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The Newseum

With the words of the First Amendment emblazoned on its edifice, the Newseum celebrates journalism and reflects the life work and passion of its founder, Al Neuharth.

For nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion.

Al Neuharth

Emblazoned with the hallowed words of the First Amendment, the Newseum commands a weighty respect from the moment you set eyes on it—that is, for some people. For others, the grandiose edifice of the Newseum appears egotistical, and even borders on sacrilege. As a writer for the New York Times put it, “the design reeks of parochialism” and “borders on jingoism,” because the museum “suggest[s] that the values of a free press and a free market are one and the same.”Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Get Me Rewrite: A New Monument to Press Freedom,” New York Times, April 11, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/11/arts/design/11arch.html. These excerpts demonstrate several themes that characterize the history of the Newseum. Firstly, the Newseum is fundamentally patriotic, and focuses mostly on the United States in its exhibits. Unapologetically pro-journalism, the museum tends to default to praising the field rather than criticizing it.  Most importantly, bold in its design and vision, the Newseum tends to provoke strong reactions from its visitors, in many ways a reflection of the colorful life led by Al Neuharth, the man responsible for the museum.

An Early Start in Journalism

Al Neuharth was born in Eureka, South Dakota, in 1924. When he was two years old, his father died in a farming accident, leaving his mother to raise him single-handed.Denny Grainer, “The Life of Al Neuharth,” USA Today, April 22, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/22/neuharth-timeline/2102699/. After the accident, Neuharth’s mother moved the family to the nearby town of Aldena, South Dakota, into a house that was, oddly enough, previously owned by the town’s newspaper publisher. Neuharth had his first hands-on experience in the world of journalism at 11 years old, when he got a job as a newspaper delivery boy for the Aldena Journal.“Al Neuharth,” Freedom Forum Institute, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/freedom-forum/al-neuharth/. Then, as a 13-year-old, he progressed from newspaper boy to working as an assistant in the composing room.Martin Weil, “USA Today Al Neuharth Dies,” Washington Post, April 20, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/usa-today-founder-al-neuharth-dies/2013/04/20/a3d333ec-a944-11e2-a8e2-5b98cb59187f_story.html. According to Neuharth, these early experiences showed him it was possible to make decent money in the newspaper business, which inspired him to pursue a career in the industry.“Al Neuharth,” Freedom Forum Institute.

Accepted to college on a scholarship, Neuharth’s education was interrupted by the Second World War. Neuharth served in the 86th Infantry Division, earning a bronze star for bravery. Fortunately, Neuharth was able continue his education at South Dakota University after the war thanks to the GI Bill. It was in college that Neuharth had his next significant experience with journalism—running the college newspaper. After finishing school with a degree in journalism, Neuharth was hired as a reporter by the Associated Press, but ultimately decided to quit that job after just two years in favor of founding his own newspaper.Grainer, “Life.” Although he did not know it at the time, this would prove to be a long and arduous journey for the young entrepreneur.

Neuharth’s first endeavor was the short-lived SoDak, a weekly sports newspaper that ended up losing $50,000.Mike Schneider, “Obituary: Al Neuharth/USA Today Founder Who Changed the Look of American Newspapers.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 20, 2013, https://www.post-gazette.com/news/obituaries/2013/04/20/Obituary-Al-Neuharth-USA-Today-founder-who-changed-the-look-of-American-newspapers/stories/201304200139. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue his ambitions in media, becoming a reporter at the Miami Herald, and then quickly rising to the management of the Detroit Free Press—both newspapers owned by the Knight Newspaper Chain.Rupert Cornwell, “Al Neuharth: Ebullient Newspaperman Who Founded ‘USA Today,’” The Independent, April 25, 2013, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/al-neuharth-ebullient-newspaperman-who-founded-usa-today-8588877.html. In 1963, Neuharth left his job at Knight Newspapers to join the Gannet Corporation, a smaller company that owned several northeastern newspapers. Gannet owned fewer newspapers than Knight, but for Al Neuharth it had one invaluable attribute: it was one of the few American newspaper conglomerates that was not family-owned.Cornwell, “Ebullient Newspaperman.” Without the impediments of nepotism or familial favoritism, Neuharth was able to quickly climb the corporate ladder. He was president of Gannet by 1970, and became the CEO three years later.Grainer, “Life.” In these executive roles, Neuharth took Gannet from owning 16 papers to 90, using cost-cutting and monopolizing strategies to turn the company into an incredibly profitable enterprise beloved by Wall Street.Cornwell, “Ebullient Newspaperman.”

