Would You Pay For News In Return For Tax Credits?

There was a story last month on Nieman Lab looking at how successful a tax credit for digital news subscriptions has been in Canada.  The intent was to help news organizations stay in business and according to the article, there is a similar bill being considered in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the number of people taking advantage of the program, which allows you to write off 15% of your subscription, has been pretty small. Only about 1% of Canadian taxpayers claimed a credit and some news organizations didn’t apply to be part of the program.

Some news orgs that may have qualified have declined to apply. A number of those that were deemed qualified Canadian journalism organizations have pitched the tax credit to existing subscribers, and used it as a perk to entice new ones.

At The Logic, … information on the tax credit was sent to all existing subscribers and advertised to potential subscribers, …

The end result was “negligible,” Skok said.

Rather than prompting new subscribers to sign up, Skok said, “the people who would have subscribed anyway are using the credit.” Skok suggests that subscribers weren’t swayed because they wouldn’t see the benefit until tax time and because the 15% credit was too low to change many minds on paying for news.

That doesn’t bode well for the corresponding bill proposed in the US which covers 80% of the subscription cost, but requires a multi-year commitment.

…cost of a local newspaper subscription or donation to a local news nonprofit in the first year, and 50% in the subsequent four years. So in order to earn the full $250 credit, you’d have to spend at least $312.50 on subscriptions or nonprofit news donations in the first year, or $500 in the following four years.

That’s a lot more than what most Americans pay for local news currently. Just 20% of people living in the United States say they pay for online news of any kind,…

However, the news outlet doesn’t need to be digital print media. It could be a local television or radio station as well so presumably NPR and PBS stations could benefit by seeing larger donations over multiple years.

Unfortunately, since this is a tax credit, people in lower income brackets who don’t pay taxes wouldn’t benefit if they made an attempt to support local news outlets.

What caught my eye in the article about the US bill is that it incentivizes small businesses to increase their advertising. My first thought was that this would benefit arts organizations until making the obvious realization that most arts organizations don’t pay taxes. On the other hand, it might allow arts organizations to promote activities which generate taxable unrelated business income and bolster an additional income stream.

A tax credit of up to $5,000 for small businesses that buy ads in their local publications. Small businesses could use this tax credit to advertise with local news sites, newspapers, television, or radio. As with the tax credit for individuals, local businesses would foot 20% of the costs the first year and 50% in the following years. So a local business could quintuple their current advertising in Year 1 and double it in Years 2 through 5 at zero net cost. Under the Senate bill, to qualify as “small,” businesses must have no more than 50 employees.

From what I can tell, the House version of the bill went to Ways and Means committee last June. Unless it got wrapped up in another bill it may be languishing there.

As great as this bill, which has bipartian support, may sound in terms of reviving local journalism, the article notes that most local news outlets have been bought up and drained of assets by hedge funds. So a lot of the money would end up being channeled to large corporations despite the limits on employees in the bill’s definition of local news entity.

On the other hand, the opportunity to garner greater support may see the emergence of new news outlets on the local level.

Art Reflects Life. So Should Your Mission Statement

Scott Walters made a Twitter post yesterday that suggested organizations start their existence with a Quality of Life Statement rather than Mission Statement or Values Statement.  Intrigued about where he was going with this, I popped over to his blog post on the subject.  He starts with a brief criticism that non-profit mission statements are usually so broad they are meaningless and pretty much interchangeable with those of other organizations.

He moves quickly into discussing the concept of quality of life statements (QoLS) proposed by Shannon Hayes. Hayes focus is mostly on use of QoLS by individuals and families to determine how they want to conduct their lives and relationships.  Walters does a good job of showing how answering the questions Hayes suggests for developing these statements can be applied to arts organizations.

