Outsourced Edit?

Newspaper ad departments are already outsourcing to India. Is editorial next?

Rajesh Kumar, a twenty-six-year-old with tight jeans, long black hair, and a gold earring, drags a small black-and-white image of a pointing butler’s glove across the flat screen of his Mac. He’s designing an advertisement for the Star Tribune, a newspaper that publishes halfway around the world. The simple ad is for a home-cleaning service run by a man named Mike whom Kumar has never met, a man who works in a place Kumar has never visited.

Minneapolis, after all, is more than seven thousand miles away from this clean, modern, twenty-five-thousand-square-foot office in Gurgaon, India—one of New Delhi’s exploding edge cities where wealthy multinational corporations, massive outsourcing outfits, and swanky shopping malls share space with destitute Indians and feral animals struggling to survive.

Kumar works for Express KCS, an Indian back-office company that designs and produces advertisements for more than one hundred U.S. publications, many of them MediaNews Group papers like the San Jose Mercury News and The Oakland Tribune. Work orders for hundreds of ads pop up in Express KCS’s system each day, and teams typically turn around each project within a matter of hours. Two huge diesel generators and three Internet service providers ensure that the Gurgaon office is connected to its U.S. clients around the clock. “It works,” says Mary Evans, director of advertising operations for the Mercury News. “You turn things in in the evening, and chances are you’re going to have a proof in the morning.”

As newspapers across the U.S. slash budgets and lay off staff, more and more are outsourcing jobs in their advertising and circulation departments. Companies like Express KCS are booming, says its coo, Tariq Husain, largely because they can save the advertising production department of a typical U.S. newspaper 30 to 50 percent a year. Less than two years ago, Express KCS had no more than twenty employees working in Gurgaon. By late January, that figure was closer to two hundred, most of them single men in their twenties pulling in between $400 and $1,000 a month—a salary that, in urban India, is healthy though not opulent. By year’s end, says Husain, Express KCS will likely employ between five hundred and six hundred workers in Gurgaon.

Husain believes that much of that growth will come from a new, and disturbing, dimension of Express KCS’s services—outsourced editorial services. Express KCS doesn’t propose to report or write stories, but it does offer copy editing (or “subbing,” as it’s known in India), page layout, and the writing of headlines and captions. By year’s end, Husain hopes that 10 to 15 percent of Express KCS’s business will come from outsourced editorial work. He said the company is discussing such work with more than one mainstream U.S. daily, though he wouldn’t name them.

If it happens, it won’t be without an uproar in the journalism world. Last year, the local news Web site Pasadena Now, in California, was roundly mocked when it announced a plan to have Indian reporters cover local government meetings via webcast. More recently, The Miami Herald announced in December that it would outsource some copy editing and design work to the Indian company Mindworks, only to scrap that decision a few weeks later because, as Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal wrote, “It was clear these skills involving news judgment and experience are not likely to work well from afar.”

Still, Express KCS is confident that it can properly train its employees and enter the editorial market. It has already signed up one client—London Property News, a suburban real-estate magazine delivered free with several regional newspapers in upscale British neighborhoods. But whether it’s advertising or editorial, Express KCS is clear about its ambitions: “We’ve got this list of the top one hundred [U.S. newspapers],” says CEO Robert Berkeley, “and we tick them off as we go.”

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Ben Frumin is a freelance writer currently based in India.