Chasing bylines and goodbyes: A last look at the Newseum

By David Kassnoff

My first visit to the Newseum – the 250,000-square-foot museum dedicated to journalism and free speech – was my last.

On a wet Monday in December 2019, my trip to Washington, D.C., had a singular purpose: to experience the Newseum’s exhibits and artifacts, which largely celebrate the work of reporters and editors to shine light on the events of our lifetimes. Created by the Freedom Forum Institute (formerly the Gannett Foundation), the Newseum shuttered its doors at the end of 2019. Much like today’s newsgathering industry, the Newseum found itself on the outside of a shifting media landscape, a victim of daunting economics and perhaps reaching to do too much.

The Newseum’s exhibits highlighted the determination and sacrifices of reporters and photojournalists. But inside the seven-story building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the experience felt slightly fragmented, as if trying to re-interpret the First Amendment carved on its marble exterior.

On a lower level, visitors encountered sections of the Berlin Wall, ringed by artifacts of a divided Germany that existed prior to 1989. While speaking to the ideal of free speech, the graffiti-covered concrete sections appeared out-of-place. A few floors above, a circular gallery contained a section of twisted antenna from a World Trade Center tower, wreathed by newspapers’ accounts of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both exhibits, while inspiring, seemed less central to the Newseum’s raison-d’être.

Another display showcased well-used laptops, dusty cameras and lenses, and bent notebooks that had outlived their owners. Once used by reporters and photographers who had traveled to nations in turmoil, these were tools of scribes and shooters who died while working to expose injustice, conflict, and neglect. Especially striking: the half-destroyed Datsun sedan of Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter whose car was blown up in June 1976. Bolles died from his injuries 11 days after the bombing. A newer exhibit paid homage to the five victims of the 2018 shootings in the Annapolis, Maryland, Capital Gazette.

These reminded visitors that freedom of speech, as with most freedoms, exacts a high cost.

Society’s mixed attitudes toward journalism didn’t kill the Newseum, though. Economics and accessibility hastened its end. Its ultra-modern home, opened in 2008, was expensive to operate and less than easy to navigate. While both ABC News and Al Jazeera America once produced live programming from the Newseum, both had vacated by 2019. And, while a $15 ticket isn’t unusual for many big-city museums, most of Washington’s museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s locations, are free to visit. And the Newseum offered few displays for young children to interact with.

You might spend hours in a darkened Newseum gallery, admiring glass-encased newspapers going back centuries. But this induced eyestrain. The dim light, protecting aged newsprint from further damage, made it hard to read all but the largest headlines. You could get close to the pretend news set of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but not sit at his desk. Encountering hundreds of that morning’s front pages, electronically reproduced from around the world, reminded me of the vast reach of authentic news. At the same time, the wall of newspapers made me feel slightly guilty for reaching for a tablet to read my daily news, instead of dropping coins in an honor box to buy a printed broadsheet.

Where are my news artifacts? In my home, a dusty drawer holds my forgotten reporters’ notebooks and a few old newspapers with my bylines. But more than nostalgia drove me to D.C. I went to the Newseum to experience again what newsgathering meant to me, and to our culture, in an era before anyone tried to push “alternative facts” on a skeptical public.

A former journalist and corporate communications executive, David Kassnoff today writes and lectures in St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli School of Communication. He earned both his B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Bonaventure.  He has created an award-winning online eMagazine, authored four books, and his photography has earned awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

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