A few months ago, the New York Stock Exchange and IBM made a big joint announcement about a new technology platform. There was nobody available in my newspaper’s offices to cover the event, which was taking place just a few blocks away.
My editor sent me an instant message, asking me to report and write the story. There’s nothing unusual in that. I regularly write about both IBM and the New York Stock Exchange and was familiar with the background of the event.
But I wasn’t in New York City. I wasn’t even in the country. I covered the event from Shanghai, China.
When I moved to China a year and a half ago, I didn’t stop covering my old beat — global technology — when I began covering Asian finance. I continued to do both. After all, almost all of my work is by telephone, and with the recent newsroom budget cuts, I hardly ever traveled to conferences anymore, anyway.
Plus, I was dealing with an ever-growing workload — there was literally no time for me to meet sources face to face. Besides, most of my sources never know that I’m calling from other side of the planet.
My newspaper isn’t saving any money by having me report from China instead of New York City. In fact, it’s paying a premium to compensate for plane fares back and forth and private school for my children.
The fact that I can do my journalism job from anywhere in the world is nice for me, but not very significant.
So let me tell you about Wendy Yu, who works for me here in Shanghai. She has a degree in finance from a major Chinese university. She is fluent in English, and her writing is getting better all the time.
She already is making calls to Hong Kong and Singapore as part of background research for the stories I write.
She earns about $500 a month for her work (and is getting a raise — she’s been doing a great job). If she were living in New York City, she would earn about eight times as much for the same amount of work. But her lifestyle is about the same as it would have been in New York, since expenses here are so much lower.
In a couple of years, her writing and reporting skills will have improved to the point where she can work independently on more complex projects. In five years, she’ll be a seasoned journalist, able to hold her own against my old colleagues back home.
Will she know our readership? She’ll know it as well as I do — from talking to sources, attending conferences and reading our paper and those of our competitors.
Wendy is just one person, but I’m hiring two others this week. All the other foreign news bureaus in China are hiring local staff as well and training them to write to Western standards.
And China is a bad enough threat as it is — low wages, compulsory English-language education and 1.4 billion people.
India is an even bigger one, given the excellent English skills of its college graduates.
This past spring, Reuters announced that it will hire 60 journalists in India – and get rid of 20 positions in the U.S. and Europe.
Quality is our motto
Today in Shanghai, a typhoon was expected. School was cancelled, but the storm did not materialize. Meanwhile, another storm is brewing in New York City.
When I called Barry Lipton, president of the Newspaper Guild of New York, he was on his way to two days of nonstop bargaining meetings. (He didn’t seem surprised that I was calling from Shanghai.) Reuters’ plans to move work offshore isn’t sitting well with the guild, but not because of the loss of American jobs, Lipton insists.
“There’s no problem with people in other countries doing the work,” he said. “The problem is the kind of work that’s being outsourced. They will be making news judgments without having the background that gives them the ability to do so.”
For example, he said, staff in Singapore will choose photos and write captions, and journalists in India will be reporting telephone-based stories.
But just as New York City reporters wouldn’t be the best place to cover news in Bangalore, Indian reporters aren’t ideally suited to cover U.S. news, he said.
“There’s some work that can be moved overseas,” he said. “For example, if you’re just taking an annual report and regurgitating it, or taking a press release and printing it verbatim or with a slight change in structure. But Reuters has always provided high-quality financial news and information. You don’t subscribe to the service to get a warmed-over press release.”
If the quality of the news goes down, so will subscriber numbers — and that will hurt the company, Lipton said.
Now, I may be a cynic, but it seems that publishers regularly put cost control ahead of content. Meanwhile, countries that used to be known as low-quality providers have been able to improve quality to match Western standards.
If these two trends combine and more U.S. news organizations send work overseas, then journalists will need to start focusing on the kind of work that can’t be outsourced. That means more face-to-face meetings, deep understandings of local beats and issues and having a well-known, respected name. Or you could do what I did, and move to China.
Maria Trombly is an accredited correspondent based in Shanghai, China, for SourceMedia (formerly ThomsonMedia). She writes for Securities Industry News and other SourceMedia publications, as well as BYTE, CIO Magazine and other publications. She is former chairwoman of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee and is the author of The Journalists’ Guide to the Geneva Conventions.