The Newseum, Washington, DC

Newseum, Washington, DC

(Photo credit: The Newseum, courtesy Christa Burns, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Newseum is American journalism’s self-congratulatory homage to itself. It’s a huge new building that celebrates the First Amendment and its role in creating a vibrant news media in the United States. And it was completed at a time when that news media’s future seemed to be more in doubt than it had been for more than a century and a half.

The Newseum opened its doors in 2008, having moved into DC from its old home in Arlington, VA. At the time Stephen Colbert, on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, mocked it as the place where news was going to die. “The construction of this museum fittingly marks the end of the news. We do not need it any more,” said Colbert on his show’s “The Word” segment. He was being ironic, of course, but even so, in an era when famous U.S. news organizations were under pressure and newspapers were going to the wall, the sentiment seemed to cut a little close to the bone.

More than five years later, the idea of commercially viable news is still under threat (though perhaps recent moves such as Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of the Washington Post and Pierre Omidyar’s creation of an investigative news startup offer at least the hope of some light at the end of the tunnel). The Newseum, however, seems to be doing reasonably well for itself, becoming a popular attraction for tourists to Washington, DC.

Newseum is a clever portmanteau word, combining “news” and “museum.” Its use also avoids the issue of having to put the actual word “museum” into in the site’s official title. I might be overthinking this, but perhaps not. Although the name precedes the new building, Colbert’s jibe hints at an uncomfortable truth about what it means to try and memorialize the news and the people who made that news.

The Newseum gets its funding from a nonpartisan journalism foundation called the Freedom Forum, which says it is dedicated to “free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.” That sentiment, which encapsulates the First Amendment, means, among other things, that federal government funding is not really an option. That’s why you get charged $22 (in 2013) just to go in—which might come as a shock to tourists used to gaining free admission to the city’s famous Smithsonian museums and galleries. But in spite of this hefty admission fee, visitation was solid, at least initially. More than 700,000 paid visitors went through the museum’s doors in its first year of operation, compared to 480,000 in its last year in Arlington. (I couldn’t find more recent visitation figures.)

The architecture of the building is disappointing. Frankly, it looks a bit dated, as if it had been constructed in the late ’80s or early ’90s. It’s just as well the actual content of the place is so cool. It’s a big museum—250,000 square feet on 7 levels—located on prime Pennsylvania Avenue real estate. The building sits right next to the Canadian embassy but it’s a bit higher, so your view from the top-level balcony east to Capitol Hill—stunning in itself—will always include a flurry of maple leaf flags in the foreground. There are a lot of Canadian flags on that building.

I’ve visited the Newseum three times, and each time the vast array of exhibits and interactive features have exhausted me and, frankly, kicked my butt. The best stuff is at the top, and that’s where you want to start. So when you first enter the building on the ground floor, take one of the glass elevators up to the top level and work your way down—unless you want a bite to eat first, in which case you’ll need to head down to the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the basement. The other reason to stop at ground level is to check out the massive sections of the Berlin Wall on display there. That is pretty cool. But otherwise, get up to the top. I love the aforementioned outdoor balcony up there, with its time line of the city’s history; the emphasis is on sites that are visible from your vantage point, so there’s lots of information on and photographs of all the parades over the years that have passed by on Pennsylvania Ave below—everything from suffragists to the Ku Klux Klan.

The next level down has a huge set of central display cases showing original copies of newspapers going back almost five centuries. This area is surrounded by multiple mini-theatres showing all sorts of short films covering key events and developments in the history of news. You could spend all day just watching these—seriously: the Newseum states on its web site that there are 27 hours of video to see. Interactive displays are also dotted around the museum, and include a newsroom where you can play at being a newsreader. But the thing that stuck with me most was the 9/11 Gallery, which includes a massive section of the mangled radio antenna from one of the twin towers and a wall of newspaper front pages from the day after the attacks. It still leaves a lump in the throat and gets the heart racing more than a decade later. The other big artifact that really stopped me in my tracks was a door. The museum has the actual fire door that was taped open by the Watergate burglars during their bungled raid on the Democratic Party headquarters on June 17, 1972. Nice.

The last time I was at the Newseum was in the fall of 2013 to attend a couple of panel discussions in one of the center’s TV studios. These are generally free and open to the public. The ones I went to came under the heading “Security, Freedom and Privacy in the Information Age,” and included participants such as Jeff Leen of the Washington Post, Charlie Savage of the New York Times and Judy Woodruff of PBS’s “NewsHour.” These were pretty engaging, and after it was over I was able to just wander into the Newseum’s exhibition space. I was waiting for someone to stop me but nobody did. During that trip I also got to see a great exhibit on the top floor, commemorating news coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral 50 years later. Again, the original video—some of which I’d never seen before—really got to me.

The Newseum does do a good job integrating historic artifacts, historic news copy, historic video, and modern interactive technology. But, whether inadvertently or not, it also drives home to the visitor just how ephemeral the news really is. When I watched video of Peter Jennings covering the fall of the Berlin Wall for ABC from 1989 I couldn’t get over how dated it looked, all of it—not only in terms of the dress, hairstyles, and so on, but also the look and feel of the news broadcasts themselves. Where were all the bells and whistles of modern so-called “TV journalism”? Where were the whooshy graphics and MTV editing and tickers and TV studio “decks” with multiple personalities milling around? Why were the on-screen character generators so basic? And why were the soundbites lasting longer than three seconds? Was I watching news coverage where technology and industry conventions weren’t getting in the way of deeper understanding? I wonder. TV news has changed so much in the past quarter century.

As I watched a large group of frankly annoying middle-schoolers swarm and shuffle awkwardly around the exhibits, making a lot of noise and not much sense, I wondered: What will teens today make of these historic images? Can the Newseum reach out and connect with them? For the sake of the future of news, I hope so.

Sources:

Jacqueline Trescott (2009. Newseum Celebrates 1st Year in DC. Washington Post, April 10. Available at http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2009-04-10/news/36803853_1_admission-newseum-museum

Newseum by the numbers. Newseum. Available at http://newseum.org/about/overview/newseum-by-the-numbers/

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