Greatest Loss of 2009: Social Capital
Posted by Allison Fine on March 19, 2009
The biggest problem with having smart friends is that they ask smart questions, and then one is obligated to try and answer; hopefully smartly, but failing that, at least pithily.
Yesterday, my friend Katya Andresen, the magnificent brains behind Katya’as Nonprofit Marketing Blog and the book Robin Hood Marketing, posed this question to me on Twitter: @Afine one in ten arts orgs are on the brink of collapse but movie attendance up – is this a marketing problem?
Certainly some portion of that number are organizations that are poorly managed, or have no real base of local support so that any shaking of the apple cart sends them spiraling downward. But, still, a large percentage represents opera companies, symphonies, museums and theater companies that will be huge cultural losses to those communities, and of a course a huge and heartbreaking loss of jobs.
As Katya suggests there is definitely a business model element to the struggle of local arts organizations. Local performing arts organizations are too labor and capital intensive that makes the cost of participation for casual supporters very high in comparison to movies. It is financially impossible to make a ticket to the opera the same cost as a ticket to Slumdog Millionaire (although once you throw in the cost of popcorn and soda you are getting closer) without a significant subsidy from the government or private donors that doesn’t exist in today’s economy.
Even though the meltdown of the newspaper industry has gotten far more press (from the press, naturally!) than the collapse of local arts organizations, there are pathways that make future local news gathering and dissemination possible. The newspaper problem is a classic business model problem; the process of gathering and reading news has fundamentally changed and organizations are scrambling to catch up with newer, more efficient mechanisms for delivering news to readers. But, there is a marketplace for news as online readership continues to rise, and we are in the messy process of transitioning to a new model.
The problem of trying to figure out a new business model for arts organizations is much more difficult. This is due in part because the cost of delivering the product is largely fixed; there is no way around the fact that orchestras need violinists and cellists. Consumers of news exist in large numbers, some say even growing numbers, but many arts organizations that face the prospect that there may not be enough patrons to support their efforts — ever. It may be that performing arts organizations cover larger regions. For instance, perhaps Hartford, CT cannot sustain a symphony orchestra, but lower New England may be able to. Or that the orchestras get smaller, or that the players aren’t full-time professionals.
Tinkering with the size and catchment area for performing arts organizations (and museums, too) misses a much a bigger problem for communities. The loss of newspapers and arts organizations creates an enormous, perhaps irreplacable, loss of social capital for local communities.
Tom Watson really nailed this issue in a terrific post on the Huffington Post yesterday when he wrote:
As Shirky writes (correctly in my view) the casualty isn’t so much the newspaper (and the companies who operate them), as it is the journalist – and professional journalism itself. And that is a huge loss for society that no one should be welcome with glee (though some digital triumphalists cannot seem to restrain themselves)
And Tom is no luddite, he is the author of CauseWired and works every day to help organizations transition to the Connected Age.
And in a follow up email to me yesterday he made a point that has been overlooked in much of the debate:
Most ‘observers’ don’t know the scale of this disaster – we’re talking
tens of thousands of reporters at thousands of newspaper in thousands
of cities and towns and counties. A whole system of informing the
public commons is dying – blogs simply won’t replace it, citizen
journalists will be a tiny fraction of what went before. It’s truly an
We are losing the institutional memories of institutions that are in the business of connecting individuals to one another, to their communities, to beautiful and inspiring stories and works of arts.
I’m not quite as pessimisitc as Tom about the future of local news efforts. The models that we’re discussing and testing right now may not work, but that doesn’t mean that a model for news won’t or can’t exist in the future, a model that is financially sustainable and does a credible job of informing the citizenry and keeping local institutions accountable to the public. But what I don’t know is if or how social media can make up this loss, it may simply be that this is one casualty of the Connected Age. One thing we can do is to insist that the growth of social capital be a part of the discussion and implementation of new models for news and arts organizations.
Making money isn’t the only measure of success for news and arts organizations in the future; reconnecting citizens locally to one another; regenerating the social fabric is just as important and necessary to the success of these efforts.
This entry was posted on March 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm and is filed under Social Media. Tagged: Americans for the Arts, CauseWired, Katya Andresen, Net2ThinkTank, Social capital, Tom Watson. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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