to Hamilton armed with a notepad and camera. My attempts to arrange a visit to the CES newsroom and an interview with its founder, Alex Beer, have proved fruitless. “Sarah, I’ve thought about it,” Beer told me finally, “and I think you have enough information for your story.” He declined even a cursory tour of the place, but here I am, half-sure I’m on a fool’s errand that will end in the lobby of some nondescript office tower, with Get Smart-style stainless steel security doors blocking the office entrance. Instead, Fortress CES turns out to be a small, one-storey brick building the colour of a wet log, with long windows along the façade, a giant red CES Canwest Editorial Services sign and directions to the visitors’ parking lot.
I can see clear into the office from my spot on the sidewalk, and from what I can tell, CES is set up like a miniature newsroom, with its few desks (LaPointe’s “few dozen” looks right enough) arranged side by side. When I start clicking shots, newsroom staff peer at me through the windows. I think about knocking at the door, but there’s now a man standing watching me with his arms crossed who looks about as welcoming as Beer sounded. I smile nervously and leave, and spend the bus ride home wondering how CES manages to complete the pagination duties of 160 newspapers in such a tiny office.
“She should talk to Chris Watson” yet another unnamed copy editor tells my editor-Watson being the man who told me to call him back in an hour when I said the word “India,” but then disappeared from my life forever. He’s executive editor of the Financial Post. For weeks prior to that call, I’d heard rumours about FP sending pages to India for copy editing. Of the Post staffers I had reached, some said they thought it was going on but couldn’t say for sure; others believed it wasn’t happening at all and some refused to speak to me. I get some more solid information on deep background, and then, finally, an FP copy editor, who makes me promise not to reveal even his or her sex, confirms that, yes, the Post is outsourcing some copy editing to India.
The arrangement has been kept so quiet that some copy editors in the Toronto newsroom don’t know it’s happening. Only smaller parts of the newspaper, such as the Working and Small Business sections of the Financial Postare being outsourced. Post staff on the larger news sections that are being produced entirely locally may go about their daily duties with no idea it’s going on. The copy editor says there are corners of the office where everyone is aware of the deal in India, but “there’s a general consensus that we’re not supposed to talk about it.” Though no one has explicitly told staff to keep silent, the overall vibe coming from the top is that the paper is just testing out the process, and so no one needs to know about it. That appears to be Watson’s view, at least: a total of 10 calls to him and to Post editor-in-chief Doug Kelly, including messages specifically inviting comment on the India arrangement, all went unanswered.
The “test” involves sending copy from specific newspaper sections electronically to an Indian affiliate of Britain’s Press Association. According to the head of communications at PA, the company has offered this service for 20 years, and today creates over 8,500 pages a week for around 220 newspapers and magazines. PA’s page production service has offices in Howden, East Yorkshire, in the U.K., and in Mangalore and Pune, India. As far as we know, the Post works with the office in Mangalore, a coastal city a few hundred kilometres west of Bangalore, and operates through a large outsourcing company there called MphasiS.
Here’s how it works: Post copy editors working on the sections being outsourced upload the day’s photos and stories to the PA website, along with page “dummies” outlining where advertisements will be placed. Someone in India then downloads the documents, completes the headlines, layout and necessary story cuts, and returns the pages to the site overnight so that Post staff can download the stories the next morning, Toronto time, and begin translating British English phrases and correcting style errors. All communication with India is via e-mail and through the PA site, but as the quality of the edited copy varies among pages, Canadian staff assume there’s more than one person dealing with it at the other end-PA assures me that they’re all journalists, including a few senior PA staffers who have relocated to India.
From London, England, John Spencer, the group managing editor of PA, says it’s only to be expected that outsourced copy, at least in the beginning, require some re-editing by the home newsroom. Mistakes having to do with local terminology, for instance, might presumably be overlooked by the outsourcing firm. Spencer explains that a completed page “goes straight back to a customer’s news desk or copy desk-or whatever you call it in Canada-and it’s checked there as well.”
Sure enough, my chief Post source says the quality of the pages done in India has been improving over time, as the Canadian copy editors train the Indian staff about Post style. Still, as the copy editor grimly explains, “It’s slightly bizarre to be helping someone get better at their job when the better they get, the more obsolete my job is going to get. It’s really hard, in my mind, to want them to improve through the tips I give them, because as soon as the system is ironed out, they don’t need us anymore.”
Spencer assures me the quality of PA services is top-notch. After all, PA has existed for more than 140 years. “We’ve always been an outsourcing business, really,” he says. “News organizations come to us to do work that they can’t necessarily get to do themselves.” Papers, he says, “certainly don’t lose anything in terms of quality” when they use PA services. “And they wouldn’t do it if they did,” he says. “We wouldn’t expect them to.”
Unless there’s no feasible alternative. As tough as it is for copy editors to come to grips with the outsourcing of their calling, it must also be difficult for the Post‘s executives to send their pages overseas. “No editor at the Post wants to do this,” the Post copy editor tells me. Page layout was one of the main elements that set the Post apart from other Canadian dailies when it began 10 years ago. Its arrival on the stands influenced other newspapers, such as TheGlobe and Mail, to move toward bolder, more colourful pages with big visuals. In 2008, the paper won 51 awards at the annual Society of Newspaper Design’s Best of Newspaper Design Creative competition. Only TheNew York Times and the Los Angeles Times won more. “Every editor loves having control of what their page looks like,” my source says. “It’s their baby.”
But sending passages to India isn’t the only tough decision Post execs have had to make. Faced with declining circulation and estimated annual losses of up to $10 million, the paper pulled out of some markets and is now, as always, for sale. In August 2008, a Globe article stated that the asking price was around $30 million.
“Just one more thing,” I say to John Spencer at the end of our interview. “Is there any way I can speak to a journalist who works on a copy desk in India?”
“No,” he replies.
I’m confused. I ask, “Is that for logistical reasons?”
“No,” he repeats. “I’m speaking to you. I’m the group managing editor of the Press Association. We’re not going to have our staff being interviewed by anybody else. That’s not what we do-in India, in England, in New York, in Dublin or anywhere else. It’s our policy.”
So I keep looking. The phone at MphasiS in Mangalore is constantly busy, and someone in marketing at the Mindworks office in New Delhi refers me back to executives in the U.S. I contact Indian journalism schools to find someone who edits outsourced news pages. But it isn’t until I get an e-mail from Anuj Chopra, an Indian journalist, who has freelanced occasionally for the Globe, that I hear from anyone even remotely connected to the process at that end. Chopra tells me that about four years ago he was approached by an outsourcing firm he thinks handled the copy for The Times of London. With newspapers in decline, Chopra says it’s inevitable that some of them will opt to send their copy east. “I wasn’t surprised to hear about it,” he says.
And how much did the company offer him for this work? Twenty thousand rupees a month, he says.
Back here in Canada, we call that $500.