How the cloud could save the news

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It is probably too late for the established news media, but somewhere in the cloud could be salvation.

If there is a tech buzzword in the blighted economy right now, it has to be "cloud."

The cloud -- a.k.a., cloud computing -- is the rapidly growing suite of software applications accessible by the Internet and residing in massive data centers around the country.

The cloud offers the possibility of shifting much if not all of a business's computing needs -- from hardware to software, email to databases -- away from bricks and mortar and IT departments onto the shoulders of Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, IBM, and a dozen other big players.

Cloud cover growing

The trend is unmistakable. Vast and power-hungry data centers already slurp up 1.5 percent of the energy consumed in the US. Such is their growth that within two years the EPA predicts their power usage could double.

They are more and more popular because as companies struggle to shed costs in the midst of a devastating recession outsourcing business infrastructure is an appealing option.

IBM's metamorphosis into a cloud computing company is perhaps the most interesting to watch right now. Remember that the "M" in IBM stands for "machines." IBM made its bones in the last century by selling hardware. In recent years, it has de-emphasized metal and plastic and microchips for industrial strength software. And now it is shifting once more.

"What you are seeing are the beginnings of the whole IBM company moving toward cloud computing," IBM vice president Sean Poulley said on Wednesday.

Clouds from both sides

Here's another sign that the cloud is the next new thing: It's April 1st and Amazon decided its hoax today would be about cloud computing, because "in today's post-capitalist world" companies need "locational flexibility, the ability to literally instantiate a cloud where they need it, when they need it."

Amazon's tongue-in-cheek solution: cloud blimps.

OK, it's not an April Fool's belly laugh for everybody. But at least you can see that the cloud idea is a hot enough topic enough that it can become a joke for propeller-heads.

The cloud is the message

Now imagine you are the CEO of a struggling media company. The story line is well known: Secular disruption caused by the Internet compounded by the worst economy since the Great Depression equals more and more red ink.

Revenue is collapsing. Proposed solutions like micro-payments and premium content don't yet seem substantial enough to make up for the loss of print advertising dollars.

What's left is cost cutting. And that's tough. Media companies already know how important it is to shed their industrial costs -- ink, paper, presses, delivery. Another big cost is people. But people are the core asset of media companies: independent eyes and ears that watch the world and tell the stories.

The cloud could be the answer. It could allow media companies someday to avoid going down the path of making significant capital investments in online tools such as content management systems and video hosting.

Like most proposals for helping the struggling news business, the cloud's potential for cost-shfiting probably won't kick in until after much more pain is experienced, more bankruptcies are declared, and more newsrooms shrink.

But the potential is there. To quote Google on the subject: "We have teams of people working with hundreds of publishers to find new and creative ways to earn money from engaging online content. AdSense, DoubleClick, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Earth, Google News and many other products are a part of our significant investments to innovate in this space."

Who will be the first to build the newspaper on a cloud?

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