Tag Archives: New York Times

What Museums Can Teach Us

I’ve just now stumbled upon the marvelous New York Times article about how art museums around the country are using social media to develop vastly expanded followings.

Gone are the days when Websites were used only to advertise the institutions’ operating hours, admission prices and exhibitions.

As the article stresses, museum outreach boils down to one word: engagement.  Museums are using emerging technology to enlist the public as active participants.

Viewers now have more online opportunities to watch exhibits under construction, such as a 28-foot tepee at the Brooklyn Museum.  Audiences are also provided with more opportunities than ever to offer input about what museums can do to serve them more effectively.

“It’s less about technology and more about what the visitor can bring to the equation,” says Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s highly passionate and motivated chief technology officer.

As writer Carol Vogel observes,

While museums have long strived to be welcoming places as well as havens of learning, social media is turning them into virtual community centers.  On Facebook or Twitter or almost any museum Web site, everyone has a voice, and a vote. Curators and online visitors can communicate, learning from one another.

As visitors bring their hand-held devices to visits, the potential for interactivity only intensifies.

Indeed, as Bernstein and others are learning, social media afford curators and visitors enormous opportunities for visiting with and learning from each other.

One point raised in the article especially resounded with me: The determination among the most successfully engaged museum to leave no social media stone unturned.

The developers of these technologies say there is no such thing as too much information. When the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art took its famed Matisse painting “Woman With a Hat” off the wall and into a conservation studio, an image of the frame being removed was posted on FaceBook.  “Suddenly people could have a peak behind the scenes,” said Ian Padgham, the museum’s digital engagement associate. “It’s all about off-the-cuff transparency.”

That’s an important point that can’t be overemphasized: Social media offer almost limitless opportunities for experimentation and creativity.

Imagine for a moment the excitement we Extension educators could  generate by employing similar creative engagement strategies.  One example that quickly comes to mind: county Extension Facebook sites featuring pictures of Master Gardeners busily engaged in spring garden planting.  Why not augment this with opportunities for local growers to offer planting suggestions or to submit pictures and videos of their own production efforts?

Row-crop agents could post regulator youtube or Flickr updates of ongoing producer efforts to deal with weed resistance or provide producers with  opportunities to share their stories.

4-H-related sites could provide space to guest science bloggers and opportunities for youngsters to submit pictures and videos of projects.

For that matter, planning for a spring diabetes meeting or next summer’s crops tours could be crowdsourced, providing clients with greatly enhanced opportunities for input.

Engagement could take a virtually infinite variety of forms.

Whatever the case, the important point to bear in mind is that we Extension educators have a lot to learn from others, especially those cash-strapped public entities that are using social media in ways to engage larger, more diverse audiences.

From Newspapers to Nichepapers

For some time, I’ve been feeling a vague sense of guilt over the direction our organization’s online blogs have taken.  By strict definition they’re no longer blogs but online news releases and feature stories.

It’s my fault as much as anybody else’s. Roughly five years ago, when I started Extension Daily, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s first weblog, I vowed to pattern my material after one of the grand marshals of blogging, Andrew Sullivan.  A big chunk of my blogs was gleaned from sources that inevitably complemented Extension-related material but that typically quoted experts far removed from Extension- or even land grant university-related work.  

My experiment with true-blue blogging ended up being short-lived. I suppose my concerns about deviating too far from standard Extension practices prompted a return to the older approach of concentrating on longer, feature-type information, replete with quotes from our subject-matter experts.

And I’m beginning to regret it. And thanks to an excellent article on which I stumbled entirely by accident this morning, my regrets are confirmed.  

Harvard Business Publishing blogger Umair Haque openly challenges this approach. His piece, titled The Nichepaper Manifesto, targets conventional newspapers, but what he says aptly applies to what I’m doing – or not doing.

Haque contends that the 20th century news that distinguishes old-line newspapers isn’t fit for the 21st century.

I think he’s right.

It is unfit because it fails to educate, enlighten and inform, Haque contends.

On the other hand, nichepapers are succeeding because “they have built a profound mastery of a tightly defined domain — finance, politics, even entertainment — and offer audiences deep, unwavering knowledge of it.”

They’re succeeding because they are built on rules that comport more closely with 21st century needs. 

Instead of merely reporting news, nichepapers impart knowledge, lasting meaningful knowledge.   

Nichepapers also emphasizes dialogue with readers — what Haque describes as commentage instead of the one-way commentary that distinguished conventional newspapers.  This commentage enables readers to “fill gaps, plug holes, and thicken the foundations of knowledge.”

Haque especially hits close to home with this observation: 

Many newspapers have comments — so what? Almost none are having a dialogue with commenters — who are stuck in a twilight zone where they can only talk to one another.  Nichepapers, in contrast, are always having a deep dialogue with readers.

If the previous observation smarted, the following one qualifies as a belly punch:

Topics, not articles.  That’s why Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories.  When Talking Points Memo exposed the Bush administration’s series of political motivated firings, it did so in a series of posts that let the story develop, surface, thicken and climax. Stories are for information — topics are for knowledge.

Ouch!  Yes, it smarts, but it doesn’t change the fact that Haque is spot on with his observations. 

 If there is a bottom line to be drawn from his comments, it’s that readers no longer seek news; rather, they demand specialized knowledge products.

That makes perfect sense to me.  In fact, after finishing Haque’s piece, the thought occurred to me that I enjoy the New York Times not because the masthead reads “New York Times” but because the online version carries specialized topics that relate to my work, especially its sections on health, books, education and technological trends.

Now, if I can just apply the same logic to my blogs.