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Column: Farewell to the immense, disappointing Newseum

Newseum
Both too big and too small: The Newseum facade on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, featuring a six-story 1st Amendment.
(Sam Kittner / Newseum)

We are taught from an early age not to speak ill of the dead (unless we write obituaries), so I suppose I should hold my tongue about the demise, probably permanently, of the Newseum.

But it’s too difficult to avoid remarking on how valuable a resource the institution could have been to journalists and historians, and how the overbuilt edifice on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House, fell short of its potential.

The Newseum evidently couldn’t make a go of it even with an adult ticket price of $24.99 — this in a town where some of the finest museums in the world are free — so it will shut its doors on Dec. 31 and return much of its collection of borrowed news business artifacts and geegaws to their owners.

A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people.
The Newseum
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Washington and New York journalists have expressed a curious reverence for the Newseum — “a special place to so many,” CNN media commentator Brian Stelter tweeted Thursday. When Stelter listed some of the artifacts he treasured — Ernie Pyle’s World War II entrenching tool, a section of an undersea cable from the 1860s, microphones FDR used for his Fireside Chats — the Newseum’s essential problem lurched into view: It had no truly consistent idea what it was supposed to be about.

Or did it? Some years ago at a Washington social event I met one of the Newseum’s original board members. He went on at length about its $450-million building, paying particular tribute to its first-class event spaces.

The Newseum, evidently, has been a fine venue for a wedding or bar mitzvah, though you weren’t permitted to hire your own caterer — you had to hire Wolfgang Puck, who controlled the catering contract as well as the restaurant associated with the museum, known as The Source by Wolfgang Puck.

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The Newseum was a personal project of late Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth, who also founded USA Today as his company’s national flagship. Neuharth was responsible for the Newseum’s grandiose self-image, chose its site at Pennsylvania and 6th in Washington and oversaw its architectural conception, in which the words of the 1st Amendment are etched on a six-story veneer of pink marble facing Pennsylvania Ave.

Neuharth evidently also chose the name, which Ken Paulson, a former editor of USA Today, called “a bit whimsical” in his valedictory to the place earlier this month. (It always struck me as an orthographical nightmare, since I always read it at first glance as “Nauseum.”)

Possibly my view of the Newseum is skewed by my conception of what American journalism really needs in a public educational institution: A curated archive of historical newspapers, so many of which have gone out of business over the last century and a half. Newspapers traditionally maintained their own archives, known as morgues.

At any newspaper worth its salt, articles and photos were clipped and placed in cross-referenced envelopes, along with archival copies of every edition. As reporters we were drilled never to start writing a story without “checking the clips” to see what had been written about our subject before.

But what has happened to these treasures with the passage of time, especially as their owners have gone bust? Some papers donated their morgues to their local libraries — that of the Buffalo Courier-Express, my first daily newspaper employer, now resides at the Buffalo State University library, bless its soul. Some sold them off to commercial firms, which will make them available via a searchable database or provide you with a facsimile of the front page from the day you were born, for a fee.

Some historical archives can be found at the Chronicling America online collection of the Library of Congress at no charge. Writers of financial history know that archives of the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, a weekly founded in 1865 more than two decades before the Wall Street Journal, have been placed online by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

But others have been strewn to the winds — saved, if at all, thanks to heroic individual efforts. They include the creation of the American Newspaper Repository in 1999 by the author Nicholson Baker, who rescued the remains of the British Library’s excellent collection of American newspapers from dispersion or pulping by buying the collection at auction and installing it in what he described in the New Yorker as “six thousand square feet of space in a nineteenth century brick mill building in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, with room to shelve all the papers and to hold a small reading room.”

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The space, he wrote, cost about $26,000 a year to rent, “about the salary of one microfilm technician” (Baker was critical of preserving newspapers on microfilm rather than carefully tended paper). He considered the sum “cheap to preserve more than a century’s worth of inherent vice, and virtue.” He transferred the collection to Duke University starting in 2003.

Michael Bloomberg’s news organization won’t investigate his candidacy, nor the campaigns of his rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Baker’s effort prompts one to ponder whether the donations of leading news corporations to the Newseum could have been spent on creating such a resource in Washington rather than on plastering their names on exhibition rooms throughout the edifice, where one finds the Bancroft Family Ethics Center (the Bancrofts sold their family asset, the Wall Street Journal, to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007), the News Corporation News History Gallery, the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery, etc., etc.