In 1982 Al Neuharth began on arguably his boldest enterprise—he launched USA Today, a national daily newspaper. USA Today was intended for the masses, or as Al put it, “our target was college-age people who were non-readers. We thought they were getting enough serious stuff in classes. We hooked them primarily because it was a colorful newspaper that played up the things they were interested in—sports, entertainment and TV.”Schneider, “Obituary.” Adorned with bright colors, catchy pictures, and succinct stories, the unique and eccentric style of USA Today quickly drew ire from traditional journalists. People referred to it as the “McPaper,” and derided it for dumbing down the news—after all, USA Today shortened stories, focused on good news more than bad, and even reduced the entire newspaper into just four sections: News, Money, Sports, and Life.David Colton and Rick Hampson, “USA Today Founder Al Neuharth Dies at 89,” USA Today, April 19, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/19/al-neuharth-newspaper-founder-dies-at-89/2097995/. At first, the paper lost an astonishing amount of money, reportedly upwards of $400 million, in an astonishingly short period of time.Weil, “Al Neuharth Dies.” Nevertheless, the bold new style of the paper began to home in on its target readership, and it eventually gained widespread appreciation. In fact, by the 1990s, other papers started to copy USA Today to retain younger readers who were more strongly drawn toward television.John Hartman, “Neuharth Invented a New-Style Newspaper,” USA Today, April 19, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/19/hartman-tribute-neuharth/2098369/.

In 1989, after many years of financial success, Neuharth left the CEO position at Gannet Company to take over the Gannet Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the company, which he transformed into the Freedom Forum in 1991.Cornwell, “Ebullient Newspaperman.” The purpose of the Freedom Forum is to promote and protect the exercise of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.“Al Neuharth,” Freedom Forum Institute. In 1997 this led to the creation of the Newseum, the first museum in the world dedicated entirely to journalism.Colton and Hampson, “USA Today Founder.” Al Neuharth maintained an active role in the oversight of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, as well as publishing a weekly column in USA Today titled “Plain Talk,” until his death on April 19, 2013.Schneider, “Obituary.” In typical Neuharth fashion, he prepared a final column to be published after his death, that took an introspective look back at his life. About his career, he wrote, “for nearly 50 years as a reporter and editor, I tried to tell stories accurately and fairly, without opinion.”Colton and Hampson, “USA Today Founder.”

Philosophy

As is fairly apparent from his life story, Al Neuharth was a man with a great deal of vision, perseverance, and strongly held beliefs. His interest in journalism developed at an early age, and he never stopped pursuing it. It is not particularly hard to imagine why someone like Neuharth, who spent his entire life in journalism, may have felt strongly about the First Amendment, and the importance of the free press to a democratic society. Although it is perhaps ironic that a man many credit with dumbing down the news and lowering the national attention span ultimately founded institutions such as the Freedom Forum and Newseum, dedicated to promoting good journalism, a less cynical person might argue that Neuharth believed in making the news accessible to the average American and that the Freedom Forum and the Newseum are continuations of that goal.

While Neuharth did clearly care a great deal about making money, it is also worth pointing out that he had a unique perspective on his wealth. Although he lived a fairly lavish and expensive lifestyle, because of his upbringing in poor, rural South Dakota, Neuharth was always mindful of how he was able to accumulate his wealth. As he put it himself, “I wanted to get rich and famous no matter where it was,” but on the other hand, “I got lucky. Luck is very much a part of it. You have to be at the right place at the right time and pick the right place at the right time.”Schneider, “Obituary.” Perhaps it was because he understood exactly how lucky he was that Neuharth devoted so much time and money to giving back to the community that blessed him with success. 

Neuharth’s philanthropic work was not limited to the Newseum. Although he was known to be abrasive, unapologetic, stubborn, and sometimes insensitive (he titled his own autobiography Confessions of a S.O.B.), he notably supported and instituted many progressive initiatives at Gannet, including increasing the number of women and people of color who held significant positions at the company.Colton and Hampson, “USA Today Founder.” Neuharth continued this mission through his work at the Gannet Foundation, Freedom Forum, and Newseum. Apart from its principal mission to uphold the First Amendment, the Freedom Forum also states that it is dedicated to supporting “newsroom diversity and excellence in journalism.”“Al Neuharth,” Freedom Forum Institute. The Newsroom Diversity Program is one of the three main programs of the Freedom Forum, and is operated chiefly through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Studies.“Freedom Forum,” Philanthropy News Digest, July 5, 2005, https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/npo-spotlight/freedom-forum.

