Newseum to close its doors

The Newseum is a museum about the American news media, principally newspapers. It’s the creation of Al Neuharth (full disclose, a one-time client), the founder of USA Today and former chairman of Gannett and the Freedom Forum.

The Newseum is housed in a huge building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Neuharth’s operation bought the property it occupies for $100 million, reportedly the highest price ever paid for a chunk of real estate in Washington, D.C. The building cost almost $500 million to construct.

Al didn’t like doing things in a small way.

Neuharth’s Freedom Forum had a huge endowment when it bought the property on Pennsylvania Avenue and built the Newseum. However, the recession of 2008 — the year the Newseum opened — hit the Freedom Forum hard. To have any hope of financial viability, the Newseum had to charge a comparatively steep admission fee. Today, that fee is $25, in a city whose great museums are almost all free.

The Newseum hoped to attract 1 million people a year, but never has. Its rental and catering revenue kept the organization afloat. But it has operated in the red for years.

Finally, the Freedom forum had to sell the building. Johns Hopkins University purchased it for $372.5 million. The Newseum will close its doors to the public in January 2020. The Washington Post describes the closure as “a gut punch to an industry labeled the ‘enemy of the people’ by President Trump and struggling with digital-era financial troubles galore.”

I have mixed feelings about the closure. I’m a big fan of museums — all kinds of museums. I’m also a fan of the First Amendment, which the Newseum is intended to celebrate. And, the American news media is certainly more than consequential enough to deserve a museum.

On the other hand, the Newseum is too glitzy, too into exhibits about pop culture, too self-congratulatory, and too liberal for my taste. Its exhibits don’t just glorify the press. They often glorify liberal causes.

The Newseum’s current feature exhibit is pretty typical. It’s called: “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ rights movement.”

The LGBTQ movement may be worth celebrating. But why should it be celebrated in a museum about journalism? (From what I remember, Al Neuharth was a liberal, but not one to infect his papers’ reporting with bias and advocacy.)

I’d like to see a scaled-down Newseum housed in a more modest dwelling and less prone to celebrating political causes and pop stars. I’d also like to see a Newseum that pays more attention to the news media in the digital age.

It might happen — at least the scale-down, modest dwelling part. According to the Post, Jan Neuharth, Al’s daughter who now heads the Freedom Forum, has said a new location in the city will be found. We’ll see.

If a scaled-down Newseum could be sustained without charging a hefty admissions fee, maybe it wouldn’t have to run exhibits about pop stars and liberal causes. Maybe it could focus on educating people about the First Amendment, the history of the press in America (warts included), and the challenges the news media now faces.

Such a Newseum wouldn’t be the monument to journalism Al Neuharth had in mind. It would be something better.