Nothing will work, but everything might

Pew PollThere was a good bit of discussion at an American Press Institute workshop on Friday at Middle Tennessee State University on what business models will work for newspapers even as we see newspapers that aggressively embrace the Web struggling or folding.

There weren’t cocksure responses, just pointers to hopeful experiments.

Later Friday, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and who most certainly was unaware of our discussion in a classroom in Murfreesboro, posted a long and thoughtful post on “Thinking the Unthinkable.”

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

Maybe I’m telling, or believing, the lie, but I still hold that news organizations that currently publish newspapers will survive; not all of them, but many of them. They will be changed; journalism will change. And I agree with Shirky that the old model will fail, or has failed, before a new one springs up to replace it. That has happened; just some say it’s the economy.

As Shirky says, now is the time for many experiments, most of which many appear insignificant to the goal. He writes:

No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

Or, as he put it another way, “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

As if we needed further evidence that the future unthinkable is actually behind us, it was provided Thursday by a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press piece on a new poll:

As many newspapers struggle to stay economically viable, fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.

Time to get back to tinkering with new experiments in search of discovering the nexus of nothing and everything. The American Press Institute sessions surfaced some good thoughts.

Update: Rex Hammock was also musing on the Pew poll and the implications for newspapers.