A photo of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The Newseum sold its Pennsylvania Avenue address (but not that giant First Amendment) to Johns Hopkins University for $372 million. Jose Luis Magana/AP

The D.C. museum devoted to a free press will sell its building to Johns Hopkins after years of financial struggle. But the Newseum could still have a bright future.

It’s so tempting to read the Newseum’s failure as a metaphor.

After years of financial struggles, the museum devoted to the free press announced that it was selling its decade-old building, a pristine, purpose-built facility with an unobstructed view of the Capitol, to Johns Hopkins University in January for $372.5 million. The Newseum’s loss is the university’s gain, as it gives Johns Hopkins space to consolidate four different properties in Washington, D.C., plus a seat in the room where it happens. For the museum’s part, during the same week that BuzzFeed, HuffPost, and Gannett cut more than 1,000 jobs, the Newseum also announced that it was looking for new opportunities.   

Overextended and out of options, the Newseum had considered risky strategies in recent years to get out from under its mountain of debt. The foundation that supports the museum nevertheless paid its president and CEO, Jeffrey Herbst, a salary of more than $630,000 in 2016 (the most recent year for which public records are available). The Newseum’s senior executives each commanded six-figure salaries, with several making five-figure bonuses on top. According to the museum’s tax filings, some trustees were even pulling down middle-class incomes for minimal board hours, which is unusual for any cultural nonprofit.

The foundering of the Newseum has the ring of a professional morality tale, one that could serve as a lens for examining the dismal state of journalism. Only it’s not a conceit. Recent setbacks for both the news and Newseum overlap in the figure of one executive: Allen Neuharth, the late USA Today founder who built the Gannett newsdaily behemoth. A dean of journalism who also founded the museum of journalism, Neuharth had a hand in bringing down both. If it is going to have any future, the Newseum needs to learn from those two failures.

The history of the Newseum starts with the Gannett Foundation, a charitable organization that Neuharth steered for nearly 30 years. After the foundation sold its name and assets back to the Gannett Company in 1991, Neuharth refashioned the organization as the Freedom Forum. Six years later, the Newseum, the forum’s principal concern, opened in Rosslyn, a D.C. suburb in Northern Virginia. It didn’t stick around long: After five years in Rosslyn, the first Newseum closed in 2002 to relocate to D.C.

In the 1990s, the Newseum seemed like a solid bet. The Freedom Forum tapped Ralph Appelbaum, a rising exhibition designer, to inject the Newseum with a heavy dose of interactive infotainment. (Appelbaum went on to shape the screen-heavy presentation at the National Museum of African American History and Culture). Newseum reviews were mixed: In a review in Curator, N. Elizabeth Schlatter, now a museum administrator for the University of Richmond, condemned the “predictably gimmicky introductory interactive (computers that provide headlines for visitors’ birthdays) and a melodramatic movie.” But people turned out in droves. Over its first four years in operation, the niche museum pulled down some 1.7 million visitors.

Buoyed by the Newseum’s early successes, in 2000, the Freedom Forum paid about $146 million (adjusted for inflation) for property across the Potomac River. The primo site on Pennsylvania Avenue established the Newseum in pride of place across the street from the National Gallery of Art. (Its old digs were nice, too: After the museum left Rosslyn, a county-funded art museum briefly took its place. Today, the original Newseum’s signature dome theater is a coworking space.)

Neuharth spearheaded the push for an opulent facility whose construction costs would eventually reach $450 million—almost twice initial estimates. This turned out to be a fatal move: Debt associated with the James Polshek-designed building turned into an albatross for the Freedom Forum, as Jim Hopkins, a former USA Today editor, reported for his independent Gannett Blog. (An insider blog chronicling the uncomfortable twists and turns at Gannett was a sure sign of the changing headwinds in journalism.)

