The newspaper industry’s approach to digital transformation over the past 20 years offers important lessons for today’s museums.
“No revenue means no future.”
This line, from an op-ed by Seth Pinsky, CEO of New York City’s 92nd Street Y, written in the early months of the pandemic in 2020, has remained on my mind as I meet with museum leadership teams around the world, all working hard to balance broad access to their collections and programs with the need for a sustainable business model. On top of that, most of them are also trying to figure out how their digital assets and programs fit into their ongoing operations, and how–or in some cases if–those assets should be monetized.
In the uncertain early days of the pandemic, Pinsky’s op-ed was a plea to his fellow leaders in the arts and culture sector to resist the understandable impulse to reduce staff, cut back programming, and give digital content away for free. Specifically, he worried about the long term consequences of undervaluing content delivered virtually. He drew a comparison to the newspaper industry’s initial willingness to give its content away online, and its general reluctance to adopt new revenue models as new technologies advanced and its advertising and print subscription business declined. The results speak for themselves. Since 2005, the United States has lost more than 2,500 newspapers in large cities and small towns alike, leaving more than 70 million Americans living in “news deserts” without a local paper, which some researchers argue have exacerbated our political divisions.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Pinsky warned. “Not long ago, we watched newspapers fold as they resisted paywalls, responding to falling revenues instead by reducing staff and cutting content. The result was lethal for the industry and the communities they served...If we in the arts — in cities and towns across the country — do not internalize this lesson, we and our communities face a similar fate.”
Comparing the newspaper industry to the museum and culture industry is, of course, an imperfect analogy, and I’m also too optimistic to believe that museums, which are far more numerous than newspapers (about 35,000 in the US) and almost exclusively non-profit, are at a similar risk of failure. But I’m also not naive enough to believe that they can keep on operating successfully without embracing new technologies and revenue models. Making those changes, however, will give them a chance to reach far more enthusiasts and learners than may ever walk through their physical doors while also supporting their financial needs.
Imperfect analogy aside, I’m encouraged when I look at some of the news organizations that have successfully adapted their models. Earlier this month, for example, the New York Times reported that its subscribers had grown to 9.88 million with 9.19 million of them (93%) digital subscribers. This has been a long evolution, with considerable experimentation, thought, and investment along the way. But the Times, and other publications around the world, have found new ways to deliver journalism, and to engage, inform, and delight readers.
Maybe more importantly, they’ve also discovered new ways to grow their audience. To put those 2023 numbers in perspective, in 2005, the Times had just over 1 million total subscribers. Similarly, as Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art noted last year, MoMA may see 3 million enthusiasts visit its Manhattan home in a year, but more than 35 million visitors have connected with the museum online in the same period. That’s an opportunity.
Like newspapers, museums are grappling with technological change, a reliance on a precarious model of earned (largely admission) and contributed (largely membership and donation) revenue, coupled with changing audience behaviors and expectations. Institutions that fail to adapt will likely continue to struggle. But what may be more at risk is what reduced access, programming, and even existence could mean for the communities and individuals across the country that these institutions serve, and the knowledge and inspiration they safeguard and promote.
Museums now have the opportunity and the need. But change will take thought, and effort, and investment. And just as most newspapers are not like the New York Times, most museums are not like the Museum of Modern Art. But given the democratization of technology, and the wide availability of tools and platforms, all museums have the chance to serve and grow their audiences, along with the responsibility to do so in order to ensure that they can continue to serve their missions.
At Gather, we’re motivated as a company to build technology that’s affordable, easy to use, and most importantly, which can help our museum partners expand their reach and increase their revenue in meaningful ways so they can fulfill their mission, amplify their impact, and ensure a bright future for the communities they serve.