Inside out-sourcing

It’s one thing to read in the local paper about the outsourcing of jobs abroad, to India, to the Philippines, and it’s quite another thing to have it happen to you. And if you happen to work for the local paper, well…


The Sacramento Bee, under enormous fiscal pressure, is finding some unique ways to cut costs, from offering buy-outs to a hefty percentage of the people who write and edit the paper, to outsourcing the work of the people who design advertising, and currently, to the people who have, for decades, kept track of where the money goes.


The money is going to India. That’s the big story. It doesn’t seem right, but it adds up for The Bee’s parent company, McClatchy, which is desperate to avoid sinking out of sight altogether as its stock price plummets and circulation drops at its newspapers. The logic of the market is brutal.


But the little story is sadder, and more interesting, and it’s happening right here in midtown Sacramento, just blocks from where I write. Right now, a handful of eager young Indians from the city of Jaipur are getting the chance of a lifetime: They are spending their days at 21st and Q Streets, learning how to do the jobs of people who live in Sacramento, people who, come March 1 or thereabouts, will join the ranks of the local unemployed.


I spoke with Lanny Shay, a Bee employee for the last 18 years, who is currently doing the appalling task of training the people who will soon take his job back to India.


We could discuss the rightness or wrongness of this, but Shay himself says he understands the financial logic. And we could talk about the money that McClatchy is saving, and thereby, perhaps, saving our hometown newspaper. We could talk about the money that Shay and his soon-to-be-former co-workers will NOT be spending at the Tower Theatre and the Co-op and the Pine Cove and Cafe Bernardo and perhaps even on things advertised in The Bee’s shrinking classifieds.


Instead, we’ll just let Shay – who says he has a masters degree in finance from Stanford – talk for a bit about what he is seeing, and feeling, as he presides over his own obsolescence. 

 

Basically, you have to train the person who’s taking your job. So if you do everything that’s asked of you, work long hours, do overtime, the best you can hope for is…you lose your job. My manager is trying to keep that in mind, but I think they lose sight of that. It’s weird.

I work in finance, accounting. On Sept. 14, they called six of us in and explained that the jobs were being outsourced to India. Our jobs are going to Jaipur. They’re jobs as finance clerk, accounting clerk, credit clerk, it’s a smattering of positions. All six people whose jobs are going do different things.

First, in mid-November, we had a number of people come to do discovery, to lay out the mapping of the jobs, what the jobs are, what they entail, how they’re done. Then, in December, the people who are going to be doing the jobs, or will be training the people in India who will be doing the jobs, came for 3-5 weeks. There were four the first time, and four or five of them the second time.

They’re all very young – the average age is, I’d say, 23. The project manager I have less interaction with, she’s early 30s, but the others are young. They actually are pretty rural. I don’t know what level of education they have, but none of them has a car or can drive, most of them live at home with their families, and at least one had the equivalent of a CPA. I’m guessing that some might have college degrees, but I don’t know.

They speak great English. Their written English is kinda stilted, but it’s far better than my Hindi will ever be. All they do is work. They’re staying in a Residence Inn  or something somewhere outside of midtown, and every morning they show up at The Bee, then work with us the whole day, then they stay until 7 or 8 at night, after we’ve left, and then they cab back to the hotel. And I have the distinct impression that they work until they go to sleep. This group has been here for five weeks, and one or two weekends they may have gotten out to SF or Tahoe, but mostly, they work. I don’t know how much they’ll make for doing our jobs in India.

It’s frustrating, there are communication issues. They’re exceedingly polite, and totally avoid conflict, which is a cultural thing. There are times when you have to push them, and often, you have to stop and say, “Repeat what I just told you.” Because they’ll act as though they understand, even if they don’t. But they’re really nice kids, and work really hard.

At some point, there’s going to be some sort of anger about it, but at this point, we’re still working. I’m certainly not mad at the kids from India, this is probably the best chance they’ve had for a job, and it’s not their fault that it’s taking my job away. And realistically, it’s not my bosses’ fault either, I think my boss feels terrible about it. One of the people who is being replaced has been there more than 40 years. I’ve been there 18. Someone else has been there 26.

