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Extra! Newseum Fate in Doubt

It looks like the Newseum could be in trouble.

According to a release from The Freedom Forum, which created the Washington museum, it needs to review how best to support the First Amendment and educate people about its bedrock freedoms. But that may not be via a museum that charges for entrance and has yet to make money.

The Newseum features interactive kiosks, touch-screen timelines, 100 miles of fiber-optic cable, the First Amendment etched in stone on the front, and numerous galleries and state-of-the-art HD studios to help tell the history, and look into the future, of newsgathering.

"As part of its review process, the Freedom Forum, the owner of the Newseum building, has retained counsel to review any and all available options regarding the building, including how the building and its various sections are utilized, full and partial sale/leaseback scenarios, joint ventures or additional condominium structures for shared use, and a possible outright sale of the landmark building located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol," the Forum said, sounding like it was preparing a real estate listing. "The Newseum will remain open during the strategic review process."

While the Newseum attracts nearly a million visitors a year (800,000), the Forum says it has been difficult to raise enough through those admissions to cover the cost of a "world class museum" with lots of interactive exhibits. By tough, it means the museum has never covered the costs, with the Forum making up the difference.

It was clearly signaling that money might be put to better use.

“It has become obvious that the current model—where the Freedom Forum is the primary funder of the Newseum [half a billion dollars over the past 20 years to build and fund it]—cannot continue indefinitely at this level,” said Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of Freedom Forum. “Left unchecked, this deficit spending rate would eventually drain the Freedom Forum’s entire endowment, and the annual cash drain prevents us from allocating any new capital to First Amendment programs that are at the heart of our educational mission.”

As part of the review of the museum's future, Jeffrey Herbst, who has headed the museum for the past two years, is stepping down.

The museum features exhibits for which various news organizations, including broadcasters, paid for long-term naming rights. News Corp., for example, paid $10 million-tied with The New York Times for largest donation—to get naming rights for the museum's News History gallery.

Others were NBCUniversal, $5 million/Interactive Newsroom; Time Warner, $5 million/the World News Gallery; Hearst Corporation, $5 million/the Power of News Theater; and ABC News/Walt Disney Company, $5 million/the Changing Exhibits Gallery.

The museum has been a part of a host of glitzy gatherings and policy forums, from Olympic opening parties, to movie and documentary screenings, to Ajit Pai's speech back in April announcing his effort to roll back Title II.

It opened—actually reopened—On Oct. 15, 2007 as part of a 650,000-square-foot colossus of apartments, retail space and a museum just steps from the Capitol Building.

The old, Arlington, Va.-based Newseum closed five years before.

(Image via A Loves DC's flickr. The image was taken Aug. 15, 2009 and is used per a Creative Commons 2.0 license. The image was cropped to fit the 16x9 aspect ratio.)

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.