As The Newseum Closes, Its Message Of Press Freedom Is More Urgent
Today was the last day for Newseum, the glassy, modernist museum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the history and importance of the news media and the First Amendment.
There are no shortage of theories as to why the museum couldn’t make a go of it. The nonprofit Freedom Forum, its creator and principal funder, determined that its operating costs were unsustainable.
Perhaps the scale of the building was too ambitious, as the Freedom Forum spent $600 million on the project since it opened in 2008.
Perhaps it’s that the museum opened in 2008, on the cusp of the Great Recession, and never really recovered from the loss of benefactors in the upheaval of the news media industry.
Or perhaps it was the ticket price. At almost $25 per adult, the Newseum had to compete with free, as in the zero admission cost of so many other D.C. attractions. As a metaphor for the state of the newspaper business, it’s just a bit too obvious.
“You dream big, and what we found was this building is simply too expensive to operate and to keep it as world class place,” said Gene Policinski, the president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute, in an interview on Tuesday.
Although the Newseum drew almost 10 million guests during its run, there were not only expensive operating costs but the demands for a state-of-the-art museum of the future.
“So we probably would have needed to change this building a great deal to take it into the era of augmented and virtual reality, the kind of experiences that people expect now, which run the gamut of museums to amusement parks,” Policinski added. “We would love to emphasize more storytelling than we’ve been able to do in this building, so I think we also were looking at a major investment in the building as well.”
What the Newseum did right was operate as a focal point for D.C., the local of countless panels, speeches, splashy events, and even film premieres like The Post. One of its bigger events was the night before Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008, as The Huffington Post hosted a shindig that drew politicians, celebrities, journalists and just about anyone connected to the incoming administration.
As an attraction, tourists could see a large chunk of the Berlin Wall and guard tower, or a chunk of the antenna from one of World Trade Center towers, or more recently, Jon Stewart’s desk from The Daily Show. One of the highlights is the Datsun of Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic reporter whose 1976 death in a car bombing triggered an investigation by journalists across the country.
On the lighter side were the restroom walls, which included unfortunately written headlines. Example: “Woman Found Dead in Trunk Kept to Herself, Neighbors Say.”
On Tuesday, the final day, visitors still waited in line for an exhibit where they could pretend to be a reporter. Others crowded around a display dedicated to fallen journalists, those killed while doing their jobs. At one point, it took some navigating to get through the throng that wanted to peruse through a gallery of front pages of historic newspapers, starting in the 1400s.
By chance, I was at the Newseum on opening day, April 11, 2008, and everything seemed to point to the space as being a thriving destination, with an ample number of benefactors to make it work, a Wolfgang Puck eatery and catering, and magnificent views of the Capitol. Then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg toured through the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery, which featured, among other things, Edward R. Murrow’s World War II uniform and a desk from his See It Now days.
That said, the grandiose nature of the Newseum struck some as a bit too self-important, the kind that nags at many in the business in inevitable moments of self-reflection. There is also the media “curse of the new headquarters,” or the trouble that seems to have inflicted companies like Time Warner and Hearst that have moved into gleaming new office space.
What the Newseum did really well, though, was explain the importance of the news media, and the First Amendment itself, to the general public, especially through its interactive displays and theaters. Some exhibits may have been only scratching the surface of the issues involved, but it at least framed journalism and journalists as essential to democracy. It’s more urgent now than it was back then, as the image of the inked stained wretch has been demonized into that of fake news.
A few weeks ago, at a farewell event for the Newseum, Policinski reminded those mourning its demise that the loss is of a structure, not of its message.
“I think people have tried to define us as a building with a great mission,” Policinski said. “And I said, ‘Actually, we’re a magnificent mission, we just happened to operate from for a great amount of time from a great building. The mission is the focus.’”
As the museum artifacts go into storage or to other venues, the Freedom Forum Institute insists that its work will continue from new administrative offices up the street, with plans to continue its public and online programming of conferences, seminars and education. The organization is looking for a new (and less costly) locale for a new Newseum, but no site has been selected.
As a stream of visitors looked over one of the daily displays of newspaper front pages from around the world, Policinski said that the experience is “bittersweet.”
“The museum and the building was a great place to work out of, but it was always looking outward rather than inward, so that work goes on, not unaffected, but probably with greater financial support just because the foundation can afford that,” he said.
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