The Newseum is about to close its doors.
On Wednesday, the soaring Pennsylvania Avenue building dedicated to the First Amendment held its final public event. And on New Year’s Eve the museum will shut down after 12 years in Washington. It previously operated nearby in Rosslyn, Virginia.
“We’re on deadline,” the museum’s website says, urging people to come visit before the new year.
The Freedom Forum, the nonprofit that runs the museum, promises that its work will continue in new locations and in new ways.
But the shuttering of the Newseum space is a big disappointment to the journalists and press freedom advocates who have supported the Newseum over the years.
Wednesday’s farewell event was bittersweet. More bitter than sweet, really. We need more places like the Newseum, not fewer.
Johns Hopkins University purchased the Newseum property for $372.5 million so that it can consolidate its various Washington-based graduate programs in a single building.
The sale helped Freedom Forum with its crushing debt load.
All along, with the Newseum, “the problem was expenses and debt,” former USA Today editor Ken Paulson wrote recently. “The Washington building was too ambitious ($450 million in construction), the upkeep was too costly and donations were too few.” In its twelve years in DC, the museum was never able to break even.
The chair of the Newseum, Peter Pritchard, talked about these challenges at Wednesday night’s farewell event. Among other things, “we underestimated how hard it would be to break even when the competition is free,” meaning all the government-subsidized museums up and down the National Mall.
Still, more than 10 million visitors experienced the Newseum during its 12 years smack-dab between Capitol Hill and the White House. The location always seemed so perfect to me — because, as one of the exhibits stated, the Americans who wrote the First Amendment knew that “a free press could be used to challenge the government should it grow too powerful or abusive.”
For those of you who are in DC between now and New Year’s Eve, stop by the Newseum. For those who aren’t, I posted a long Twitter thread full of my favorite artifacts from the exhibition halls. Some examples:
>> A copy of a 301 year old newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, which was “the first successful newspaper in the Colonies.”
>> A 1789 front page that printed the first 12 proposed amendments to the Constitution. “Article the Third,” about freedom of press and speech and religion, eventually became the FIRST…
>> The NYT’s 1927 front page about the test of a new medium called “television.” It’s “like a photo come to life,” but commercial use is “in doubt,” the headline said!
Chris Wallace’s message
“Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace was one of the speakers at Wednesday night’s Newseum event. “I believe the President Trump is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history,” he said.
As the audience began to applaud, he asked them to listen to the rest of his remarks. “Because I think many of our colleagues in the news business see the president’s attacks — his constant bashing of the media — as a rationale, as an excuse to cross the line themselves to push back,” he said. “And that is a big mistake.”
His main point: Trump doesn’t want the press to be trusted, but presidents come and go, and the press endures. “I think we should remember some essential truths,” he said. “First, ours is a great profession. Maybe the best that anybody ever thought of as a way to make a living. Think of it! We get paid to tell the truth. How many people can say that?”
Regarding Wallace’s remarks about Trump’s “assault on freedom of the press,” the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote that “this fundamental truth needs to be repeated, stressed, pounded into Americans’ ears.”
“So, a modest proposal: Give Wallace a week off from his ‘Fox News Sunday’ grind and use the show to replay any and all remarks he has made at journalistic advocacy events,” he wrote. “Then convene an all-hands meeting at Fox News headquarters. Play the same tape. That way, Wallace can speak directly to the most important accomplices of the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history.”
So what’s next for the Newseum?
The Freedom Forum will continue to do what it does, but without a flagship building. Chair and CEO Jan Neuharth says “our next chapter has yet to be written,” which doesn’t mean much, to be honest. Will the museum find a new physical home? “Hopefully.”