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May 6, 2008

Filed under: journalism»industry

Heart Shaped Box

My problems with the Newseum are personal, I think. When I visited it with Belle and my parents last week, they had a good time. As did I, for the most part. But there are still a few things that bug me about it a little.

First of all, in a town stuffed to the gills with great free museums, it's hard to believe that they want $20 a head. I understand that it's a brand new building with state-of-the-art equipment, but I can't imagine many families choosing to visit it over the Air and Space, American History, or Natural History museums, which are also filled with some pretty neat--and probably more kid-friendly--materials. I'm not even sure I'd choose it over those museums, and I work in the news industry.

Second, several of the exhibits rub me the wrong way. Like the room on reporting history, sponsored by News Corp, which seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing journalistic errors, partisanship, or malevolence (and who benefits from that perception, I wonder?). More pervasively, there's a tone of self-congratulation to some of the rooms, like the section of the Berlin Wall that stands in the basement. Yes, journalism covered many groundbreaking events. But there's a fine line, for me, between acknowledging the role of journalism in spreading the truth, and crediting it with a crucial role in those milestones. The important story about the Berlin Wall wasn't the reporting of its fall, it was the activism that brought it down.

There's little modesty on display, is I guess my point, if that makes any sense. And part of the problem with modern journalism, in my opinion, is that it thinks it's a lot more important than it really is.

But for me the central irony of the Newseum--a last gasp by an industry rapidly being overtaken by the Internet--is that it probably would have worked just as well, or better, as a web site. Snarky, I know, and you can say the same about many museums. But take the Pulitzer photography exhibit: a few photos are blown up and hung with explanations on the wall, and that's genuinely interesting. But the majority of the exhibit is every prize-winning photo, printed at 5x8 scale and mounted in a mass around a central column with no particular organization or order. It's a bottleneck for foot traffic, and really a poor way to display what are supposed to be the best news photographs taken each year.

A Newseum Online wouldn't have to replace the current museum--there are always exhibits that work better in person, like the collection of newspaper front pages going back to the start of the United States. But there are many things, like the Pulitzer exhibit or the interactive features, that it could do with more depth and greater diversity. And as such, it'd serve the purpose of advocating for journalism far more widely than a $20 glass shrine behind the National Gallery of Art.

Bonus picture: While we're on the topic of the website, this is some fantastically poor subhead writing.

Future - Present - Past