What can museums learn from the decline of American newspapers?

BlogHer Original Post

I address today's post to those who work in nonprofits, but most especially museums. Still, I think many cultural institutions and businesses would benefit from taking a closer look at the decline of the American newspaper.

Those of you who know me well know that my husband is an all-around, old-time, self-described "newspaperman." He's done writing, editing, photography, graphic design, web design, telepimping (coordinating a newspaper's classified-ad and voicemail-based dating service), and anything having to do with "putting the paper to bed"—that is, getting it to the printer. And in fact, we met ten years ago when I was (briefly) a reporter and he was production manager of a thriving community newspaper. So there's a special place in my heart for the American newspaper, and especially the small, independent, scrappy community newspaper.

But there's also a place in my heart for—and a good deal of my brain dedicated to—museums of all stripes. And since both museums and newspapers are community institutions that aim to inform, advise, and entertain, there are some lessons—cautionary tales, really—museums can learn from the death spiral of newspapers. Much of what I say here is basic business common sense, but the decline of the newspaper industry gives us an opportunity to check in with our institutions and brainstorm new opportunities. Here, then, is my advice:

1. Even in a new media age, don't water down your original product. For newspapers, the crumbling of their product began several years ago with newspapers trimming the width of their pages, and then the decline snowballed with fewer comic strips and stock listings, consolidation of sections (e.g. business with regional or metropolitan sections), then the removal of certain sections on some days of the week (e.g. no more features sections—bye-bye, Home & Garden—on Tuesdays). It's been a death spiral: advertising declined; printing and paper costs rose; newspapers decreased in breadth and depth (literally and metaphorically); people unsubscribed; advertisers saw smaller circulation numbers and pulled their ads; repeat cycle. Now, whether this product needs to be delivered on paper is debatable, but newspapers needed to find a way to get their content—in whatever form—in front of people without decreasing its quantity or quality. Don't let the apparent value of your product decline, even if that product morphs into a new medium. Remember, "rich media" doesn't guarantee an enriching experience.

For museums, this means thinking not just about mission, but about what products exactly your primary audience enjoys. Hands-on exhibits? Outreach programs? Tours of a garden or arboretum? Classes? Historical reenactment? In an economic downturn, museum visitorship frequently increases. Which of these programs will you expand, and how will you know which to increase? What opportunities will people have to continue their experience and learning after their visit? As you ask yourself what to build upon, consider this reflection on newspapers from the American Journalism Review:

One of the rules of thumb for coping with substitute technology is to narrow your focus to the area that is the least vulnerable to substitution. Michael Porter included it in his list of six strategies in his book "Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance." The railroads survived the threat from trucks on Interstate highways and airlines by focusing on the one thing they could still do better: moving bulk cargo across long distances.

What service supplied by newspapers is the least vulnerable?

I still believe that a newspaper's most important product, the product least vulnerable to substitution, is community influence. It gains this influence by being the trusted source for locally produced news, analysis and investigative reporting about public affairs. This influence makes it more attractive to advertisers.

By news, I don't mean stenographic coverage of public meetings, channeling press releases or listing unanalyzed collections of facts. The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don't need new information so much as help in processing what's already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.

Replace "newspapers" and "journalism" with "museums" and "exhibition development," and you have some new food for thought.

2. Keep your product in front of your customers. Make "getting together" with your customers at regular intervals a habit. (For newspapers, this meant daily subscribers and the occasional Sunday-only subscribers.) Make your product or service a sensory experience, and join it with others. Newspaper readers heard the shifting of pages, felt the flutter of air on their faces as they flung a section open at arm's length, felt ink dry out the skin on their fingertips, smelled that distinctive "newsprint" scent. Many people associated newspapers with the taste of coffee or orange juice, the comfort of toast, the rocking of the train or subway, the feel of cold bare feet on the driveway.

How is your museum providing a sensory experience? How are you going beyond vision and hearing as sources of input? And with what do your visitors associate your museum—by which I mean things they can't get from your website? Think about the smell of redwood trees at the trailhead near your museum, the rush of adrenaline at the moment they first step from the Metro escalator onto the Washington, D.C. Mall to find themselves surrounded by Smithsonian museums, the surprisingly pleasing smell of tar once it's recontextualized via the La Brea Tar Pits, the occasional gross-out factor of scientists dissecting or prepping oozing specimens in a lab within view of the exhibit floor.

