Media Perspective: Hedge your bets if you want to survive the web revolution

As I threatened last week, I want to point you in the direction of another online essay about newspapers. It's by Clay Shirky, it's called Newspapers And Thinking The Unthinkable, and a second of Googling will find it for you.

It's worth looking at for two reasons. One, because I think he talks sense about the predicament of newspapers. Second, because we can draw larger lessons from his analysis.

Mr Shirky points out that we're living through a revolution in newspapers and media. This is not new news. But he looks at the insides and implications of that revolution more thoughtfully than most commentators, partly by looking at revolutions of the past.

A couple of soundbites have swept round the opinionsphere. My favourite describes what happens when senior management enters denial about the way reality fails to live up to their plans: "Employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into innovation departments, where they can be ignored en masse." That rings a bell, doesn't it?

But the pithier and more profound observation about the nature of these revolutions is this: "The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn't apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen." That feels like today. Newspapers are closing down, going bust, even while their influence and reach grows.

We're desperate to know which will survive and what might appear in their place. We long for a smooth transition. The problem, as Mr Shirky points out, is that the old stuff is likely to fail before the replacements are ready. And nobody knows anything. There will be a period of massive doubt and disruption. We're probably already in it.

Given which, I'd suggest the best plan is probably to try a bunch of bets and a load of experiments; ideally ones that try to learn something from the platform that's threatening to sweep everything away; in this case, the web.

That's why The Guardian's Open Platform initiative makes so much sense. It's an attempt to distribute The Guardian's content beyond the confines of its pages, to monetise it at the same time, and to uncover the things people really want to do with it. The FT's subscription-only digital editions which focus on particular niches are similarly interesting, as is the success on the Kindle of papers such as the International Herald Tribune. Admiring these projects may put me on the neophile wing of the digerati but the "stick-to-our-knitting-let's-see-if-it-all-blows-over" approach to media revolutions is starting to look a little dicey right now.

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