I visited it a few times — lots of journalists have visited it a few times — but I never felt the urge to go more than that. It was just comforting to know that it existed, and that whenever I felt down after a bad week at work, or wanted a cool place to take my in-laws, or needed to remind myself why I got into the business in the first place, I could spend a few hours there — among the reproduced front pages and reel-to-reel videotape — and emerge refreshed, proud of myself and my colleagues, and feeling slightly superior to people who had chosen boring career paths.
I figured I’d be taking my grandkids to the Newseum someday because, of course, it would always be there.
And now it won’t.Founded by Al Neuharth, the creator of USA Today, the length of the Newseum’s existence coincides with the disruption of legacy journalism in America. It first opened in 1997 in Northern Virginia, then struck a deal to move to bigger quarters on the national Mall in 2000. Newseum executives paid $100 million for the space — at the time the largest commercial real estate transaction in the District’s history — during the height of the dot-com boom, when newspapers were flush with cash and Craigslist was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. It had the bad luck to open in the spring of 2008, just as the Great Recession pounded the wallets of potential visitors who decided that the admission fee — today almost $25 — was an unaffordable luxury, and as the traditional news organizations began their precipitous decline. As newspapers across the nation laid off staff, published less often or closed altogether, the Newseum spent lavishly on salaries and forged ahead with questionable budget decisions.
Reality hit early this year, as bot-produced fake news stories spread disinformation and were identified as a threat to democracy. The Newseum announced it was selling its building to Johns Hopkins University and would try to reopen somewhere else. Its trove of artifacts would go into storage or back to the people who loaned them. Not even the stone etching of the First Amendment on the building’s exterior would survive.
The Newseum always had its critics. They said it was unfocused. That it was too big. That it was too … too. And some of that is true.
Like all first drafts, what the Newseum desperately needed was a good edit. Parts of exhibits repeated themselves on multiple floors, diminishing their power and leaving onlookers curiously unsatisfied. Other exhibits had the slenderest of connections to news. One on presidential dogs, for instance, included this line as a justification for its presence: “Journalists helped turn some presidential pups into national celebrities.” Some sections were downright puzzling: One on “Athletes and the First Amendment” featured photos of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black Power salute during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics; a quote from Muhammad Ali explaining his opposition to serving in the Vietnam War; and a photo of the U.S. women’s soccer team celebrating its World Cup victory in July. (This evidently made sense to one mom and her daughter: “Dare to shine, my Boo,” the mom said as she took a photo of her tween in front of the soccer team photo. “Dare to shine.”)
Also, the Newseum’s focus was almost exclusively on major news organizations, with almost no space devoted to the small-town dailies that continue to survive — and in some cases, thrive — amid the slash-and-burn tactics of the hedge funds taking over regional newspapers and the dizzying consolidation of TV news outlets. The Newseum’s efforts to remain up-to-date sometimes came off as frantic, like hearing a news clip of President Donald Trump’s “impeachment lite” remark, days after he said it, in an exhibit on news and satire.
At times, the dissonance could be jarring: A museum devoted to an industry where wages and benefits are tanking featured a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, where a soup and a salad set you back $18, and the event spaces with million-dollar views were clearly aimed at executive editors, not reporters on the night cops’ beat.
In short, it was a museum that tried to be a bunch of things to everybody — a shrine to newspapers, an interactive play space for kids, a repository of American cultural history for teachers, a party venue for corporations. That lack of focus obscured its core message: That journalism is important, and the public ought to care about it.
Still, there was plenty to love. Wandering through each exhibit was like touring a neighborhood estate sale, full of tchotchkes from another era, or listening to your 90-year-old uncle tell you his Korean War stories. You could see an early Macintosh, with its tiny screen and chunky keyboard, or one of the first digital cameras to send images to the newsroom over telephone lines. In one room was an early RCA microphone; in another, a reproduction of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper of a Native American tribe.
Wandering through, I could watch decades of my career unfold before me: Typing up my notes from a town council meeting on a Radio Shack TRS-80 model 100, known to every reporter who ever used one as a Trash-80, during my first paid summer internship — the one where I worked alongside ambitious 30something reporters and white-haired men who drank and smoked, and fell in love with the fellow Northwestern student who would eventually become my husband. A brick-like cell phone, like the one I yelled dictation into as I filed stories from the Red River, Minnesota, floods in 1997. A Time Magazine cover from 2009 about Twitter, two years before I opened my first account. And the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan adopted by The Washington Post in 2017, three years after I began working there as an editor.
Despite its shortcomings, the Newseum got a lot right. Before you even reached the front door, you could see a display of front pages from newspapers in every state, as well as a few foreign ones. So while Detroit News readers learned on this past Saturday (Dec. 28) that the source of I-696 “ooze” was steeped in contaminants, Reno Gazette Journal readers learned that same day about a sanctuary for unwanted wild horses. There was something oddly touching in the fact that hundreds of news organizations uploaded their front pages to the Newseum every day in a sort of joint affirmation of the importance of their work.
Also inspiring was a display of Pulitzer-winning photography through the decades, along with interviews with the photographers who shot them. The iconic photographs — a girl fleeing from a Napalm bombing during the Vietnam War, the execution of a prisoner by a South Vietnamese general — were there, of course. But so were the lesser-known ones: a woman giving birth, whose photo appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal in the 1970s; Bill Clinton, laughing, surrounded by members of a marching band in the 1990s; a boy and girl on horseback, riding through the Mexican jungle in the 2000s.
Its exhibits on 9/11 and the dangers faced by U.S. and foreign journalists were moving without being maudlin. A short video about Sept. 11, 2001, featured live footage from that day — I flinched and covered my eyes when the second plane slammed into the World Trade Center — that included radio reporters’ on-scene interviews with survivors and, in one particularly harrowing sequence, the daughter of one of the victims, holding a photo of her dad and tearfully pleading for more information. You could not look at the wall featuring the front pages from that day — all with variations of “Attack” and “Terror” — and not feel chills.
Similarly so with the “Wall of Honor,” a photo montage of U.S. and foreign journalists killed for, and while, doing their jobs. (One inscription described the circumstances surrounding the deaths of a TV news photographer and reporter while covering a tropical storm in the Carolinas: A police chief had warned them not to venture out; they did so anyway, and were killed when a tree toppled onto their SUV. It was a reminder that reporters don’t have to cover Syria or Libya to put themselves in grave danger.)
Perpendicular to the photo wall was a series of glass panels, etched with the names of all the people in the photos. The other day, I noticed for the first time that a few of the glass panels were blank — presumably to make room for the journalists who would continue to be killed. Where will they be remembered now?Visiting the Newseum in its last hours, I realized that its big draw was its ability to project journalism’s spectacular lack of awareness of just how awful things would become. You could read about how the Internet would change everything and know that eventually we’d be sharing TikTok videos and sniping about the Kardashians. That the rise of Facebook would lead to the erosion of privacy. That the women who fought their way into newsrooms would be sexually harassed and their careers stunted, that all the fretting about corporate sponsorship of radio programs would evolve into the ho-hum corporate takeover of TV news, and that regional newspapers would be stripped of staff as their circulation plunged. That the very people we relied on to save the journalism we grew up with would flee for the exits, leaving us to an uncertain and ever-changing future. And that the very institution built to celebrate journalism — the Newseum — would shutter.
If journalism is the first rough draft of history, maybe we should think of the Newseum is the first draft of a proper journalism museum. Maybe the next Newseum, if there is one, will be better organized with a clearer sense of mission, and won’t try to be all things to all people. Maybe it will be more reflective and less whiz-bang.
But I hope it’ll still have that Trash-80.