On curators, journalists, museums and digital publishing

jonp150px[This week’s guest post is written by Jon Pratty, Arts Council]

“Can museum content creators move 2 pace of journalists?”

tweeted Effie Kapsalis, reporting from Seb Chan’s presentation at Museums and the Web 2010 in Denver, Colorado.

Since I wasn’t at MW2010, just attending vicariously via Twitter and the Conference.archimuse.com website, it was kind of frustrating to be catching snatches of conversations that really rang bells, based on my own experiences at 24 Hour Museum and Culture24.

Effie’s tweet drew an instant response from me: I don’t think museum content curators can work at the pace of journalists. Word for word, published piece for piece, journalists work at a massively faster rate than most museum content teams.

Now that’s not a statement or a judgement about quality, necessarily. It’s just that fully skilled-up professional journalists come out of a working environment and training that’s all about speed. It’s common for journalists in a regional newsroom to have an hour or less to turn round a story that will require research, phone calls to check facts, interview contacts, source pictures and more.

In the museum, we’re typically dealing with much slower-burning stories and content. Unless the museum website has a busy schedule of events and exhibition news, there’s not much call for a fast churn rate of content on the homepage of the site.

Or is there? It’s web publishing orthodoxy that the more you change your content, the more people visit your site. Whatever website I’ve run, in the last twelve years that I’ve been editing, has demonstrated this notion. So even if you’re not really doing very much in terms of museum or heritage activity, there’s always something you can write about on the site.

There’s the obvious things to write about: event and lecture listings, news about forthcoming exhibitions and longer features about particular things going on in the museum. Beyond that, what about the less obvious things going on? How about news about people in the museum, or long-serving volunteers, or curator’s views or tours by experts of the collection? It’s all fair game.

Back to Effie’s Tweet: the discussion escaped from the #MW2010 hashtag forum on Twitter and some MCG members explored the remarks about museum content curators and journalists. One person wondered if the #MW2010 discussion meant we’d all need to become ‘broadcasters’ and when all this work would occur.

Someone else [Janet Davies] pointed out, in response, that the real job here was for museums and heritage sites to learn to tell their own stories more effectively. And this is kind of where the story on Twitter rested. I agree with Janet, very strongly.

There was lots of comment at #MW2010 about how museums need to get better at publishing. Here the intention, I’d hazard a guess, was to suggest a broad definition of the term broadcasting – not high-end TV but web publishing in a flexible range of formats, probably, mostly simple web content. We need to get better at working in a quicker way, and to aspire to working in ways that begin to compare with the rest of the digital publishing sector.

Getting back to that speed thing. Why do professional journalists work faster than museum content people? Well, generally, a trained journalist knows how to get pictures for free, is able to make assumptions about copyright law and can shape the story on the hoof. If you can’t get picture a) from source a), you go for picture b) from source b), even if it means the story may change slightly. You shape the story to suit the resources, because you’re up against a deadline.

In digital journalism, there’s no paper trail or a rights register to follow a piece of content. The story is written, it’s published, and if it’s republished or fed out via RSS any third party copyright material attending the story is often stripped out automatically by the publisher’s CMS. No danger there, and the system takes care of third party rights.

There’s also less waiting around for sign-off. When a story is filed for publication by a journalist, it’ll go to a sub-editor who checks it and uploads it quickly. It will be subbed again before publication but that’s all there is to the chain of publication. In many museums and galleries there’s a complicated set of sign-offs which content has to negotiate. We know those sign-offs are there for a reason; but I’d suggest it may be possible to circumvent some levels of decision-making.

Looking in the back pages of the Museums Journal recently at the variety of jobs on offer [a smallish number of jobs, of course!] I didn’t see any for web content creation people. One or two were for web project managers, who were expected to double up as writers, or to liase with curatorial staff who would do the writing. A few months back I did see a web content creator post advertised – but the required skills nothing to do with journalism or interactive publishing.

I think it’s high time more museums realised that to become more web content literate as producers, we need to look outside of the traditional museum sector skill set and see who else has the skills we want. Culture24’s success at Museums and the Web 2010 [the site won a Best of the Web award, it’s second] is at least partly founded on the excellence of the journalistic approach of the site. So let’s see more journalists working in our museums!

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The MCG is for technologists, curators, educators, marketers and more in and around museums. Posts and event news by Mia (Chair), Jess, and the Comms team

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