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…

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