If you do want more visitors to your web site, don't just tell them what goes on at the museum by offering a calendar of events or a summary of exhibits and experiences. Instead, share your collections. Give visitors a taste and encourage them to come see the real thing.

3. If you're a small museum, don't aim to be too big. Instead, embrace the local and hyperlocal. The smaller a geographic area your museum serves, the broader the swath of the population it can serve. Children's museums and science centers may need to serve several cities, and their clientele usually age out of their offerings. Remember: your niche need not be demographic; it can be geographic. A much smaller museum can focus on one city and surrounding towns, yet provide experiences for a more diverse demographic, including, for example, seniors and new moms whose kids aren't yet old enough to enjoy the museum. Newspapers that have remained competitive serve all readers. They haven't just chased the young in hopes of cultivating a new generation of subscribers to the print edition. In addition, the most successful newspapers had more female readers than male, even though they didn't see themselves as targeting women consumers.

Is what's on your exhibition floor of interest to your visitors because it's generally interesting, or because it's locally interesting? Consider opportunities for furthering civic discourse. If your town has for years been up in arms over what to do with traffic on one of its main thoroughfares, then your institution should be, depending on its type of museum:

  • creating exhibitions with information about traffic engineering and giving visitors opportunities to practice individual and collaborative decision-making.
  • telling the history of the street and how the surrounding neighborhoods have evolved, including collecting stories from current and former residents.
  • hosting public forums or town hall meetings about the street in question.
  • having an arts competition (with (donated) prize breakdowns by age bracket and a special section for professional planners and landscape architects) to craft a new vision of the street in whatever media makes sense (paint, pencil, model, multimedia).

4a. Consider equity of pay and opportunity. At the big newspapers, the investigative reporters and top columnists make a good salary. Not so much at the smaller papers. At the (very profitable) community newspaper where I worked in 1999, my starting salary as a journalist was $22,000—and I had an M.A. in English/writing and plenty of clips already to my name—and I didn't get a day of vacation until I had worked there for a year, and then I only received 5 days each year. We worked holidays and didn't have a sick day policy—basically, you went home if you were throwing up in the storage area, er, newsroom. Our contracts (illegally, I suppose) forbade us from discussing salaries, but I suspect the features editor, who had been there many years, didn't quite make $40,000. Mr. MB, who had years of experience but only a high-school education, made upwards of $50,000, and as production manager he received a bonus every time the paper went over a set number of pages because it meant he had to do extra work. The reporters, who had to write stories to fill the space around the extra ads sold that week, didn't get any additional pay on the many weeks the newspaper grew. But you know who was really making buck? The salespeople. Some of the display ad folks and at least one of the classified people were rumored to be making six figures. These folks were investing in additional real estate in Southern California. Me, I was living with my parents.

Yes, I was the new kid on the block, but I've seen this inequity in the ratio of labor to pay in many newspapers. It's why young people don't stick with reporting for community newspapers; they can't afford it. Why write articles about parking enforcement for the local paper when I can get another 8-5 job that pays far better, and then blog in the evenings and weekends about stuff I really care about? No, I'm not writing hard-hitting investigative pieces, but nor was I doing so for my community paper. So:

4b. If your museum has a lot of turnover in educators and other front-line personnel, ask why. Those kinds of jobs (I've had 'em) are repetitive and tend not to pay very well, so there's a high rate of burnout. If you can't afford to pay your educators and other customer-service employees more, find other perks to give them, such as more flexible schedules, a wider choice of health insurance plans, or the opportunity to work on projects that stretch their knowledge and challenge them, such as writing exhibition labels, brainstorming possibilities for grants, and developing new programs. Even though I didn't get much of a bump in pay or resources when I moved from education to exhibit development, the new challenges (e.g. producing a hands-on, inquiry-based, 1,200 square-foot exhibit with a materials budget of $100) and opportunities (getting to work with new tools and think in different ways about audiences) meant I was happy to stay on staff.

Today I work with graduate students who have committed themselves to museum careers. They're required to work in museums prior to being accepted to the program, they work for museums while they're in the program, and they get pretty good placements when they graduate. But they're entry- to mid-level museum staff in their 20s and 30s (and, less frequently, 40s and 50s and 60s), and they're tired all. the. time. They love the missions of their institutions, but they crave challenges beyond their day-to-day duties. Give them a chance to impress you by dropping an unexpected, interesting challenge in their laps. You may be repaid handsomely. One of my students recently wrote to me asking how much credit she should ask for—and how she should ask for it—as the very large museum for which she works plagiarizes from her thesis in the process of revising its business model. These young folks (by which I mean people my age! ;) have HUGE ideas to contribute. I remember being among young museum staffers tossing out really great ideas (IMHO) at staff meetings, only to see the institution take an opposite tack and fail in some significant, programmatic way. This was particularly true when development people pulled together grant and foundation proposals without consulting front-line educators or program evaluators.

