Conceptual Digitisation

Subscription museum content? Some implications of the NYT announcement for museums

The New York Times announced last week that it was stopping charging for archival and subscription content on its website. As its self-report explains, the NYT has realised that selling and managing subscription service to archival content now is not going to be as profitable as selling advertising on this content and making access to it easy and free.

This turnaround has come at the hands of Google and the power of search – search which is now driving less ‘serious’ readers to their content who are unwilling to buy a subscription. For the NYT they expect to get better returns on material previously only available through subscriptions via onsite advertising and the ability for readers to engage in conversations around the content. Conversations mean exposure, exposure means advertising. Blogger Jason Kottke (amongst many others) has already been digging through the archives exposing some of the more interesting material.

There has been an explosion of discussion across the web but the Future of the Book pulls together three commentaries to suggest that

Whatever the media business models of tomorrow may be, they will almost certainly not revolve around owning content.

and drawing on Jeff Jarvis’s 2005 proclamations, explains that the future lies in integrating your content into your audience’s conversations.

But in this new age, you don’t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You don’t want to extract value. You want to add value. You don’t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in.

So what might this mean for museums?

Whilst those in collecting institutions often see themselves as the sole holders of particular objects, it is becoming more acceptable to acknowledge that as institutions there is still a lot to learn about these objects and that that knowledge may lie elsewhere in the community. Certainly injecting museum content into, and encouraging audience conversations then is not as controversial as it might have been ten years ago. Exclusivity might work with our physical spaces but not online.

At the same time increasing commercial pressures are asking museums to find new revenue streams – image sales, licensing, syndication, partnerships. Already the V&A and the Met have moved to ‘no-fee’ image licensing for small run academic publishing after discovering that the internal cost of charging for these operations outweighed their commercial returns. From the WIPO’s Guide to Managing Intellectual Property for Museums (pt 6.6) –

Recent developments in business models concerning the production and distribution of content on the Internet, coupled with a continued examination by museums of their missions and mandates has led to an awareness that the making available of museum images is merely a means to a commercial end, and not the end, itself. Indeed, in a recent press release, the Victoria and Albert Museum announced that it would no longer charge fees for academic and scholarly reproduction and distribution for its images, claiming that while it earned approximately 250,000 a year from scholarly licensing programs, the overhead costs associated with licensing fees rendered their profits much less. What is not reported, but suspected, is that the Victoria and Albert Museum determined that it was wise business practice to allow its copyright-protected images to be made available for free, thereby increasing their circulation and delivering significant promotional opportunities back to the museum.

As the WIPO Guide suggests, there is some potential for museums in the online space in the brand and promotional opportunities in the short term, and then flowing from these in the medium-long term, the partnerships and commercial content syndication options that are expected to flow from a greater awareness (and discussion) of content.

What the NYT announcement does, along with the increased commercial activity around digitising state-held records, especially those relating to the profitable family history space, is create significant competition for museum content online.

2 replies on “Subscription museum content? Some implications of the NYT announcement for museums”

I think this change and the general trend of internet business models begs the consideration of advertising on museum websites. The museum community is notoriously shy about using advertising on any of our web resources. While there are many good reasons for this, I also know the real costs of maintaining an online community beyond the scope of a grant that may have funded its creation but will never fund its ongoing long term operations.

There are many pros and cons to non-profit centers engaging in the commercial advertising market but as the lines of who does this sort of work on the web blur we should at least avoid its discussion becoming a matter of taboo.

Although it is pretty easy to use reasonably reliable Geo-IP and referrer tracking methods to ensure that only certain visitors would see advertising, I’m not convinced that advertising is the way to go.

I’d argue that the risk with advertising on museum sites is that it would likely erode public trust in the independence of the content. It may also encourage a shying away from important topics such as climate change etc.

Again at the Future of the Book there is an interesting series of articles about ‘patronage’ – which might see a move towards a model like the Tate Online site has with BT Online (a large telco sponsor).

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