Thoughts on outsourcing “local” reporting

Over the last week or so, there have been a ton of stories about‘s impending use of journalists based in India to cover local politics in suburban Pasadena.

I know I’m coming really late to this party, and part of the reason I’m even posting something about it is because a column by C.W. Nevius that ran in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle mentioned our team’s work, and even had a quote from my friend and co-worker, Levi Chronister.

Just in case you don’t know anything about this story, I’ll try to boil it down to syrup: A news website in Pasadena (not affiliated with the local newspaper) has decided to try to fill a hole it perceives in traditional news coverage with its own coverage of local city council meetings.

The rub here is that in trying to find someone to do the writing and reporting for these city council stories, even interns, no one was either interested or was willing to take what the site could afford to pay.

So, armed with the ability to watch city council meetings on the Internet and conduct interviews via e-mail, etc., the site has hired two reporters who are based in India to write the stories for the site.

As I said earlier, there’s lots of coverage about this all over the web, but if you only have time to read one overview, Nevius’ column wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Last night, I wrote Mr. Nevius an e-mail. Here are some excerpts from it, along with a few new thoughts and edits:


The idea that a site would outsource reporting is certainly … well, an interesting notion. After having built sites like this for a number of years, what I think is equally interesting/intriguing is the idea to do it for city council news. I know our team has never really figured out how to get anyone to read a city council story on a regular basis — in print or online.

(And it’s not like we haven’t tried some goofy things over the years.)

It seems to me that city council stories — at least in the cities I’ve worked in — are really only important to a mass audience about once or twice a year when there is a huge hot-topic issue that strikes a nerve. And in those circumstances, they often play out as you referenced — behind the scenes.

So, covering a local story in the manner that is trying is interesting to me on at least two levels: Does anyone care (especially in a manner that will make an impact on audience numbers), and will those folks miss the real story because of the manner in which the story is being reported?

And don’t read that the wrong way. I absolutely think local news organizations should be covering local government on an “everyday” basis. I was a local government reporter at the Topeka Capital-Journal for a couple of years.

I just have a feeling he’s going to be very disappointed in the traffic numbers to these stories.

But, at least this guy is out there trying new things.

Local coverage certainly means something to me because I used to dissect the traffic numbers daily, and when you cut out the crap stories, like the Paris Hilton drivel (which we never even bothered to run on our sites in Topeka, Lawrence or Naples), what you see is that the local stories are what connect with the readers. It’s where all of your traffic is.

So, we started pushing for more and more local coverage on our sites.

My kids watch a cool little CG cartoon called “Robots” and there’s this line in that movie that basically says “see a need, fill a need.” That’s what we’ve tried to do.

But we’ve also focused on delivery to other devices, huge databases that were easy for readers to use, lots of multimedia, and lots of interaction/dialogue with readers.

Basically, we just try to build news sites that work the way the Internet really works, not the way an old-time publisher or an out-of-touch board of directors wish the Internet worked.


It seems to me that is trying to fill a need, and is trying to do it in a way that uses the Internet as an interesting reporting tool.

It’s going to be dang fascinating to see if it works.

Anyway, I have no idea if I made any real points in that e-mail. I was basically trying to say that covering the city council likely isn’t going to be some sort of magic bullet for local web traffic, though I have no reason to believe that thinks it will be.

Where this discussion gets even more interesting is when you layer in Howard Kurtz’s very good Media Notes column from this morning’s Washington Post.

Kurtz’s column not only talks about conducting interviews via e-mail, but that …

” … in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

Lots of damn interesting things going on right now in the world of journalism. And, as I’ve said many other times, there’s no other era in American journalism that I’d rather be a part of.

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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.