The Washington Diplomat / July 1997
By Larry Luxner
The Newseum, which bills itself as "the world's first interactive museum of news," is as much a paean to the latest in computer and telecom technology as it is a "celebration of freedom of the press," in the words of Vice President (and former reporter) Al Gore.
Located in suburban Rosslyn, Va., this $50 million mega-project was inaugurated a few months ago; along with the new FDR Memorial it is Washington's latest tourist attraction. Conceived and financed by the independent, non-profit Freedom Forum, the 72,000-square-foot Newseum houses thousands of historical artifacts including an original Gutenberg Bible; Charles Dickens' pen; an 18th-century wooden printing press; columnist Ernie Pyle's typewriter, and the microphone used by radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to report the bombing of London during World War II.
What makes the Newseum special, however, is its use of technology.
"Without the developments of the last 10 years, the Newseum would not have been possible," says Eric Newton, the Newseum's managing editor. As is the case with his 100 or so fellow employees, Newton's title reflects the ink-in-the-blood nature of this place -- which charges zero admission and where Newseum executives actually hold a news meeting every morning to review the day's special exhibits and featured speakers.
Newton, a former managing editor with the Oakland Tribune, says the Newseum's 126-foot-long seamless video news wall boasts nine HBC state-of-the-art projectors and 350 satellite and fiberoptic feeds from all over the world, allowing visitors to watch real-time CNN, Deutsche Welle and BBC feeds simultaneously -- before they become packaged news products.
"Any program that can be seen from the Washington area can be included," he told us. "We pay the cost of bringing the feeds down. Technically, it's like any other broadcasting organization. Feeds come from satellites that run on pre-scheduled programs. The magic is not having a television with 300 channels, but in the software that displays it. Each of the nine projectors projects a single digital image that's been blended from multiple sources such as laser, tape and graphic files. It's the ultimate TV schedule."
There's also a bank of TV screens that relive the biggest stories of the past decade as reported by the big four networks: President Reagan's attempted assassination (1981), the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger (1986), the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (1990) and the Oklahoma City bombing (1995) among them.
The nearby interactive newsroom lets visitors be TV anchors on the Newseum News Network, using MPEG-2 digital technology that wasn't available even two years ago. (For $10, would-be Walter Cronkites or Leslie Stahls can take home a videotape of themselves broadcasting a breaking story in front of a White House backdrop). Other exhibits allow tourists to appear on a magazine cover, investigate a news story or edit the front page of a newspaper using one of 100 interactive touch-screen computers.
At a nearby broadcast studio, students can watch as real news programs are produced for radio and TV, and talk with well-known journalists such as Helen Thomas or Ed Bradley. Next to the gift shop, a bank of computers allows visitors to punch in the month and year of their birth, and get a "front page" printout of that month's most important news events.
And at the News Byte Cafe, weary visitors can enjoy beverages and light snacks while surfing news-related sites on the Internet, thanks to an interface developed by Blair Dublair, a local software firm.
Newton said it took the Freedom Forum three years to organize this colossal "history of news." It'll cost another $11 million a year to keep the Newseum running.
"We're a charity, a philanthropic organization. Every year by law we're required to spend a percentage of our income on our mission. So we open libraries around the world free to check out books, learn about journalism," he said. "The revenues we get from videotapes or store sales would be a tiny amount of money compared to the $50 million we spent to build the museum."
To be sure, not everyone is enamored with Freedom Forum's Newseum. Time magazine columnist Andrew Ferguson calls it "an interactive museum dedicated to the propagation of stupid puns."
"This is more than just a tourist trap," Ferguson wrote in a blistering attack published May 19. "It is a $50 million testament to the terrifying insecurity that lurks at the heart of American journalism." He added: "Reporters love the Newseum, of course, but so do the schoolkids who come by the busload."
Indeed they do -- to see everything from historic front pages of newspapers to a collection of over 700 press passes donated by active and retired journalists from around the world.
One of the Newseum's most popular attractions, particularly with out-of-town visitors, is its display of the front pages of 70 U.S. and foreign newspapers ranging from The Miami Herald to Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun -- most of them in full color.
"The daily papers come from around the world," Newton explained. "About half of them arrive automatically as Quark or PDF files straight into our system via e-mail. The other half are a combination of the editors converting them into files our system can read, and sending them manually. Some newspapers we really want to display are simply not available."
Employees arrive as early as 3 a.m. to begin printing out the converted files at 130% of normal size on Hewlett-Packard printers. The Newseum usually has 50 to 60 front pages up by 10 a.m., with the rest coming in a little later.
"People look for news of their state. Teachers use them to compare story displays," says Newton. "Visitors like to browse the whole place. Technology makes it possible for everybody to find something of interest."