The Museum Itself

The Newseum was first opened in 1997 in Arlington, Virginia, where it quickly gained popularity. By 2000, however, there were already plans to move the museum to downtown Washington, DC. By 2002, the Newseum in Virginia was closed, and plans were being drawn for the new location.“About: History,” Newseum, www.newseum.org/about/history/. In 2008, the new Newseum opened right off the National Mall, at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, with a $477 million price tag.Peggy McGlone and Amy Brittain, “Heavily in Debt, the Newseum Considered Risky Strategy to Improve Finances,” Washington Post, July 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/heavily-in-debt-newseum-considered-risky-strategy-to-improve-finances/2015/07/01/b5e94286-19e7-11e5-bd7f-4611a60dd8e5_story.html. Undoubtedly the move was intended to increase attendance, but in a larger sense the flashy new location was entirely in keeping with Neuharth’s penchant for showmanship—the museum was intended to make an impression on a city that was already chock-full of museums. Although the architecture and design has drawn criticism (mostly for its self-aggrandizing appearance), one cannot deny the building grabs and holds the attention.Ouroussoff, “Get Me Rewrite.”

Once inside, there are a plethora of areas to explore. The most famous exhibits include an antenna from the World Trade Center, a section of the Berlin Wall, and a collection of all of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs since 1942. It is hard to reduce the Newseum’s vast exhibits to a single major focus within the broad category of media and journalism, but the majority of the exhibits can be classified under three themes: the history of journalism, important moments in American history, and the interaction between the two. For example, the museum has on display the first ever satellite news van, an exhibit on the Tet Offensive, and an exhibit on the Unabomber (and how he was caught because the Washington Post published his manifesto). In other words, the museum seeks to emphasize the importance of journalism, and the importance of the First Amendment, chiefly by showing how crucial (or sometimes not-so-crucial) moments in modern history have been influenced by the media. From the memorial to journalists who died for their work to an exhibit examining news coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in America, the Newseum seeks to encourage good journalism by examining both highs and lows. The museum also strives to be interactive, featuring 131 video monitors, 99 television sets, 40 typewriters, 28 reporter notepads, and 15 theaters.Edward Rothstein, “Chasing the News: Mark Twain’s Inkwell to Blogger’s Slippers,” New York Times, April 11, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/11/arts/design/11news.html?action=click&contentCollection=Art%20%26%20Design&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article. There is even an area called the Bancroft Family Ethics Center, which “challenges visitors to take on some of the difficult questions that reporters and editors face each day,” by interacting with various kiosks and seeing how other people have responded to these ethical dilemmas.“Exhibits: Current: The Bancroft Family Ethics Center,” Newseum, www.newseum.org/exhibits/current/the-bancroft-family-ethics-center/.

An Uncertain Future?

The Newseum is much more than a museum about the news; 555 Pennsylvania Avenue is also home to a luxury apartment complex, a restaurant, and a broadcasting station that has been home to ABC’s This Week and Al Jazeera America.Merille Knox, “ABC’s ‘This Week’ Moving Out of the Newseum, Al Jazeera America Moving In.” Adweek, May 21, 2013, https://www.adweek.com/tvnewser/abcs-this-week-moving-out-of-the-newseum-al-jazeera-america-moving-in/181291. This has resulted in enormous operating costs. According to a report by the Washington Post, the Newseum was $317 million in debt as of 2015, and losing about several million dollars each year.McGlone and Britain, “Heavily in Debt.” Although the museum has frequently insisted that it is doing well, the facts of the matter indicate otherwise. Perhaps most telling is the figure that of the $26 million received in donations in 2013, $23 million came directly from the Freedom Forum.McGlone and Britain, “Heavily in Debt.” In fact, the Newseum has frequently had to rely on the Freedom Forum’s endowment to cover a large chunk of operating costs—an arrangement that is obviously unsustainable.Associated Press, “Newseum Using Endowment to Cover Operating Costs,” Philanthropy News Digest, July 9, 2013. https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/newseum-using-endowment-to-cover-operating-costs. The leadership of the museum has also experienced constant turnover. Most recently, in 2017, the president and chief executive, Jeffrey Herbst, stepped down after only two years, and in August 2018, Herbst’s replacement, Scott Williams, departed after only six months as president, following six years as COO.Peggy McGlone, “Newseum President and COO Leaves for Tennessee Job,” Washington Post, August 23, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/another-newseum-executive-jumps-from-the-sinking-ship/2018/08/23/72d56692-a6dd-11e8-a656-943eefab5daf_story.html. Although executives of the Newseum and the Freedom Forum have reaffirmed their desires to keep the museum open, especially given the relevant nature of free speech and free press in the current political climate, it is unclear if the museum will be able to remain open without selling the building and moving to a different location.Peggy McGlone and Manuel Roig-Franzia. “‘A Slow-Motion Disaster’: Journalism Museum in Talks About Possible Building Sale,” Washington Post, February 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/a-slow-motion-disaster-journalism-museum-in-talks-about-possible-building-sale/2018/02/07/1f816480-0c2f-11e8-95a5-c396801049ef_story.html.

Profile by Nate M. Steele, 2019 Wintersession student.