For example:

2. List the people that you want to populate your daily life.

…I sincerely believe that, if this question had been discussed long ago, the 6-day/8-performance week of most professional theaters would never have happened. The current theater world is notoriously hostile to families and extremely difficult on relationships. It can be very difficult to just have a life outside the theater. How might your theater support growth and happiness of members’s whole lives, not just their artistic lives?

3. “Describe the home and land surrounding you as you want it to be

…For instance, are kids welcome to hang out at rehearsal, even if they are not quiet like a mouse? Is there a theater cat? When a spectator opens the door, how are they greeted? What about after the show–is there a place for the spectators to gather to have a refreshment and talk about the show? Do the performers join them? If an audience members encounters a company member at the grocery store, how do you want them to talk to each other? How is that embodied by the way you lay out your space?

There are five points in total that Walters cites and comments on similarly. Now as we move into a next normal environment and recognize the need to do better in serving our community and meeting diversity, equity and inclusion, even established arts organizations would do well to use these questions as guides to their introspection.

While QoLS are focused on a family/organization’s internal members, Walters implication that the resulting conversations should inform external facing statements of mission and values that reflect the specific existence of the arts organization is valid.  Even if you don’t go through the practice of answering questions to develop a quality of life statement, a mission statement should grow from the reality of who you are rather than from a boilerplate form.

Monopolies, Not Lack of Curiosity May Have Killed American Theater

Scott Walters is a blogger I started following 15+ years ago. His work has gone through various focuses and iterations, but is always very interesting and insightful. He recently returned to the blogosphere with posts on Theatre Inspiration. He started out with a series on the wrong turns theater has made in the United States. Just as you will often see articles about how classical music concerts weren’t always the staid, rule-bound affairs they are today, Walters points out we didn’t always do things  in theatre the way we do now.

Walters says the first wrong turn theatre made was the birth of The Syndicate. While it no longer exists its influence is deeply entrenched in current practices.  One of the first blow your mind facts he lays on readers is that there used to be TONS of performances spaces around the country from which artists made a relatively good living.  In 1900 Iowa alone had 1300 opera houses. I looked it up, the population of Iowa was 2.2 million in 1900 and about 3.1 million today. I think it is safe to say there are far fewer venues now than there were then despite the increase in population. This somewhat belies the notion that a lack of interest and investment in the arts is the result of the United States’ founding by stoic Puritans.

Walters writes:

The same was true across the country. Often, one of the first things that was built in towns as they were founded were “opera houses” (i.e., rooms for performances to take place). They weren’t necessarily elaborate, but they were important to townspeople. Music, theatre, dance were all important to communities, no matter how small, and performers were able to support themselves providing that work.

Basically actor-managers would travel the country with their troupes arranging for gigs for themselves. This changed in 1896 when a group of six men who owned a string of theaters across the country got together and formed The Syndicate, in part to cut down on competition with each other and increase efficiency so that a tour didn’t show up to the same town ready to present the same show. However, as they gained power and influence they were quickly able to squash competition and require artists that wanted to perform to contract with them for whatever price they decided to pay.

If you are thinking, with thousands of performance spaces scattered throughout every state how could they have possibly ended up controlling them all? The very decentralized nature of venue ownership should work against them, right? Well that was the same thought about the internet, wasn’t it and look how that turned out.

But the reality is, they didn’t need to control it all. Walters quotes Landis K. Magnuson:

Although the Syndicate controlled the bulk of first-class theaters in the major metropolitan centers, the fact that it controlled the theaters in communities located between such theater centers provided its true source of power. Without access to these smaller towns, non-Syndicate companies simply could not afford the long jumps from one chief city to another. Thus the Syndicate actually needed to own or manage only a small percentage of this nation’s theaters in order to effectively dominate the business of touring theatrical productions–to monopolize “the road.”

The Syndicate used their power to drive artist managed groups and rival venues out of business. Many tried to resist. Sarah Bernhardt would only perform in tents in an attempt to avoid Syndicate controlled theaters. The Syndicate would tend to book lighter, entertaining fare instead of serious drama. Walters quotes writer Norman Hapgood who observed this suppressed the work of many talented playwrights and actors.

