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Culture hurdle for media outsourcer

Robbie Corey-Boulet reports about the challenges facing Indian media outsourcing firms that perform advertising and editorial work for newspapers in the US and the UK. See video

india Updated: Aug 25, 2008 11:25 IST
Robbie Corey-Boulet

In late 2006, Express KCS, the Gurgaon-based media outsourcing firm, received a request from its first American newspaper client, the Contra Costa Times, to produce an ad for a restaurant.

Because the newspaper is located in northern California, the restaurant wanted the ad to include images of the San Francisco Bay Area. The staff at Express KCS, however, could barely locate the Bay Area on a map, let alone select an image that evoked the region.

Facing a looming deadline, one of the employees remembered seeing the movie The Rock, a 1996 Sean Connery vehicle about marines that take over Alcatraz, a former Bay Area federal prison, and threaten to attack San Francisco with chemical weapons.

“So they ended up using an image of Alcatraz in the restaurant ad, which maybe wasn’t a good idea,” recalled Tariq Husain, the company’s chief operating officer.

Flubs such as this one exemplify the challenges facing Indian media outsourcing firms that perform advertising and editorial work for newspapers in the US and the UK. A lack of familiarity with American and British culture can prove particularly problematic when taking on editorial duties, something Express KCS and its peers hope to do with increasing regularity.

Last month, Express KCS began its second editorial project when it took over production of Home Preview, a weekly real estate tabloid owned by the Bay Area News Group and distributed with newspapers including the San Jose Mercury News. Although Home Preview features advertorial content as opposed to hard news, more traditional editorial work for BANG might not be far off.

“We’re viewing this Home Preview as a way to gauge how this might work for us,” said Mary Evans, BANG’s chief financial officer.

Evans said BANG had been closely watching a one-month test, which was scheduled to conclude at the end of July, in which the Orange County Register outsourced some copy editing to Mindworks Global Media, a Noida-based outsourcing firm. (Both the Register and Mindworks declined to comment on how the test went or whether it would lead to the long-term outsourcing of editorial services.)

This summer Husain has begun pitching his company’s editorial services to hundreds of newspapers in the US While advertising commissions might outpace editorial ones in the immediate future, he said he expects editorial to replace advertising as the company’s chief source of growth in the long run.

This impending transition prompted a change in the training that new employees at Express KCS receive. The company formerly provided an equal mix of technical training and regional familiarization, but it now focuses primarily on the latter so that employees are well versed in the geographic areas they serve.

The company’s copy editors, many of whom have degrees in mass communications as well as professional journalism experience, described this change as necessary, in part because the process of editing a story remotely involves little, if any, direct contact with the writers and editors who produced it. A publication typically sets up a “traffic department” to funnel communication between editors and Express KCS employees, Husain said. In the case of Home Preview, Express KCS communicates with the traffic department primarily via e-mail. Only in rare instances do copy editors make phone calls to California.

When a question arises, they instead consult hard-copy resources such as dictionaries and style guides as well as online resources like Google Maps. Express KCS provides client-specific resources as well: For example, when it began copy-editing London Property News, a real-estate magazine, employees received a primer on architecture terms used in the UK Editors from that publication also flew down to India to train Husain’s employees in person.

Husain acknowledges that errors are inevitable, especially when beginning work for a new client. “We don’t tell them that we’ll get it right from day one,” he said. “We tell them that this will require a lot of effort. This is not easy.”

The idea of Indian employees editing work for American and British audiences has been met with a mix of scepticism and outright criticism, particularly in countries that send work abroad.

“I think newspapers work best when they’re local,” said Luther Jackson, executive director of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, which represents Mercury News employees. “And I think local has to be kind of an over-arching concept.” In addition to local reporters, he said, newspapers should also hire copy editors and ad designers who work in the newspaper’s circulation area and “are in closer touch with the customer or the community.”

Despite this criticism, the potential for cost-saving gives Husain every reason to put faith in his business model. Copy editors in the US receive annual salaries between $30,000 and $60,000, while Husain pays his copy editors between $4,800 and $14,480.

Express KCS currently employs 450 employees, 400 of which perform advertising and editorial services. Husain expects the company to grow to 600 employees by the end of the year. He has also begun planning a second office in Pune, which he hopes to open in November.

When asked about his pitches to other American papers, Husain said, “Clearly, there is interest. And I think what is really driving the interest more than anything else is the economic imperative. Newspapers in the US are hurting pretty badly today, and they have to find means of cutting costs in all departments.”