J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

The Problem With “Cloud Journalism” May Be Earth-Bound Institutions

Posted by chanders on January 17, 2009

I wanted to write a post responding to Lisa Williams’ excellent post, “Journalism in the Cloud.” After a long period of doctoral research, I’ve come to fairly similar conclusions about the future shape of journalism. Where Lisa and I may differ (somewhat) is in our level of optimism that this potential future will give us the kind of journalism democracy needs.

Lisa helpfully focuses our attention on what I have called the three dimensions of newswork: the micro-sphere (news about our friends, and our block in the neighborhood), the middle sphere (the daily, usually regional, institutions and processes of the world) and the upper sphere (coverage of events, big things like mayoral races and political protests.) I’m most worried about the middle sphere.

Williams’ writes:

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?

Along with the examples Lisa gives of this new cloud journalism (GlobalPostSpot.us, OffTheBus, Placeblogger) a few of the others I talk about in my own research include: Philly Indymedia’s “swarm” coverage of the 2000 Republican National Convention, and the Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY project 2005-2007 “The Next Mayor.” You could even add the Twitter “Mass Observation” project I talked about the other day to the list. And while I draw on network metaphors rather than cloud metaphors in my own work, I think Lisa and I are talking, more or less about the same thing. The results of these cloud projects can be powerful, inspiring, and when done right, mark a wonder advance over the more traditional practices of professional journalism.

The problem, however, is this: the powerful institutions of the world are bureaucracies– they are earthly institutions, slow, grinding, daily, regimented, hierarchical. Cloud journalism is none of those things. Indeed, to me, the entire notion of the beat system stems from a realization in early journalistic institutions that covering bureaucracies seemed to require creating bureaucracies, whether in management, organization, professionalism, or beats.

Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere (hype about “Obama 2.o” aside). The advantage of thinking in terms of networks rather than clouds is that we can also think in terms of fragile networks, and ponder how this fragility can affect the work that journalists used to do.

I agree with Lisa, and others, that this is probably where journalism is headed. But all of us are making a wager — a very uncertain one, and one with the highest of stakes– that clouds and fragile networks can cover earth-bound, “iron cage” institutions. The question of how we can manage to do this is the key question for journalism reformers in the years to come.

6 Responses to “The Problem With “Cloud Journalism” May Be Earth-Bound Institutions”

  1. Well, no. Perhaps because I’m on the other side of the fence — the web side — people assume I am a web triumphalist. This isn’t true; I think there will be a decade or more of wreckage.

    Journalism’s current institutions took decades and in some cases a century to build. Expecting web-based projects and companies to instantly replace those institutions, both in their capacity to gather and spread information, and in their ability to provide regular paychecks and dental plans to people engaged in the process of journalism is unwise. I’m enthusiastic about new experiments, but what’s new is small, and what’s experimental may fail. But I’m very definitely on the side of people who will get out there and do the experiments, risk the failure, and face the fact that people will dismiss them for being small, new, not good enough. I support them, their work, even when they do fail. As I so often tell myself, “It doesn’t work” is a perfectly good experimental result.

    I love your focus on institutions, and it may prompt me to write down an idea I’ve had bouncing around for a bit. Today, what we see in the paper is institutions vs. institutions. My read is that the institutions of power — government, corporations — have gotten a hell of a lot better at repelling the advances of the institutional press. They learned from Watergate.

    In this way, institutional journalism is a bit like antibiotics, and the powerful have become resistant to it.

    This is why de-institutionalization and distribution is so powerful. As an example, let’s take the package that the Washington Post did on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It won them a Pulitzer, and in my opinion, a very well-deserved one.

    Do you believe that it changed conditions for veterans in anything other than a highly localized context, and in that context , for more than a short time? I don’t.

    Think instead of a site that combines veterans, their caregivers, and journalists, that is on 24/7 and provides instant, up-to-date statistics on how many of the more than six thousand veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees have been fitted with the proper prosthesis.

    For journalism to work, we must turn stories into signals — if we can know Apple’s stock price every second of every day that the market is open, why can’t we know the status of veterans’ care, literacy, and the environment in the same way? (Perhaps what replaces a beat is community management? Unknown).

    Because the existing technology of the newsroom has very limited messaging capacity. What are you going to do, interview every veteran? Check on every penguin?

    Well, not just with a newsroom, a reporter, and a phone — but with all those things and technology that allows mass participation (and, yes, verification).

    Is that going to happen tomorrow? No. Is it going to happen at all? Maybe not. But getting out there and building it is a heck of a lot better than waiting for the job where someone gives you an assignment and you start dialling, all without worrying about who does the website, who responds to comments, and where the money comes from to come back — because it’s not coming back. (Why? Big Money.)

  2. […] I was trying to come up with a conclusion to my doctoral research on local journalism, I penned these thoughts: The internet has deeply problematized local journalism’s vision of […]

  3. […] for the online edition of whomever they work for: some are citing this new mobility as being a sign of the end of their structured, defined beats in favour of a mash of call asignments. Rather than walking just […]

  4. […] force the attention of the public and bring institutions of power to heel?” Chris Anderson raised a similar concern: “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used […]

  5. […] network – small pieces loosely joined – than a collection of large institutions. C.W. Anderson put it this way: “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used […]

  6. […] the targets of civic action are in many ways growing stronger and more monolithic. C.W. Anderson puts it this way “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism […]

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