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.
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 (GlobalPost, Spot.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.