Now the Newseum faces the daunting prospect of relocating its operations somewhere in the D.C. area (or possibly beyond). On March 1, the Washington Business Journal reported some of the first details about the Newseum’s next steps. It’s not much to go on, but the 74-foot-tall marble First Amendment tablet that adorns the facade of the Newseum building will be going with the museum. Where to? Nobody knows yet. Bethesda reports that officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are planning a pitch for the museum—possibly a relocation to the office building that Discovery is vacating in Silver Spring. In lieu of a monster shark adornment, the building could get a 50-ton journo commandment. (A Newseum spokesperson says it has made no decisions so far.)

For the time being, the museum is still open: This week, it opens an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Through December 31, it will be business as usual for the Newseum, with admission for adults running $24.95.

If and when the museum of journalism does reopen elsewhere, its first exhibit should examine why it closed. How Gannett and the Newseum came to find themselves fending for their lives is a shared story—and one that this museum’s leadership must take to heart before they open their doors again.

“Newspapers ate their own seed corn during bumper crop days and then had no resources when it got tough,” observed Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, in a tweet about the sources of journalism’s woes. He might as well have been talking about museums in the run-up to the Great Recession.  

One of the first big stories that the new Newseum was positioned to witness, following its grand opening in April 2008, was the collapse of Lehman Brothers. But by then, financial excess was a part of the museum’s story, too. That year, the Freedom Forum paid Charles “Peanut” Overby, its then-CEO, a salary of $991,000 (or $1.2 million adjusted for inflation). Hopkins reports that the Freedom Forum paid Overby $987,000 in 2012, the year after his retirement, for his work as the chair of the namesake Overby Center for Southern Journalism & Politics at Ole Miss. The year that Overby pocketed a million-dollar salary as an emeritus, the Freedom Forum’s endowment took a nose dive, plunging to $351 million. Before the Newseum’s move, that endowment figure was $914 million—more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

Joanna Woronkowicz, an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington, says that the Newseum’s expansion was typical for cultural organizations at the time. Woronkowicz is a principal author of Building Better Arts Facilities, as well as a University of Chicago study of the building boom in museums and other cultural centers between 1994 and 2008. Common problems plagued these ambitious institutions. Of the 700 cultural building projects surveyed for the study, some 80 percent ran over costs, some by more than 200 percent of early projections.

The cost for building new museums and cultural facilities spikes just as the Newseum contemplated its move. (The University of Chicago)

Like many other museums at the time, the Newseum gambled big on the so-called Bilbao Effect, the trendy notion that a place-making facility could deliver enormous returns on huge and often untested upfront investments. The Newseum chased the same waterfalls as other cultural organizations, but it faced unique setbacks from the start. For starters, it was located right across the street from the National Gallery of Art, perhaps the greatest of D.C.’s many free museums and a rival to any idle afternoon in the world. The many splendors of the Smithsonian are just a few more steps way on the National Mall.

“This was a museum that purchased a multi-million-dollar building in a location where, when you look around, there are lots of free museums to go to,” Woronkowicz says. “While the mission of the organization is unique, in that sense, it’s not unique in what it provides to people who want to go to museums in D.C.”

Other private museums get away with charging at the door in the District, among them the Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Building Museum, all arts institutions. Then there’s another tier of downtown museums with broader appeals to kitsch and sensation (and much higher ticket prices), like the International Spy Museum and Museum of the Bible.*

Admission to the Newseum will set a family of four back about $80—on par with other entertainment options downtown, including going to the movies or doing the whole Spy Museum thing. But the Newseum isn’t downtown. It’s very nearly on the Mall, home to the nation’s vast, and free, cultural treasury. The exploits of reporters might fit right in with the spies and prophets downtown, but instead, the news museum put them head to head against a neoclassical palace filled with Titian, Andy Warhol, and delicious gelato.

None of those other private museums placed a $450-million bet on their future in D.C. Nationwide, the Newseum was not alone in its thinking: “Most often, the primary reason for building a museum was to make an architectural statement either related to the prestige of the institution or the civic pride of the community,” reads the University of Chicago report on the boom years.

“There was a sense that nothing could go wrong,” Woronkowicz says. “Prior to 2008, we saw in general, donations were increasing among arts organizations, audience and revenue were rising, everything was going well. [There were] optimistic projections for the future. It’s really hard to stop that train once it starts.”