So, who do you get angry at? I haven’t really figured that out yet. It’s bad that it has to happen during the worst economy in 60 years, but it’s just one of those things. It’s just the way America works now. The people who make bad decisions that effect hundreds or thousands of lives pay no price at all for making those decisions. For all the talk of the “culture of responsibility,” we’re at the point where you can do everything right and potentially lose everything. And you can make disastrous decisions and retire with a $30 million golden parachute.

There have been times in the past when I thought I could work somewhere else and get paid more, but I like living and working downtown, and The Bee’s been here for 150 years. I figured that if I got to work every day and did a good job, I’d retire comfortably. Now we’re at the point where, is anyone’s job safe? I don’t know this for a fact, but if this outsourcing is successful, other things at The Bee that can be outsourced, will be outsourced.

They’ve outsourced circulation customer service, they’ve outsourced the classified phone bank, and now us. Which is funny, because the thing we had that craigslist didn’t have was really good customer service. So what did we do to compete with craigslist? We gave away customer service! To me, that doesn’t make a whole lotta sense.

Supposedly, March 1 will be the date we turn everything over. The people go back to India, they ramp up and start doing more and more of the work, and then I’m checking it to make sure it’s alright from my side, and then I’m out of a job. In a really horrible economy. But I can collect unemployment, I have skills, and they’re giving us severance packages. But I never thought I’d have to look for work.

And the sad part is, I believe in newspapers. I believe that there’s a good reason why freedom of the press is in the First Amendment and the right to bear arms is in the Second. I believe in media telling the truth to power. And watching the industry sink is really sad. As much as I love Huffington Post and Real Clear Politics, I take with a grain of salt everything I read on the web. I don’t see how websites can compete with real newspapers doing real journalism. Maybe it’s the permanency of ink: It’s real. If you put it on your blog and it’s wrong, you delete it and it’s like it was never said. I don’t know if the effort to get it right is there in electronic media the way it is, or was, in print media.

But I guess we’ll see.

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January 8, 2009 | 3:21 PM

Thanks to David Watts Barton for this insightful article regarding out-sourcing of the Sacramento Bee internal staff in accounting and finance. Bee readers like myself tend to focus on the journalism aspects of what we read, and we have very little insight or understanding of the internal workings of the The Bee. Gary Pruitt and Cheryl Dell do not keep us informed about internal operations; and we are the paying subscribers ($200 per year) of the print-version of The Sacramento Bee.

January 8, 2009 | 5:20 PM

As a 19 year subscriber to the Bee who has seen the paper’s size and quality shrink, seemingly by the day, I find THIS whole thing to be VERY disturbing…I agree with Shay when he says “I take with a grain of salt everything I read on the web. I don’t see how websites can compete with real newspapers doing real journalism. Maybe it’s the permanency of ink: It’s real. If you put it on your blog and it’s wrong, you delete it and it’s like it was never said”.. THAT being said, The Bee is making it harder and harder, especially in these financial times, to continue to subscribe to a paper that seems to care less about people, the community and their own quality than it does the bottom line. Thanks DWB. Keep up the good work, JS

January 8, 2009 | 6:38 PM

It’s definitely a disturbing trend. As a journalist, I hate to see my industry taking these steps. As a citizen, I hate the fact that outsourcing will lead to worse quality that will, in turn, lead to less subscribers, with a cascading effect on advertising and, ultimately, the newsroom – where the stories are chased and reporters actually take the information to the public.

January 8, 2009 | 9:58 PM

This just makes me so very, very sad. I am greatly distressed by the state of the newspaper business and my friends and colleagues who are losing their jobs all across the country. And, as Brandon said, the impact on the newsroom itself is a very scary thought. There’s a reason the founding fathers thought to include the First Amendment — the media and information dissemination is critical to our society.

Thank you for your interview.