Imagine if the museum spent money searching libraries in the U.S. and beyond for newspaper archives, curating them, filling in gaps, preserving them either in their original form or a lasting digital format. Imagine if it brought these treasures together and, perhaps in collaboration with the Library of Congress a few blocks away, placed the results at the disposal of historians and other researchers in one central location or online, rather than forcing people to travel to Duke, to Buffalo or St. Paul, or wherever, or to do without.

That would be an institution worth keeping, even if the necessary storage and reading space cut into the square-footage needed for weddings.

It is perhaps churlish to hold the Newseum to a standard it may not have set down for itself, or to blame it for not assuming a task that may be logistically impossible or beyond the financial capability of any such institution. Digital conversion of historical materials is expensive and time-consuming, after all, and the Newseum, after all, identifies itself as a museum, not a library.

So what if we consider the Newseum on its own terms?

What are those terms? Its collection and exhibits don’t provide many clues. Yes, much of the museum is devoted to newsgathering and the underlying principles of American journalism. Among its more popular exhibits is a daily display of newspaper front pages from around the world. There also are exhibits of pages associated with notable historical events such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Nixon’s resignation, as well edifying blunders such as the Chicago Tribune’s front-page “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of 1948.

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In 2012, Tristan Harris made a presentation to his bosses at Google arguing that “we had a moral responsibility to create an attention economy that doesn’t weaken people’s relationships or distract people to death.”

But could someone tell me what the exhibit “First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets” has to do with journalism? Among the Newseum’s most prominent artifacts are a piece of the Berlin Wall (“the largest display of unaltered portions of the wall outside of Germany,” the museum boasts) and the antenna mast that stood atop the World Trade Center’s north tower until 9/11. These are items of historical interest, certainly, but what’s the rationale for placing them inside a news museum, other than that they represent events that were, well, covered in the news?

That’s not to say that the Newseum hasn’t paid homage to aspects of newsgathering history that need to be remembered or celebrated. One memorial properly noted by Stelter is a tribute to more than 2,300 individuals who died reporting the news. Also on hand are the bombed-out remains of the car of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, whose murder while investigating organized crime inspired a nationwide cooperative newspaper investigation of his death. Galleries of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoons and photographs are worthy of visitors’ close attention.

Yet much of the rest seems random or irrelevant, producing an overall impression of banality. The busted eyeglasses of a reporter physically attacked by a congressional candidate in Montana. A whiteboard used on the air by NBC political reporter Tim Russert during election night, 2000. Photographs from rallies at which Donald Trump attacked the press as “enemies of the people.”

By the way, if the Newseum’s goals include posing journalistic principles and history in opposition to the slanders of Donald Trump, why did no one tell the gift shop, which was caught selling T-shirts bearing the legend “You are very fake news” and red baseball caps bearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in 2018?

The T-shirts, though not the hats, came off the shelves a day after Poynter.org blew the whistle. The Newseum issued an apologetic press release reiterating that “a free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people.”

The episode was a reminder that notwithstanding its stated mission “to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment,” the Newseum was a commercial enterprise whose visitors were ushered past multimedia displays and interactive games and directed to exit past the gift shop, an opportunity for commerce not to be overlooked.

The regrets expressed at the Newseum’s shutdown by its fans and admirers are surely sincere. There’s no gainsaying that it wasn’t a perfectly adequate way to kill a couple of hours in Washington, or that for not a few visitors it was an eye-opening experience.

The Newseum did play an estimable role in reminding millions of visitors that the history of journalism bristles with both glories and bungles, that information can be liberating and disinformation can be repressive, and that freedom of the press is always under threat, possibly no more than right now.

But there apparently weren’t enough visitors, or fans and admirers, to keep it afloat. One can’t avoid the conclusion that the Newseum’s failure was the product of poor decisions and misconception from the first. It was at once too big and too small.

Its demise is lamentable not because of what it was but what it could have been. Now the chance to create a truly valuable resource for American journalism may be lost forever.


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