Ready to Make Headlines

Newseum Gears Up For Flashy Friday Debut

Posted April 8, 2008 at 5:20pm

A 31-foot antenna mast from the World Trade Center’s North Tower is displayed on the fourth floor of the Newseum against the backdrop of 127 newspaper headlines printed the day after that tower fell in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The bent and rusted piece, which once served hundreds of journalists at New York radio and television stations, now hangs –– almost as a shining monument to the news business –– in the industry’s sparkling museum that opens to the public Friday.

The Newseum, a 250,000-square-foot space, takes up nearly an entire block on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. Paying tribute to the Fourth Estate, it is located halfway between the White House and the Capitol, with the Supreme Court only a short distance farther. The location is not a coincidence, and neither is the building’s facade, which is covered with a 75-foot wall bearing the words of the First Amendment, which guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

“We think the building would be worth it just with the sign alone,” Newseum CEO Charles Overby said Tuesday. “[The museum] is the most ambitious effort ever to teach people about the First Amendment.”

Headlining with the First Amendment out front, the Newseum leads inside with a “Great Hall of News” that features a high-definition media screen and news ticker. The seven-level building has 15 theaters, 14 galleries and two television studios. One of those studios will soon be home to ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolous,” which will broadcast from the Newseum every Sunday beginning at the end of this month, along with National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.”

“Almost anyone who works in Congress or covers Congress is a news junkie, and the Newseum is for news junkies,” Newseum President Peter Prichard said.

[IMGCAP(1)]With the constant ticker and gallery of 80 front pages updated every day, news junkies will be able to get their fill after paying the $20 admittance fee to the Newseum, which will also hold lectures and events to discuss issues facing the media, Prichard said.

The museum chronicles the media’s evolution in the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery, beginning with a display on Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. The exhibit travels from World War II and radio’s first eyewitness account of an airborne strike to television’s earth-shattering coverage of a man landing on the moon in 1969. The showcase touches on the Internet’s early role in 1998 during the coverage of President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and ends with the dramatic video clip taken by a Virginia Tech graduate student the day a gunman shot and killed 32 people. The clip made its way onto cable news.

As the look of media has changed, from trench-coat-wearing reporters and ink-smudged pages to interactive Web sites and touch-screen electoral maps, so has the industry’s museum. The first Newseum, located in Arlington, Va., was a third of the size of the new building and just a tenth of the price. The new location, a $450 million project, features a digital news center, a 7,000-square-foot interactive television gallery and an exhibit on the role of blogging in modern media coverage. The glitzier locale has even upgraded its dining options, bringing in celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck to do the Newseum’s food court as well as to run The Source, an upscale restaurant in the complex.

“This is a news-eum, not a newspaper-eum or a faltering industry-eum,” Overby said of the museum’s direction. “We will focus on the news and the distribution of information.”

Situated in the nation’s capital among the monuments and museums paying homage to the United States’ history, the Newseum mostly focuses on the U.S. news industry, but a global map spread across a massive wall on the fourth floor highlights countries that have a free press and those that do not.

The United States, Poland and Botswana are illuminated in green to indicate their free press systems, while Sudan, Russia and China are highlighted in an alarming red to indicate the censorship of media in those countries. Overby said the map might stir emotion from visitors but serves as a physical reminder that the fight for a free press worldwide is a continuing battle.

“We know there’s some controversy to it, but if we use the news to open the discussion, that’s a worthwhile exercise,” he said.