Yet even in the context of a cultural expansion wave, the Newseum took an outsized risk, especially for such a high-cost city and high-profile location. More than 850,000 people visited the Newseum in 2017, its biggest year since its opening, but strong attendance alone couldn’t begin to right the ship. Where was a museum of news supposed to turn for fundraising—the real source of any museum’s vitality—while the media was sinking all around it?

Magical thinking came to characterize journalism during its salad days, too. Running a newspaper used to be a license to print money: Profit margins at companies such as Gannett and Knight Ridder ran as high as 40 percent during the 1980s. Mergers and acquisitions, fueled by debt, ruled the day, according to Littau. Shareholders did not adjust their expectations when these utterly wild margins began to soften. Instead, publishers tweaked the business model to keep the good times rolling by consolidating newsroom jobs.

As declines in readership steepened, revenues fell, necessitating further cuts or investments in technology to offset newsroom losses. By the late 1990s, open positions were going unfilled. Newsrooms lost staff to attrition. “There was a feeling of having to do more with less,” Littau says.

When the Internet finally arrived, newspapers—managerially bloated, editorially lank, sagging with debt, and addicted to classified ads—struggled to respond to new and agile forms of innovation and competition. People dropped their subscriptions, leading to plunging revenues, while the debt remained. The result was what academics Philip Meyer and Yuan Zhang described in 2002 as the “death spiral.”

That same year, the Newseum closed its doors in Rosslyn, assured that its best days as an institution were still years ahead.

While it’s hard to see how the Newseum recovers from here, there is a narrow road forward. Other museums, facing crises of leadership exacerbated by the recession, were forced to shut their doors, including the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Neither of those museums found a buyer with the backing of Michael Bloomberg, who recently donated $1.8 billion to his alma mater, when the time came for downsizing. That’s the silver lining. “To be able to sell your facility to a private institution that has a lot of wealth like Johns Hopkins is a very fortunate place to be in,” Woronkowicz says.

Moreover, the Newseum’s core appeal matters now more than ever. Scaling down on the gee-whiz touchscreen stuff in its next iteration could give the museum an opportunity to expand on its unique strengths, such as the Pulitzer Prize photography gallery. It is probably safe to ditch massive, room-sized installations devoted to the fall of the Berlin Wall for laser-focused exhibits on the news going forward (which exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and JFK delivered).

Finding a new home also means owning up to the failures of the Newseum and the media. Its very next show, wherever it happens, ought to tackle the problems that have led to more dramatic job cuts in journalism than in coal mining. Those cuts have not spared the museum’s founding benefactor: In February, Gannett rejected a $1.4 billion buyout from Digital Media First, a hedge fund with a record of shredding media companies like The Denver Post for their parts. Gannett still operates The Cincinnati Enquirer, Boston Herald, and about 200 other papers; the publisher reported fourth-quarter losses across sales, revenue, print and digital advertising, and market services. Gannett’s CEO, Bob Dickey, plans to step down in May.

The collapse of local reporting and the rise of fake news represent existential threats to America’s democracy, and the blame can’t be placed wholly on Craigslist, flighty readers, or any of the other usual suspects. It might not be a feel-good story. At the very least, a true Newseum should be able to tell the news without lionizing its founders.

In all likelihood, the next Newseum building probably won’t boast rows of video screens showcasing the front page of every daily paper in the nation. (If the worst comes to pass with Gannett, the sample size may get a lot smaller.) The museum doesn’t need a seven-story marble slab to explain why the First Amendment matters, or why it’s under threat, or even why the weird world of media is the way it is. Frankly, a museum of the news that isn’t lean and mean won’t fit the times—for either media or museums.

“Because of how many institutions we’ve seen get themselves into crisis mode after investing in large facilities, we’ve slowed down or tempered our enthusiasm for what a capital facility investment can do for an organization,” Woronkowicz says. “Prior to the 2008 recession, [buildings] were thought about from the museum’s perspective as a way to show the world you’ve made it. We’re moving away from that idea.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story also referenced D.C.’s National Museum of Crime and Punishment, which closed in 2015.

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