In the early ’00’s, the movie industry looked on as the music industry’s business model was cannibalized by file sharing services. Bandwidth issues bought Hollywood a few extra years to figure out how to adapt to the digital threat.
Eventually iTunes proved a viable model to sell music over the web, even as the recording industry devolved into smaller pieces. The movie industry did indeed benefit from extra time and no one today is talking about the death of the movie business.
Today journalism is facing devolution of its business model as access to news sources explodes. USC’s Robert Niles succinctly outlines the problem:
Simply put, while a highly competitive Internet publishing market
can provide enough ad and direct payment revenue to support reporting,
it can no longer routinely provide the funding to support a traditional
corporate model for journalism, one that demands a deep organizational
chart and significant annual profits.
That corporate model did
provide great value to journalism in the past, of course. Its managers
and ad representative leveraged financial support from communities,
allowing journalists to do their reporting unconcerned with that work.
those payment for those additional bodies, the work of leveraging
community financial support falls to the reporters (and few remaining
editors) themselves, a task that few are trained to do.
Which leads to an inevitable question. If large news organizations can no longer support themselves, do we really need large institutions to report news? Niles again:
Small organizations can do robust work. Instead of handling all tasks
of reporting and editing in house, they can leverage the abilities of
their communities to build substantial reporting work. Witness some of
the crowd-sourced vetting of Friday “document dumps” done by small
sites such as Talking Points Memo, for example. (TPM Media grew from a
one-person blog, by the way.) Small and one-person news sites can work
with one another, as well, to build and share traffic and reporting
resources. Large-scale investigative reporting need not be sacrificed
under a new, small-scale organizational model.
There’s lots of debating to be done about whether we need large institutions to report news. But a similar question can also be asked about the arts. The 1990s was a decade of arts institutionalization in America. Smaller theatres became larger theatres. Mid-size museums became bigger museums. And symphony orchestras expanded their activities.
The internet has decentralized the arts. People make art online, compose and record music and make movies in home studios, Massive online multiplayer games have changed the ways we think about narrative. Personal digital players have changed the ways audiences consume art.
Concurrently, the institutional arts are finding their business models eroding as corporate funding dissolves, foundation support erodes and endowments shrink. Perhaps things will bounce back when the economy improves. But maybe not. We increasingly distrust the institutional voice in favor of individual or community collaboration, and whereas we once needed institutions to accomplish things, increasingly we find community effort to be more efficient. Clay Shirky has been exploring this idea for a while:
Surely we need institutions to perform symphonies, display Tutankhamun relics, or dance Swan Lake. But defenders of news organizations say the same thing about the need for newspapers to do in-depth reporting. Then ProPublica and Politico and GlobalPost come along with ways to fund such reporting.
One could imagine something like the “community of musicians” orchestra exec Ernest Fleischmann and New Criterion writer Samuel Lipman debated about some 20 years ago as a way to perform orchestral music. Theatre is already largely a freelance profession for actors, and one could imagine regional theatres as homes to many producer/productions rather than the single-tenant creatures they are now.
And there’s something else. As people have more choices, their loyalties to institutions soften. Most arts institutions have done a better job of selling tickets than building communities. In a world of rapidly expanding choice, selling tickets gets harder. For an audience, investing in a relationship or community is different from the consumer choice of simply buying a ticket. If you are primarily a consumer choice, you are increasingly at a disadvantage as the choices expand.
Arts organizations that focus on “selling more tickets” will more and more lose out to community-based networks and companies that figure out that community experience beats consumer transaction. What if institutions aren’t the best way of making art?