A different kind of media consolidation

Last night at work, one of the automated processes in our content management system broke down and seriously slowed production for several hours. The point of saying that is not at all to bash the IT department — problems do occur, and they got on it right away.

The point is that automated process happens to run on a server hundreds of miles away at our corporate parent’s Web hosting facility. It’s a process that is also used by, I think, about a dozen other news Web sites in our chain, who were affected by the same problem. Luckily, things recovered enough by the time I finished working on the site for the evening for readers never to know the difference.

But what if?

  • What if this problem wasn’t resolved soon enough last night?
  • What if this problem affected more of the site than it did?
  • What if a serious problem prevented me from updating the site at all?
  • What if an even more serious problem prevented readers from accessing the site?
  • What if any of those problems had occurred during a big breaking story?
  • What if there was a catastrophic failure at our hosting facility — a fire, a flood, or even a terrorist attack?

While the probability of a catastrophe is incredibly low, the probability of some of the other problems is not. Of course, having a centralized hosting facility for many online news sites probably reduces the likelihood of failures, because greater efficiency allows more resources for the “what if” scenarios than any one site could muster alone.

What worries me about centralized news site hosting, however, is that even if the likelihood of a problem is reduced, the impact of any problem is increased. The issue I had last night affected not just the site I work for, but news sites in six states. Traditional media are fairly resilient to failure — if one newspaper’s press breaks down or one television station’s transmitter fails, other media outlets are not affected. But a failure at a large media company’s Web hosting facility could disrupt online distribution of “local news” on the other side of the country.

We who work for news Web sites want readers to depend on us for information, so we need to fulfill our end of the bargain. We need to make sure our medium still operates in the event of minor problems or catastrophes, rather than failing. The Internet, with its famously distributed architecture, is designed to do exactly that. But a centralized architecture of hosting many news organizations’ Web sites in one physical location on one content management system is not.

It’s often argued that media consolidation into a small number of large conglomerates will bias journalism and reduce media diversity. But — in the event of a catastrophic problem at a conglomerate’s Web hosting facility — it’s possible centralization could temporarily but significantly reduce media availability. Readers deserve better.

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This page last modified on Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 8:58 pm