Indian mutiny looms at Reuters

Call centres aren't the only workplaces to be threatened with outsourcing. By Brian Cathcart

Monday 22 November 2004 01:00

The head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Digby Jones, declared recently that we should not be too concerned at the transfer of unskilled jobs to low-wage countries because the work left behind in Britain will demand higher skills and so be more secure.

Jones might be less optimistic if he talked to skilled staff at Reuters, the international news agency, where morale has collapsed in recent months because of suspicions that the management wants to relocate every job it can to Asia. Even journalists with years of specialist experience are wondering whether, one year or maybe five years from now, somebody else will be doing their job from a desk in India or Thailand, and so deep is the unease that an informal ballot in the London office last week found that 84 per cent of staff were ready to consider a strike.

While the company denies that it has plans to relocate high-skill editing jobs, insiders and union officials argue that the process is already under way. Work involving progressively higher skills, they say, is steadily migrating from London and Washington, DC, to a new Reuters centre in Bangalore.

It is a story to alarm not only journalists but every kind of skilled worker in Britain, for it raises the possibility that relocation will not stop at call centres and could go far higher up the skills ladder. Ask yourself, are you certain that what you do could not be done by a clever young graduate somewhere on the other side of the world, at a fraction of the cost?

The concern at Reuters mainly involves staff in Britain and the US, the company's biggest divisions and, in labour terms, most expensive. A long-running programme of economies is finally encroaching on editorial workers. The changes to date are modest, involving only a few dozen jobs, but staff say the company needs further savings to meet targets, and they believe they know where things are heading.

"Reuters is entering uncharted territory," a senior journalist told me. "It is beginning to relocate jobs that require selectivity and news judgement." In other words, it is relocating journalism, starting at the edges.

One example is the editorial reference unit in London, now bound for Bangalore. It is essentially a library but the staff also produce content for the Reuters service, such as background, chronologies and "fact boxes" that go out to subscribers and are sometimes printed in newspapers. "These people need to find facts quickly, check them, prioritise them, write them up, and co-ordinate what they do with news desks," says a Reuters source.

Also heading east is production of what is known as the Washington Daybook, a daily news diary service that is profitable and esteemed in the US. Three journalists write and edit it in Washington, DC, relying on contacts and news feeds, and they do turn up important, market-moving stories. In the words of Peter Szekely, who chairs the Reuters unit of the Newspaper Guild, the journalists' union in the US: "The idea that you can produce the Daybook in Bangalore without loss of quality is laughable. And that's not a reflection on Indian journalists; the idea that you can have people on the other side of the planet trying to cover events here is flawed, to say the least."

The biggest change to date involving work that most would call journalism has been the growth of US company reporting from Bangalore. Reuters makes most of its revenue by moving business data and news around the world, and, a year or so ago, it expanded its coverage of smaller US companies by hiring a team of journalists in the Indian city and giving them the task of handling the news and facts in company statements.

It is fairly mechanical work (long ago, I did something similar at Reuters in Paris) and, to begin with, it involved only companies so small they were outside the top 1,500, ranked by market capitalisation.

The company's latest plan, however, will transfer to Bangalore coverage of companies outside the top 500 - another 1,000, and bigger ones. Specialist reporters will remain in the US to cover industries and attend press conferences, but run-of-the-mill work will be done in India.

The company presents this as a gain for skilled journalists. David Schlesinger, Reuters' global managing editor, says that too many skilled staff have become bogged down in regulated financial information. "We're trying to fillet out the work that doesn't have to be done on the spot and move it elsewhere. We want to free our more expensive journalists for face-to-face, on-the-spot tasks to get the best value."

The process, he admits, is "very difficult, frightening and painful" in the short term, and some people are losing their jobs, but he insists the payoff will be a better, healthier Reuters. In one sense it's just another story about job losses in a challenged company, but in an another, it's something to keep everyone in skilled work awake at night.

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