Tesco Times? Wal-Mart World?

I had a nightmare last night. Walking into Tesco’s I was confronted with piles of the Tesco Times — the red-top ‘value’ version and the ‘finest’ edition with a smart grey title. Fleeing to Asda I was offered Wal-Mart World.

It must have come from a conversation about “outsourcing” by newspapers of whole sections. The problem, I had said, was that it was like supermarket own brands which all came out of the same factories, and while some of them were quite tasty you were left wanting a meal prepared by a cook with individuality.

But why should these retail behemoths not move into newspapers? They have moved from food into practically everything else — clothes, electrical goods, stationery, broadband and phones, banking, insurance…

If sections of papers can be outsourced it is a small step to outsource the whole lot. The debate has taken off in the US more than in the UK following the Express’s decision to outsource the City pages and travel section.

Jeff Jarvis wrote: “If I ran a chain like Gannett or McClatchy (no thanks), I’d consolidate or outsource all kinds of editing. ”

Steve Yelvington took up the theme writing: “Outsource what you can outsource.”

On Monday at the Poynter Institute Joe Grimm painted a picture of the future:

A newsroom, bedeviled by missed deadlines, a short-handed copy desk and a lack of editing candidates, gets creative.

It finds a company that offers editing services. The company is overseas, perhaps in India or Singapore.
Powered by fiber-optic connections that carry data all the way around the world in less than a second, the off-shore company offers a money-back guarantee on deadline performance. In a pinch, it could throw 30 editors at an edition, three times as many as the newspaper could ever afford to deploy in its own office.

The quality is good. Hundreds of thousands of people in India grow up in English-speaking schools, and they’re working hard to build careers. The work is cheap by U.S. standards. The rate is a third less than what the American newspaper is paying. There are no health benefits, vacations or sick days, and no utility or equipment costs to the newspaper.

He points to companies in India offering editing services and adds:

The problem is that globalization, digitization and tight supply-chain management let all kinds of companies break down jobs, divvy up the parts, ship the components around the world to the best bidders and reassemble them all by deadline. The Newspaper Guild and others have fought offshoring, but protesting won’t dent the incentives.

Does “tight supply chain management” sound like the jargon of another industry? Yes, that is what the supermarkets are good at.

Outsourcing in the news business is nothing new. Listings, race cards and a lot of copy, including much of the court reporting in the UK, have long been outsourced. PA produces whole pages. That is what news agencies are all about. Much printing is outsourced too.

So it would not be difficult to outsource an entire newspaper or website provided you had the right product managers (previously known as the back bench).

That, after all, is what many restaurants do. Open the packs arrange them on the plates, add a little freshly chopped parsley or dribble some coulis in a pretty pattern. They might even have a decent pastry chef so that they can boast on the menu about their prize-winning chef.

In the end the meal will fill you, may be enjoyable but it will have the sameness available in a thousand restaurants. The same would be cheaper from the ready meals counter of the supermarket although you would have to chop your own parsley and light the candle.

But spermarkets don’t need to produce their own publications. Magazine publishers already tailor their launches to the wishes of the big retailers who prefer fast turnover weeklies to monthlies and charge for prime positions.

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