5a. Have multiple revenue streams. Craiglist and Monster.com decimated classified advertising in most categories that had previously been published in newspapers: items for sale, job postings, people-seeking-people ads, etc. Although admissions may rise slightly during a recession, economic depressions do make museums think hard about revenue beyond the gala fundraiser, the grant, and children's birthday parties. Look at your mission and see what products and services you can provide to your community—and beyond—that meet an unfulfilled need.

Find new streams of revenue instead. I'll elaborate on some of these in the next section.

5b. Beg, borrow, and steal alternative business models. Changing your business model doesn't have to mean compromising your mission; it does mean being more flexible and creative in the ways you finance it. And it doesn't mean doing the obvious thing. For example, many paid-subscription papers are considering moving to an online-only subscription- or advertising-based model, or to online articles supported by micropayments. Yet many of the newspapers that are best weathering the economic storm are actually free weekly, hyperlocal papers. For example, the newspaper company where my husband and I met had two papers: one was delivered to doorsteps in a high-income zip code within a large city, and the other, offered on newsstands, provided news of interest to downtown politicos and businesspeople. Advertisers in these publications have a very good idea of who's reading these papers.

Building on these ideas of niche audiences:

  • Offer free admission to specific target audiences, sponsored (via ads in e-mails, flyers, and on site) by advertisers relevant to the specific audience. (Caution: I've seen display ads in senior newspapers. They can be very depressing and prone to stereotyping. Select your advertising partners carefully.)
  • If some of your staff have expertise they might offer others in your community, rent them out for a few hours at a time or by the small project at a higher-than-their-usual rate to businesses, universities, and other nonprofits. Chances are there's someone on your staff who knows quite a bit about database management, grant writing, cultivating the lucrative family market, new media, or partnering with other organizations to increase revenue—all high-value skills that are in demand.
  • Organize niche conferences in a field related to your museum's content or location. Bring in sponsors and charge admission. A hands-on children's museum might host a conference—complete with keynote speakers and submitted panels—on any number of topics, including engaging gifted children in an era of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind or making learning accessible, inside the museum and out, to children (or anyone else) with disabilities. A community-facing art museum might put together a conference on art therapy, and a history museum with a newly discovered artifact related to Abraham Lincoln might host a symposium on Lincoln combined with a conference for Lincoln enthusiasts. Thanks in part to web platforms that handle registration and billing, conferences don't have to be a nightmare to organize, especially if everyone in your organization pitches in. (Check out this testimonial about conferences from NewWest: "Everything on the Website is free, but we have about 1,000 people who pay $150 or $300 or $500 a year for their NewWest experience. This experience comes through conferences and events, which have been a major revenue source and an excellent promotional vehicle for our site. The conferences are content-driven - programming a conference is in many ways very similar to editing a magazine - and thus we see it as part-and-parcel of the journalistic mission, not a distracting commercial add-on. If anything, people like conferences even more when they spend so much time interacting via a computer screen. Conference attendees are our loyal subscribers, and they pay a lot for our content.")
  • Create children's workbooks to accompany your exhibition, but make sure they're stand-alone, too. Offer them as paid downloads or in print versions in your museum store. Many museums already create pre- and post-visit activities for teachers, so why not expand on these and offer them to visitors (and non-visitors!) instead?
  • Make your content available at services like CafePress and Zazzle. I've seen a lot of cool material culture and ephemera I'd love to have printed onto a poster on high-quality paper like the premium posters created with UV-resistant archival inks printed on heavy paper. Offer links directly from key artifacts to these services, and set up a storefront at each of these services as well.

6. Don't ignore or dismiss the blogosphere. Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 is packed with fabulous ideas that I'm confident will drive museums over the next decade. Museum Audience Insight offers just what it promises--thoughtful insights on museum visitors. The informatics folks blogging at conference.archimuse.com also point to new developments that can serve as inspiration or case studies for your own museum's evolution. PreservationNation keeps museum folks up to date with the latest developments in historic preservation. Signtific is another new source of inspiration on engagement and participation.

What are your thoughts? What else can museums learn from the decline (or relative success) of newspapers?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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