Cloud Journalism and the Fate of Beats

Jobs — including jobs in journalism — just aren’t what they used to be. Earlier this week, consultant Robert Patterson observed after reviewing trends in unemployment statistics that “the idea of a ‘job’ as a full-time object that can support a person or even a family, is disappearing.”

Placeblogger founder Lisa Williams applied that theme to the field of journalism and took it further. In “GlobalPost: Journalism in the Cloud” she pondered whether journalism might be moving away from the dedicated news organization model and moving toward an on-demand service model, similar to Amazon’s EC2 service for on-demand computer processing power. Williams explained:

EC2 isn’t storage. It’s compute cycles, the raw power of a server as it does what computer programs do: serve Web pages, generate maps, whatever. You use EC2 as an insurance policy. Instead of buying powerful servers just in case you get a ton of traffic or new users one day, EC2 lets you buy compute cycles like you buy electricity: a lot when you need it, a little when you don’t. Services like these are generally called cloud computing because when you draw a diagram of your nifty new system, you’ll represent these third party services as a cloud — opaque, because you don’t care what’s in them, just that you get reliable utility from servers and storage that are ‘in the cloud.’

I think sites like GlobalPost, Spot.us and many others I could name are the first inklings of ‘journalism in the cloud.’ Just as many tech outfits have figured out that it’s too expensive to have too many fixed assets, many news outlets are faced with the fact that they can’t support the same number of foreign correspondents or beat reporters. The fundamental experiment that these sites are running, each with their own protocol, is this: How can we make journalism happen where it’s needed, when it’s needed, and then redeploy elsewhere when things change?

I asked Williams whether this would mean that reporters would have to move around a lot. She replied: “Not necessarily. A reporter could stay in the same location. If it worked, though, it would mean they’d report on more different subjects. I think what’s dying are beats, because beats are expensive.

I find this concept intriguing: a cadre of general assignment reporters, ready to work on whatever needed doing. This wouldn’t necessarily replace what traditional news organizations do, especially on a day-to-day local level — but it could be an interesting complement to traditional news organizations. And, in places where news organizations are dying, it would be better than no reporting at all.

But I’m not sure that this model would spell the end of beats. I agree with Williams that this cloud-journalism model probably would best support general assignment reporting. However, you don’t need to be geographically close to cover many beats. For instance, I’ve covered energy, business and technology issues for many years, and much (if not most) of that coverage can be done remotely. There might be room within cloud journalism networks for some beat-style specialization.

What this model probably would not support well would be daily coverage of local beats — local government, schools, environment, politics, etc. But that’s not to say that enterprising cloud journalists couldn’t convince network editors that some local stories deserve wider exposure, either on their own or as a part of a larger story.

One obstacle this kind of journalism model would face, however, is the low stature accorded to general assignment reporting in the existing culture of journalism.

GA reporting is generally viewed as a humble starting point for gaining basic journalism experience. Most journalists aspire to progress as soon as possible into beat, feature, enterprise or columnist/commentary jobs. However, this can create the same problem as over-specialization of medicine: the world needs, and can support, far more general practitioners than cardiologists. While both kinds of doctors are needed, there’s a far greater demand for available generalists. Being an excellent general practitioner is a valuable and admirable skill in its own right. But medical education and professional culture tend to elevate and reward specialization more.

If news professionals could collectively change this mindset and view GA reporting as a valid continuous career path, other sorts of business models might become feasible. The kind of journalism that communities value isn’t necessarily what journalists consider more prestigious — but ultimately, whose opinion counts more when it comes to keeping people informed and engaged?

Also, a cloud approach to managing journalism resources wouldn’t necessarily reduce journalists to contingent day-laborer status, lining up daily to see if they get picked to work. It’s possible there might be a core staff or retainer arrangement to maintain a baseload capacity, with the ability to call in more reporters or increase hours as needed.

In fact, this model is already being tried in some news venues. Fellow Tidbits contributor Michelle Ferrier explains:

“This is a similar idea to what I do on MyTopiaCafe.com. We have a core set of ‘hub guides’ — GA-type writers who find, pitch, write, photograph, and sometimes video stories. They get a weekly stipend (a guaranteed paycheck for a certain number of stories that may be geographic or topical). I also maintain a cadre of traditional correspondents who get paid per piece. As budget allows or as needs change, I can ramp up one or both of the groups to fill the reporting needs — or ratchet back to base levels for maintenance. Seems to have worked for nearly a year and a half.

So, who will pay? Amazon knows that if its EC2 servers remain idle, it’s losing money. So it works to market this service to a variety of clients. Amazon doesn’t care much who runs which kinds of processes on its servers, as long as those customers pay for it and those servers stay fairly busy.

Apply that ethic to cloud journalism and you could have a situation where various kinds of organizations could purchase reporting capacity to make sure the stories or communities that matter to them get covered — whether that’s a town, a government agency, a business trend, legislation, a water quality issue or sports. In other words, it wouldn’t just be up to news organizations to make sure journalists can make a living. Ensuring quality reporting (not just propaganda) in this situation might be challenging, but it probably could be managed.

… These ideas are rough, but I find them provocative. GlobalPost’s experience will definitely offer some lessons on this front.

What do you think of the possibilities for cloud journalism? Please comment here.

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