Since The Syndicate was based out of New York City, that was where the tours originated and therefore where all the shows were cast. The impact of this persists today and people have long wondered why it is necessary for actors who live in NC need to move to NYC so that they can return to NC to perform.

Walters writes:

If all this sounds familiar, it’s not surprising–little has changed since 1900. Theatre is still controlled by risk-averse commercial producers and theatre owners who are interested only in using theatre to make a tremendous profit through the production of shallow, pleasant plays. And theatre artists still feel pressured to live in New York in order to have a hope of making a living, because regional theatres across America do most if not all of their casting there. Artists are thought of and think of themselves as employees who must ask permission (i.e., audition) in order to do their art, and are told who they will work with, when they will work, and where they will work.

Walters’ work is deeply interesting in a time when the performing arts industry is considering what changes will be necessary to adapt to changing expectations and operational environment. Take the time to read it and reflect on some of the forces and events that have gotten us where we are today.

What’s Been Learned So Far About Offering Virtual Theatre

American Theatre released results of a survey about virtual theatre offerings during Covid this week. Respondents represent 64 organizations from 25 states.

As you might already imagine, the bad news is that virtual programming was not financially viable for nearly all organizations.

Many experienced a promising initial swell of audience interest in the early months of 2020, but also a disappointing and steady subsequent decline in interest over the past year or so. Companies that sold tickets at pre-pandemic prices almost uniformly experienced a significant dip both in number of tickets sold and box-office revenue compared to the outcomes of similar in-person plays produced during previous seasons; some companies experienced only moderate drops, while for others, the change was drastic.

[…]

Theatres that conducted their own surveys to gauge audience feedback on virtual offerings found that while the quality of the work was typically quite appreciated, audiences consistently expressed a strong preference for live, in-person theatre and saw the virtual version as a better-than-nothing alternative to no theatre at all.

Some theatres found their production costs were less than live performances, mostly due to having smaller casts, production and support crews. Others found it was actually more expensive to create virtual content.

There were some upsides reported, including expanded and increased access:

Many noted that virtual offerings served as an important way to engage their core audience base and maintain donor interest during a time when this would not be possible without the internet, producing ripple effects that cannot always easily be quantified: Most theatre companies reported increased donor support in the early months of the pandemic, and it’s possible though hard to measure whether a sustained virtual presence may have bolstered donor interest. Other companies who may not have seen an overall increase in ticket sales nonetheless reported a promising increase in viewership from younger virtual audiences.

…more than a third of respondents praised virtual theatre for increasing accessibility for those not able to attend in person, whether due to disability, health issues, transportation barriers, or living in rural areas far from the nearest theatre company. As Liz Lisle (she/her), managing director of Shotgun Players in San Francisco, put it, “For us, it is not an economic question—it is an accessibility and engagement question.” Measuring by revenue is “the wrong frame. Virtual theatre brings greater engagement.”

There is a great deal more detailed observation discussed in the article that can offer insight to organizations of multiple disciplines. One thing that seemed to be clear to most respondents is that providing virtual content isn’t simply a matter of putting cameras and sound equipment near a performance executed in a generally conventional way. The quality often compares unfavorably with professional video & film production.

Many respondents seemed to feel the best course was to provide content which supplemented or complemented a live performance. The value added element seemed more suited to achieving goals and fulfilling expectations.

Though that approach leaves people who have difficultly accessing physical spaces without the option of experience the full production. There is certainly an opportunity for those with the resources and expertise to meet an unmet need of providing virtual performances to this segment of the population nationally and perhaps internationally. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already pursuing further experimentation with the virtual theatre form.

The American Theatre piece bears the title “The Jury Is In on Virtual Theatre,” but I think it is a little too early in the process of exploring virtual theatre offerings to make that claim.