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US papers, Indian copy editors

Faced with falling revenues and circulation, American papers are now outsourcing their work of page layout and designing to Indian firms. Robbie Corey-Boulet reports.
Hindustan Times | By Robbie Corey-Boulet, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 07, 2008 01:30 PM IST

When the Miami Herald hired Brayden Simms as a fulltime copy editor back in March, the former freelancer assumed his new position meant new job security. He had it wrong: In mid-June, the Florida native learned that his job had been outsourced to Mindworks Global Media, a Noida-based firm that is among the companies fueling a steady migration of American journalism jobs to India.

One week after Simms learned of his layoff, Orange County Register Communications confirmed rumors of a one-month test in which Mindworks will copy edit some stories in its flagship Orange County Register. Despite editors' assurances that the test would not affect staffing, the news reportedly prompted concerns about future job cuts, in part because the Register has executed multiple rounds of layoffs in the past year in response to revenue and circulation declines.

If the Register goes the way of the Herald and commits to outsourcing editorial services, the move could be viewed as evidence of an emergent phenomenon, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit school for journalists.

No longer restricted to advertising only, Indian companies partnering with American newspapers might see an increase in requests for editorial work.

"With revenues having fallen as much as they have, newspapers are certainly reluctant to make any bigger cuts than are absolutely necessary in terms of their news staffs," particularly when it comes to reporters, Edmonds said. "Most everything else is on the table. Outsourcing is certainly a trend."

This bodes well for companies such as Mindworks, which over the past year has upped its staff total from 35 to 100. A spokesperson said the company expects operations to double in the next year, largely because of editorial growth.

Similarly, Gurgaon-based Express KCS has grown from 20 to 400 employees in the past year and a half. The firm counts American newspaper chains including McClatchy and MediaNews Group among its clients. It has yet to handle editorial tasks for an American newspaper, but Chief Operating Officer Tariq Husain said the company is in talks with "seven or eight" interested papers, which he declined to name because agreements are pending.

Editors at Express KCS are often journalists hired from Indian publications, and the company works to familiarize them with American editing standards. Husain said many are between the ages of 22 and 30 and are usually single. The firm runs shifts around the clock, and employees work five shifts each week.

Mindworks also hires editorial staff from English-language newspapers and magazines. The average age is 30, and employees have on average 15 years of work experience.

Whether editorial outsourcing takes off depends on the success of these companies' initial efforts. The financing certainly makes sense: Edmonds said a copy editor at a medium-sized American newspaper makes between $30,000 to $60,000 per year, compared to between $4,800 and $14,480 at Express KCS.

But it remains to be seen whether outsourcing will cause a dip in editorial quality. "As far as making improvements to the writing – correcting misspellings and mistakes in grammar and punctuation – I don't see any particular reason why that couldn't be done," Edmonds said. At the same time, he added, effective copy editing often requires strong familiarity with the geographic area served by the newspaper, something an Indian employee might lack.

Simms said he doubts local sections can be edited well from abroad, and he expressed disbelief that the Herald outsourced its calendar to Mindworks. "It's hard to imagine that the local calendar will be compiled by someone nine hours in the future," he said.

Since hearing of his imminent layoff, Simms has sought work outside of Florida for the first time; considered cutting back on air conditioning; and met with a financial planner, who told him to plan on being jobless for six months. Thanks to his blog "The No-Spend Zone" – which the Herald asked him to write during his remaining weeks at the paper – Simms's reactions to these jarring changes have been read the world over.

He said he understands why the Herald would try such an experiment given the turbulent American print media market, but an early blog post reveals his initial surprise: "It's a bit scary, to be out of a job, in an industry particularly lacking of jobs. And it's all so sudden."

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