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Outsourced reporting? Not likely to be a threat

Rainey is a Times staff writer.

As the alleged scourge of American journalism, James Macpherson cuts a rather disappointing figure.

In a crisp blue blazer, with slicked-back gray hair, the onetime garment manufacturer looks like a prep school headmaster. He speaks with the polite self-control of PBS’ Jim Lehrer.

Macpherson drew headlines and hate mail last year when it was revealed that his Pasadena Now website intended to report the news from Pasadena using writers in Mumbai and Bangalore, India.

Outrage surged again a week ago, when Maureen Dowd of the New York Times reported on her visit with Macpherson, who told her that newspapers are in “a General Motors moment” and that his website could become a prototype for the future.

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This might all seem terribly threatening to a knuckle-walking, retrograde print reporter like me, if I hadn’t spent a little time with the Internet publisher and taken a spin through Pasadena Now.

What I found was a small businessman struggling to make a dollar, and a bright, glossy website mostly preoccupied with society happenings, ribbon-cuttings, fundraisers, the arts and, one day this week, gingerbread houses made by local schoolchildren.

I’m as sour on the idea of outsourcing journalism to the subcontinent as the next ink-stained wretch. Too many of my colleagues, at The Times and other papers, have already been pushed out the door.

But the natty and articulate Mr. Macpherson will not be the end of us. His 4-year-old website may one day thrive and find the magic bullet -- how to make money on a news site -- that has eluded virtually every other publisher.

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That will not diminish the desire of many thinking people to have a more probing view of the communities they live in. And I still see no alternative for providing that information other than an eyewitness, on the ground, asking questions.

Newspapers and their websites -- even in a diminished state -- still tell those stories most, and best. That’s why the movers at Pasadena City Hall and the school district make sure they read the Pasadena Star News and the alternative Pasadena Weekly.

They might peek at Macpherson’s Pasadena Now on occasion. Staffers for the city and school district say they like the way the website faithfully publishes their press releases. “But when it takes the time and resources and energy to do something much more in-depth, they don’t have the capacity to do as much of that,” said Binti Harvey, spokeswoman for Pasadena Unified School District.

That’s because Macpherson and his wife, Candice Merrill, run a bare-bones operation. They gather most of what you see on Pasadena Now, with the aid of a few volunteer videographers and photographers and half a dozen writers in India, the first of whom Macpherson found last year by advertising on Craigslist.

The Macphersons transmit press releases, PDF files and reports to their offshore crew, which also watches City Council and school board meetings via streaming video. The Indians produce articles and headlines, earning $7 for every 1,000 words. (By way of comparison, guest opinion writers in the Los Angeles Times get at least $250 for 600 words.)

Lively, unique utterances from the scene are a rarity on Pasadena Now, where canned and reprocessed information fills the news columns. The only fresh item one day last week under “The Latest” heading was an announcement that Hamilton Elementary School had applied for a Blue Ribbon School award.

Other “news” items included a three-day-old statement from the police chief about youth crime, a story about volunteer anti-crime patrols in shopping areas (four days old), and a week-old report on a sexual battery at a high school.

One lead story (“On Saturday, Dec. 6 the Rose Bowl will be hosting the annual UCLA/USC NCAA Division I football classic . . . ") sounded suspiciously as if it had been written by someone who has spent more time on a cricket field than a gridiron.

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Despite his insistence that an Indian rewrite team can make his site economically viable, even Macpherson acknowledged that “nobody thousands of miles away can possibly understand the nuances of local issues.”

So there he was, the putative king of the news outsourcers, writing in an essay last week about the need for “boots on the ground” to provide grist for complete stories.

Macpherson acknowledged as much last year, when he hired local reporters to cover the schools, City Hall and other beats. But when he couldn’t afford to pay them, they walked.

Now, Macpherson’s back to a mom and pop operation, editing out of his home off Orange Grove Boulevard.

The entrepreneur has brought on a few ad men recently, working on commission, and said he sees signs that they might help him begin operating in the black.

Macpherson, 53, dreams of a day when merchants can play with the big boys by selling their wares via local websites, with the Internet partner getting a small share of the proceeds.

In the meantime, the man with the men in Mumbai is in survival mode, with dozens of ideas but no money to put more reporters on the street.

In that sense, he may have a lot more in common with the newspaper industry than some of us cranky journalists care to admit.

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james.rainey@latimes.com


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