Tuesday, July 22, 2008

All News is Local

Our friend Annie in Virginia shared a story today about the outsourcing of copy editing services by American newspapers to companies in India. Like much such outsourcing, the reasons for this seem logical: there's more and cheaper labor available and no cost in product transport. For their part, Indian company reps seem typically polite and competent---the good and ready servants to global economy they've become.

It's a win-win, right? We get cheap, readable news, and national newspapers stay afloat a few months longer in their long sink.

Well, not so winning for the readership, as Poynter Institute scholar Roy Peter Clark writes: "It pains me to say that the bean counters who have proposed this move have added insult to the injury of being laid off. They seemed to have reduced the craft of copy editing to its most basic functions without attention to what will be lost, including cultural literacy, institutional memory and knowledge of the community."

Clark continues by citing some of the arcana of American cultural literacy he'd like our copy editors to know.

"...I need them to know that a Florida cracker is not something you eat, and that it may or may not be offensive to some readers. I need a Rhode Island copy editor to know that you don't dig for clams; you dig for quahogs, a word of Indian origin -- American Indian. I need copy editors who know that Jim Morrison of The Doors went to St. Pete Junior College, that beat writer Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Fla., but is buried in Lowell, Mass."

Here, here! We want our news to be from here! (Forget for a moment that Indian copy editors could Google anything along these lines about as well as writers in Lowell, Massachusetts.)

Of course I agree. I want a lot more stuff I handle to be from here.

But I think relatively few readers will notice outsourced copy editing these days. We're accustomed to reading news (if we do) on the Internet, which posts liberally from numerous international English language sources, and which carries also a lower standard of editing born of distribution speed and ease of correction (if they bother).

What we're talking about here is whether there is still a viable market for local news, which begs the question, Are there still any viable locales?

I think there are, but I wonder if the locals can still be convinced to agree.

The thing I love about the high price of gas is that my neighbors are complaining; notably, they are complaining to each other, because by and large they are hanging out more in the neighborhood. I'm pleased and surprised that it only took a couple bucks extra per gallon to bring this about.

I live in a pretty big neighborhood of several hundred homes. We've made some good friends here, street to street, with a social network stretching about 4 blocks from our house: walking and biking distances, even for the kids. We share afternoon coffee and beers and tomatoes and childcare with our friends. We share game, since most of us hunt and all of us eat meat. We borrow pools. We cook out every weekend, somewhere.

We complain about the price of gas, but I think we're having more fun together lately.

Is this typical? Do you think other neighborhoods (our ersatz modern villages) are starting to behave in a similar fashion to ours? I hope so. It would be a big shot in the arm to the return of the local, as a viable concept. It might even start, in neighborhoods large enough, a brushing off of the homeowners' association newsletter (or more likely, the website). There might be a few writers around, people who stay in the 'hood all day, and with increasingly more company as the economy continues to tank and daycare and soccer camps become too expensive. Maybe there will be a market, too, for this local news.

Look for this. Look for a resurgence of the local paper (or at least, of local news in some media) as more people are forced by high prices to stay put and thus to care about what's going on around them.

In such a market, I doubt an Indian outsourcing company could compete so well.

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