Insights for the arts from other sectors


Medicine: The rule of seven touches

Atul Gawande, The New Yorker, 7/29/13

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we've become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, "turnkey" solutions to the major difficulties of the world -- hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability. But technology and incentive programs are not enough. "Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation," wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process. This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors -- who are notoriously stubborn -- to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply "the rule of seven touches." Personally "touch" the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That's why he stocked doctors' closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, "So how did your daughter Debbie's soccer game go?" Eventually, this can become "Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?" As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.


Science: We're actually interested in the exact same things

Chris Sharratt, The Guardian, 7/26/13

[Having been involved in 9 projects for Found, the art and music collective, scientist Simon Kirby says] science and the arts increasingly rub shoulders, [there are] benefits of a closer, meaningful relationship between the two worlds. "What would be exciting is a better understanding between practitioners in both areas about what it is people do - that's something that's not well understood," he says. "The less satisfying art/science crossover is when a scientist says, 'well, I've done this work and I'd like an artist to interpret it'. Or when an artist uses a scientist to implement some technical aspect of their work. It seems to me that where it's really exciting is that moment of realisation when you go, 'hang on a minute, we're actually interested in the exact same things - they're just different ways of engaging with questions that matter to us." There are clear barriers to this closer relationship, and Kirby admits that he has been surprised by the "amazing differences" between the worlds. From funding levels ("I write grant applications for research and it's like taking an arts grant and adding a couple of zeros") and the culture of peer review ("It's all about surviving the gauntlet of people trying to tear your ideas apart -- that doesn't happen with an arts audience"), to scrutinising outcomes ("In science, they really care about the outcome of their funding - I don't get the same impression in the arts"), institutionally, science and the arts are still very far apart. Not that Kirby sees these observations as any reason to retreat from his own involvement with the arts -- although he confesses there is usually a point within any Found commission when the cry of "never again" can be heard. "It's fun when you're thinking about it and fun when you're experimenting, but it's incredibly stressful when you're trying to deliver something that works, on time."


Newspapers: Investing more in content and audiences

Mary Ann Milbourn, Orange County Register, 7/25/13 [hat tip to Heide Janssen]

When two East Coast investors with no newspaper experience decided to buy the Orange County Register a year ago, print journalism remained in decline nationwide, and the industry's desperate solution consisted of layoffs, an emphasis on the Web over newsprint, and deep cuts to print editions. Newspapers seemed to be trying to save themselves by killing themselves. Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz had a different idea: Do exactly the opposite. For the past year, Kushner and Spitz have doubled the newsroom staff, dramatically expanded the daily paper and elevated the print edition over the Web. Industry watchers call this a radical experiment, but Kushner and Spitz see it as playing to strengths the rest of the business has too often forgotten: The drawing power of quality local journalism, of striving to cover a community top to bottom and of making sure subscribers know they are valued. That must be a newspaper's contract with its community, they say. It requires investment, not cutting, but if a paper keeps that promise, Kushner and Spitz say, subscribers and advertisers will come. Kushner and Spitz discussed the whirlwind of change that has been their first year, about new things coming up and plans for further expansion. [Here's an excerpt:]

Q. Why do you think your plan will work?

Kushner: We believe that newspapers are really important and if we could give subscribers and the community more value that, over time, they would give us more value. If you are spending less, you are going to get less, but if we invest in quality, subscribers and advertisers will spend more money. That is our bet. If it was a certainty, everyone would be doing it.

Q. Has your idea worked?

Spitz: We are growing when everyone else in the industry is declining. That's significant.

Q. You told staff earlier this month the company fell short of meeting your expectations in the second quarter. Are you making a profit?

Kushner: We expect we will be profitable this year, just like last year.

Spitz: We are not particularly interested in divulging the inner workings of the financials of this business. But what I will tell you is that we certainly have invested a lot of money in a short period of time in the foundation. In the early stages, the impact of that investment is more dramatic than in later stages because as you continue to grow, we don't need to continue to add to the foundation. The foundation is there at this point. We're happy with it. I guess the short answer about profitability is we are not as profitable today as we will be when we grow.

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