The Independent group – one of South Africa’s leading newspaper owners
– is experimenting globally with outsourcing the production of their
titles, writes Anton Haber on his blog, The Harbinger.
This is a revolutionary step, with major implications for local newspapers and the journalists traditionally employed to put them out.

APN News and Media in New Zealand, half-owned by Independent boss Sir Anthony O’Reilly, announced last week that they will outsource 70 sub-editing and design jobs. APN said it was evaluating a plan to buy production services from Pagemasters, a Melbourne-based subsidiary of the Australian Associated Press news agency. If a deal is agreed PageMasters will set up an office in Auckland and may well take on some APN staff.

This would affect the New Zealand Herald, in Auckland, and provincial titles such as the Northern Advocate, Hawke’s Bay Today, Bay of Plenty Times, the Daily Post, the weekly giveaway The Aucklander and The Listener magazine.

Unions immediately said they would fight the plan.

British media watcher and blogger Roy Greenslade says this is the “first major trial” of O’Reilly’s idea, told to him in an interview a year ago, that newspaper production can be both centralised and outsourced.

It is already happening at his Irish newspapers. Dublin-based Independent News & Media announced earlier this month that 34 production staff were being made redundant in the first phase of outsourcing the production of its Irish newspapers to a company called RE&D. owned by two former Irish Independent employees.

Greenslade comments: “If these two experiments at each end of the globe come off, then the subs at The Independent may well wonder if their jobs are safe for much longer. And if it all works out in Ireland and New Zealand then other publishers across the world – who are always seeking successful cost-cutting initiatives – will surely follow O’Reilly’s lead.”

Speaking at the company’s annual meeting in Dublin earlier this year, O’Reilly said the internet could yield an extraordinary opportunity to the newspaper industry on the production side in putting together its products at a much lower cost. “If we exempt newsprint, the real cost of newspapers lies in putting them together – writing them, editing them, producing pages, getting them camera-ready, producing plates, printing, and finally in distribution,” O’Reilly said.

He was further quoting saying: “With the exception of the magic of writing and editing news . . . almost every other function, except printing, is location-indifferent. No reader knows where the page is made up. No reader understands or cares about where telesales or marketing are located.”

Outsourcing production may be a common business practice, but is new to newspapers. “Pioneering”, is how Greenslade describes it. Combined with the move to centralisation we have seen in this country – the increasing number of parts of different newspapers within a group produced centrally – this heralds major change in newspapers.

Already, in the Independent’s South African operations, parts of the papers, such as Business Report and Tonight, are centralised and shared to varying degrees. Combine this with the idea of outsourcing production functions, and you can see a whole new way of working.

What is the end-point? Could O’Reilly have all his newspapers around the world produced in one sweat-shop in India, or some other country with that combination of English, good education and cheap labour? Material would be sent to them, they would design, edit and proof pages, and email them directly to printers.

One can see the cost-saving potential, but what does it mean for newspapers? I suspect it means increasing homogenisation and everything which comes with it – middle-of-the-road, grey, blandness.

Anyone with the slightest newspaper experience knows that a paper is shaped and given its character in the subs room – where stories and pictures are selected, placed and rewritten, headlines and captions crafted, and potentially controversial matters either left in, blown up, binned or rendered bland and safe. The difference between a good newspaper and a great one is, firstly, the quality of its subs room.

Can one subs room produce different newspapers for different audiences in different places?

If O’Reilly sees that his major asset is a newspaper brand, then one has to ask if this brand can keep its unique character if it is produced in a sausage factory?