January 9, 2009 | 6:48 AM

Outsourcing will always continue, be it out of country, out of state, county or otherwise. Regional restrictions & regulations create this process, be it environmental, economic or otherwise, it is sad. Of course consumers support this wanting the lowest of price & easiest of convenience….great article – Support the Local economy! –

January 9, 2009 | 8:45 AM

Thanks for this piece – I think it brings the globalization/outsourcing issue home in a very personal way, and without decending in to nationalistic posturing… Really, beautifully done, and I’ll be forwarding it around.

January 9, 2009 | 10:40 AM

I don’t have a problem with someone from another country being given an opportunity. I think it’s great. But the way that more qualified workers are fired on short notice for budget reasons is the reason why once good organizations like the Bee are now close to death. It’s great that you highlight the plight of the well-qualified unemployed people. I know a lot of people in that boat, including myself. However, I enjoy reading online journalism. I disagree with Shay a little bit. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean you have to particularly take it with a grain of salt. Look at the NY Times, or the New Yorker. Of course all critical readers are skeptical of the motives and ethics of writers, but the Times and New Yorker always seem to make an interesting point about society, even if I strongly disagree. And I only read the Times online, never in print. Why pay for it if it’s free? And for local issues, there is of course the Sacramento Press.

January 9, 2009 | 12:44 PM

It is understanding to see jobs go overseas in a capitalistic society– the bottom line is what counts. But for something as locally grounded as a newspaper to outsource overseas seems ludicrous. Financially, yes, it makes sense, but what is next? Outsourcing reporters? How well could someone in India understand the workings of society in Sacramento?

The most painful part of this story is the fact that these workers are having to train their replacements. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them. It’s like being forced to dig your own grave, or construct your own gallows.

January 9, 2009 | 3:58 PM

Interesting you should mention that, Mark. Outsourcing reporters isn’t “next,” it’s now.

A news website in SoCal, PasadenaNow.com, has actually outsourced the coverage of local city council meetings to reporters in India. It has been very successful. The Indians watch the council meetings via online video, then write the stories. The paper’s editor figures it costs him about $1.70 a story.

The guy who put it together caught a load of grief when he started, and he even hired “real” reporters to show his bona fides. But he found he couldn’t make money doing it, so he’s now got five reporters in India. Covering Pasadena. It costs him a fraction of what it would cost him to have “real” reporters.

Combined with taking input from the community, he calls it the “pro-am” model, and it’s something like what we’re looking to do here. The old journalism model is not working, financially, and news is not getting covered that people want covered, which is sometimes the smallest, least-sexy stuff. So, this is one way of doing it.

We shall see. Here’s a link to a series of stories that the Knight Foundation did about the subject, starting with the story about outsourcing to India.

http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/davidwestphal/200810/1564/

Article Author
January 9, 2009 | 5:38 PM

that is totally unbelievable.

January 9, 2009 | 4:10 PM

Great article. Thank you.

January 11, 2009 | 2:32 PM

This is a fantastic article… quite poignant. And I’m observing here that it’s not being published in the Bee.

With respect to journalism and the influence of putting news on a dead tree, I have to disagree. I read everything with a grain of salt… including newspapers like the Bee. One of the things I love about the Economist newspaper out of Britain is that they don’t pretend to not have an opinion or a point of view. It’s evident in every article, and I’m okay with that. I think it takes a certain humility and sense of integrity to recognize that.

I find it interesting also that my favorite newspaper is from Britain! It says something about the world we live in today. Digital communications technologies have broken the local monopoly on news. Every local newspaper today competes with every news source around the world (on the Internet) in every language that the reader speaks/reads. Local news sources should be experts in local news, and they should make that available to anyone who has an interest. I use RSS feeds keyed off of Google News searches for key words that I’m interested in, and these searches turn up interesting stories for me from some of the most obscure places. Example: did you know that the City of Grand Forks, ND is spending $230/ton on their recycling program? I wonder what we’re spending? Is it worth it?

I like what the Internet is doing for news, but we clearly need a new business model for journalism. Perhaps the Sacramento Press is a step in the right direction?

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