Cut costs or improve quality? The great production journalism debate continues

It was a lively session at this afternoon’s Publishing Expo seminar on outsourcing and production journalism. Those who expected blood on the walls were disappointed, but there were some sharp differences of opinion. I bemoaned the fact that points of view were often misrepresented in this debate, so you’ll have to take my assurance that I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible in summing up the arguments put forward by the rest of the panel.

The point made most frequently was that we ‘had’ to accept a future in which much or all of the subbing and production function was outsourced. This was because of the recession. I made the point that this didn’t ring true as the same arguments were being used when we were in the middle of a boom. My contention was that, too often, technological change was being used primarily or solely as a way of cutting costs, not of improving quality. This is a tremendous waste of technological know-how and opportunity. 

While we’ve disagreed in the past, and still do on a number of issues, fellow panelist Roy Greenslade said that we were really both talking about creating new business models for journalism. I think that’s true, but my argument is that we are not yet making quality a central enough part of that discussion.

I didn’t hear much from the rest of the panel to convince me otherwise, as time again we returned to the justification of “inevitability” – a depressing manifestation of our lack of faith in what we can achieve perhaps, more likely just a mission to produce something as cheaply as possible until we wreck it. Express KCS MD Robert Berkeley talked about his firm’s outsourcing operation and how it could meet many editorial needs through its India-based operation, and got to the heart of the debate when he answered a question from the audience. “What happens when wages in India go up to the level of wages here?” asked the reporter from Press Gazette. To which Robert replied: “I think you need to ask what happens when wages here go down to the level they are in India”. He didn’t use the words ‘cheap labour’, or even mention cost. But behind the arguments about technology ‘forcing’ us to do things seemed, to me at least, to be a more basic one about producing cheaply.

I’m not arguing for a minute that any business can survive without considering cost. I just think we’re missing a trick. I watched a fascinating demonstration of the capabilities of Adobe’s CS4 package at today’s show. It’s a million miles from what I was doing as a stone sub over 20 years ago, and a good thing too. But seeing impressive bits of kit such as CS4 merely as a way of using fewer people to produce our media is an enormous waste of potential. 

Look at something like Flyp, produced in Creative Suite. There’s real craft gone into that, which required the application of time and effort to develop and execute skills which we couldn’t dream of even 20 years ago. Shouldn’t we be using the time-saved by technological development to improve skills, to give people the time to create something of real quality that will, in the long term, retain readers? Or should we just get one person to use technology to do the job that three did before? The latter may seem attractive in the short term, but I’d argue that a quality product has a better long-term chance of survival.

The debate also touched on the old multiskilling/deskilling chestnut. I happen to think multiskilling is a good thing, if something of an inaccurate description. Very few people are skilled in just one thing. What we’re really talking about is just how many skills an individual can reasonably be expected to develop before the overall level of skill drops. Too often, when we hear ‘multiskilling’, it means deskilling. 

I’m going to continue to argue that quality is important, that technology is something we can and should control rather than something we let control us, and that above all the quality of this debate must improve. Journalism will certainly be very different in future, but we still have a chance to ensure more positive changes than those being presented to us now.

#labourcosts #skills #Subbing #Technology

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