This Old Medium

In his 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper, Philip Meyer predicts that the very last copy of the very last daily paper will be sold in the year 2043. The architects of the Newseum, D.C.'s newly reopened museum of journalism, may have had that year in mind when they designed the $450 million structure of translucent white and clear glass. But blown-up images of the front pages of the day's newspapers from across the country displayed on the museum's façade remind visitors that the year is, indeed, 2008. The daily newspaper is not dead yet.

The Newseum, though, despite its futuristic architecture and flashy digital videos, doesn't quite feel like it's even caught up with the 21st century. Recently relocated from its original home in Arlington, Virginia, to Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., the museum houses more than 6,000 journalistic artifacts and excels at informing visitors which medium covered which stories best (or most famously). But it fails to tell us how we got from point A to point B, from the country's first partisan newspapers to the World Wide Web. It fails to show how journalism has evolved. And by fetishizing newspaper relics and touching on major developments like new media in only a cursory manner, the Newseum unwittingly declares the death of the newspaper. It is at best a poorly executed history museum and at worst a news mausoleum that will, at the very least, provide a beautiful resting place for that final newspaper 35 years from now.

The Newseum's grand reopening comes at an anxiety-ridden moment for newspapers. Circulation and classified advertising have steadily dwindled, and the 24-hour news cycle has rendered print publications slow and cumbersome. Some of the nation's most venerable newspapers have become financial liabilities: The New York Times Company's stock sank 54 percent over the course of the last three years, and the families that owned the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal have sold off the majority of their holdings. Twenty-five percent of all newspaper jobs in the United States have disappeared since 1990 as budgets have been slashed, page sizes shrunk, and bureaus shuttered. According to a report published by the Carnegie Corporation in 2005, newspapers are Americans' least preferred choice for local, national, and international news.

Much like daily newspapers, the Newseum hasn't quite figured out what to do about these developments. An article published by financial news company Bloomberg, which contributed $10 million to the Newseum, says that "even the building's architecture reflects the Internet" and quotes architect James Polshek as saying that the building's facade was designed to evoke "a Web site screen." Web sites, of course, don't have screens, and this small remark mirrors the Newseum's cluelessness about the universe of online journalism. On the museum's seven floors of exhibits and artifacts, online news gets what amounts to a 10-second shout-out, primarily in the form of a timeline in the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery that mentions Matt Drudge and the conservative blogs that helped discredit the documents used in a 60 Minutes II segment on President Bush's Air National Guard service. In other exhibits, the museum makes some fairly obvious points about the rapid pace at which blogs and other online outlets can publish news, and the benefits and drawbacks of citizen journalism. But it would be a vast overstatement to say the Newseum fully reflects the degree to which the Internet has changed the industry.

Despite the sense of foreboding that permeates the newspaper industry, 14 major news-media companies and families (including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The New York Times' Ochs-Sulzberger family, Hearst Corporation, ABC News, and NBC News) managed to pony up a combined total of $122 million to upgrade the Newseum. It's enough to make anyone who's followed the decline of the newspaper wonder: Couldn't this money have been better spent on funding investigative reporting, maintaining foreign bureaus, keeping more journalists employed, or, heaven forbid, investing in reporting-based online news outlets? (The museum charges an admission fee of $20, money that visitors could have otherwise put toward, oh, renewing a newspaper subscription.)

While the major media companies and founders have poured money into the Newseum, nonprofit organizations are increasingly stepping in to fill the void created by newspaper cutbacks and to ensure quality reporting, writing, and watch-dogging. ProPublica, a nonprofit that aims to produce investigative journalism in the public interest, was started in January and will be funded at an annual rate of $10 million for three years by California philanthropists Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler. And the two-year-old Center for Independent Media is an umbrella organization for five state-level (and one national) investigative online publications. These and other nonprofit, grant-funded news operations provide a dynamic alternative business model to the formula of paid advertising and circulation that served dailies so well until recently. Unlike today's most popular online magazines, such as Slate and Salon, the grant-funded outlets emphasize reporting over commentary. The money that media companies used to erect a 250,000-square-foot temple to news could have funded four ProPublicas for three years each and provided the media-consuming public with, well, news. Instead we have the Newseum, which presents visitors with obvious facts such as, "Today, many reporters take notes on computers."

In his opening remarks at the museum's April press preview, Newseum and Freedom Forum CEO Charles Overby argued that the premise of the question "Why build a shrine to newspapers when they are faltering?" is incorrect because "the Newseum was not built for journalists but for the 20 million visitors to Washington every year." The Newseum, however, is not even a particularly useful service to the public. The goal, according to Overby, is to give visitors a better understanding of the news and the important role that it plays in public life. But both the Newseum and the Freedom Forum fail in this endeavor because they largely neglect one of the most important ways the public now consumes news--via the Internet. Rather than looking forward and helping newspapers get with the online program, the founders have opted to navel-gaze and wax nostalgic for what they must perceive to be the good old days.

At every opportunity, the Newseum bashes visitors over the head with the notion that the press is the cornerstone of democracy. Meanwhile, the museum's founders essentially siphon away money that could have supported languishing papers. The museum's admittedly striking Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace seems more conducive to fancy fundraisers and galas than lively discussions about the nature of the Fourth Estate and its relationship to the branches of government (the museum sits between the White House and the Capitol). Visitors end up leaving the Newseum with heads full of trivia, not a better understanding of how journalism and civic discourse inform each other.

According to press materials, the New York City–based firm Polshek Partnership Architects conceived of the Newseum as a colossal three-dimensional newspaper constructed of rectilinear volumes of glass to pay homage to the press as a "window on the world." It is no surprise that the largest gallery features over 30,000 historic newspapers chronicling more than 500 years of news. The collection includes such early publications as the earliest known "newsbook" documenting a deadly earthquake that rocked Guatemala in 1541, and The Pennsylvania Journal's 1765 "tombstone" edition announcing that it is suspending publication in opposition to the British tax on paper. These papers would have actually come to life had there been some explanation of how each publication was produced or about what goes into making a good news story in any given historical time period. In the absence of such insight, the News History Gallery is little more than an archive. If the founders had really given thought to how news has been created through the centuries and what is required of the armies of people responsible for disseminating the news, be it through newspapers, radio, television, or the Internet, the Newseum would more effectively grapple with the pressing difficulties facing journalism and the newspapers that were once the country's premier news sources.

Instead, the Newseum professes to offer a "you are there" experience in order to take visitors to famous and infamous news events. The museum's Annenberg Theater continuously shows a "4-D" movie that is meant to let "you see, hear, and feel some of the world's most dramatic news events in a unique re-enactment." This hokey exercise fails to take you outside of the 535-seat theater to the Battle of Lexington, the Blackwell Insane Asylum, or World War II London (in part because it's hard to forget that you're wearing 3-D glasses).

Of course, the best reporters and photographers have taken us to every corner of the globe through their vivid writing and photographs. The Freedom Forum and the major media companies and families made a major miscalculation in funding and supporting a museum full of attractions like 3-D theatrical re-enactments instead of the kind of journalism that can provide a real "you are there" experience. The Newseum makes a valiant effort to downplay anxiety over current industry trends and convince visitors that the press is important, engaging, and relevant. But perhaps a more meaningful endeavor would have been to ensure that the press is actually all of these things and let the public draw its own conclusions.