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When Themes Collide: Newspapers, Gaming and Museums

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Theme 1: Last spring James Chung of Reach Advisors hosted a conversation during the AAM meeting in Philadelphia exploring what museums can learn from the recent plight of the newspaper industry, and the collapse of their business model. Newspapers pegged their income to a service (advertising) unrelated to their core mission (investigative reporting.) When the web opened up direct, free ways like Craigslist to match people with products or services, advertising income collapsed. And newspapers have not trained people to recognize and pay for the value of investigative reporting to them personally and to society as a whole, so they are faced with having to invent a new economic model for themselves. Some newspapers are experimenting with becoming nonprofits and explicitly position themselves as public goods to be funded as such. (“Why should you read or support us?” writes Mother Jones Magazine, “Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we’re pretty damn fun.”)

How might this cautionary tale pertain to museums? I am badgering James to post at more length on this topic for this blog soon. For now, suffice to point out that the average museum-goer is not aware of the existence, or at least the extent of important core activities like collections care, research and conservation. They do not consciously choose to subsidize these activities with their memberships and ticket purchases. Museums’ traditional sources of income are eroding. And we are already nonprofits–what model do we come up with to pay for our “unfunded mandates” that benefit society?

Theme 2: Over the past year, CFM has encouraged museums to explore gaming as a way to reach out to new and younger audiences. So, I was particularly interested to see this story, about how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has teamed with Rochester Institute of Technology to create a new multi-player community-based game called Picture the Impossible to “attract and mobilize the young urban professionals that the newspaper wants to learn how to reach.” Players join a “faction” that determines which of three local charitable causes (a children’s hospital, a foodbank or a social service agency) receive funds generated through their participation. The game then assigns tasks that encourage them to explore the city of Rochester. Many of the challenges involve (of course) reading and extracting content from the newspaper but they also encompass creating and contributing content (e.g., inventing recipes based on ingredients from the local market) as well as playing more traditional web-based games.

So, we and our brethren in the newspaper industry face similar challenges*:

  • Meeting the expectations of generations who want to be active participants rather than passive consumers
  • Reaching out to new audiences who may at the moment see us as stuffy and boring, and take for granted (or don’t value) many of the things we do that benefit society
  • Experimenting with new modes of engagement, like gaming, to harness the energy and creativity of the people we want to serve and convince them we are “pretty damn fun.” Or at least that we tell it like it is…
Skip over related stories to continue reading article

To read more about what museums can learn from newspapers:
This post by Susie Wilkening
And this one by Leslie Madsen Brooks

To follow news from the field of journalism as it seeks to reinvent itself:
This blog by David Nordfors, who leads the School of Innovative Journalism at Stanford University, and
Newspaper Death Watch by technology journalis Paul Gillin

* I also note, with some amusement, that both professions face uncomfortable shifts in identity. Journalists are reshaping their role to facilitate input from readers who want to curate their own lives, while museum curators are being urged to behave more like editors—gathering, filtering and consolidating content contributed by the public. No one gets to sit still and be comfortable with the way things used to be.

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  1. I'm also fascinated by the parallels between journalism and museums. Though our methods and/or business models may need to adapt in both cases, I see no evidence (yet) that knowledgeable "curators" – whether of information or material culture – will be any less valued over time. It can be argued that the role will be more important as information proliferates. I wrote about this recently on the National Museum of American History blog:

    Matt MacArthur

  2. Excellent post, Beth. I especially like your last paragraph, where you note how journalists are supposed to help people curate their lives, while curators are supposed to be more like editors.

    That being said, when we talk about participatory culture, we are often asked if it is the death of the curator. But our indicators say nothing of the sort. People are interested in what curators have to say, and want to engage with curators on, perhaps, pretty deep levels. (I believe you had an excellent post on amateur curators several months ago.)

    The shift appears to be that instead of the curator transmitting information to the visitor, and the visitor simply taking it in, that visitor now wants to voice their thoughts as well. Perhaps it is via a dialog with a curator. Perhaps it is posting their thoughts for others to see.

    This does not take anything away from the curator, but instead deepens the curator's role as expert, provacateur, and, yes, editor.

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