Last weekend, I visited one of my favorite places in Washington, D.C. — the Newseum. I like visiting the Newseum not because of its focus on journalism, but rather because I think it does a pretty good job at being a modern (mostly American) history museum. I think the idea of a museum of news is a great one, especially for journalism geeks like me.
I’ve been to the Newseum five or six times since it re-opened in D.C. in 2008 (from its original location across the Potomac in Rosslyn). Each time, I still enjoy myself, especially the new exhibits. In fact, this time we barely made it through half of the museum in the three hours we had to visit (Luckily, thanks to a Groupon deal, I am now a member of the museum for the next year, so I’ll go back).
A new feature – and disappointment
The News History Gallery — usually one of my favorite spots, with its collections of printed material going back centuries and well-produced educational videos — had a new section about “Newspapers Fight for Survival.” In fact, I was initially excited about seeing this feature, as I think that this important topic isn’t well-presented to the public most of the time, so a discussion about the structure of the NEWS BUSINESS could really help provide a fuller picture of the history and status of journalism, beyond the idealistic picture found in the rest of the museum.
The text of this section says, “Revenue and Circulation Decline, but It’s Not Over Yet.” It goes on to say, among other things:
What went wrong? For years, newspapers generated most of their income from classified ads and other advertising. The Internet changed everything by giving advertisers and readers more options, and more Americans now get their news online.
What this section suggests is that there are two main causes to the newspaper industry’s decline:
- Decline in advertising dollars, due both to lack of classified advertising and the current economic recession, and
- Decline in print circulation, due mostly to the Internet and readers’ changing habits of news consumption.
Don’t be mistaken. These two issues are major ones, but they are only part of the story. Moreover, I think by focusing on these two issues — and nothing else — the Newseum suggests to visitors that newspapers’ only saving grace would be either an increase in advertising or a society where people pay for online information. Those are the only options.
Some unanswered questions: What about the fact that newspapers are still very profitable, just not at the level that corporate owners and Wall Street expect? What about the fact that newspaper profits are still higher than most other Fortune 500 companies, but just not at the 20-percent margins of yesteryear? What about the fact that newspaper print circulations are actually steady or increasing in much of the rest of the world? What about the fact that the big metro papers in the most trouble were bought by big conglomerates using credit before the recession, and now those big corporations can’t pay their debt obligations?
One of the principles of journalism, say Bill Kovach, Tom Rosenstiel and the Committee of Concerned Journalists, is to be “comprehensive and proportional.” They use the metaphor of a map, that at the heart of truthfulness is that notion that the map shows me how things really are, without misconstruing certain features over others. If this is a map of the newspaper crisis, then I might think I’ll soon be falling off the edge of the world.
Of course, the Newseum isn’t a news organization, per se, but considering that it is run by many former journalists, I think I can expect that same level of commitment to the truth. That being said, I was looking at this exhibit in the News Corporation News History Gallery, which is upstairs from the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery, which is down the hall from the Time Warner World News Galley. And of course the Newseum is run by the Freedom Forum, formerly the Gannett Foundation.
My point is this: Part of the story of the news crisis is the role of corporate owners. Can that story be told in a museum heavily funded by some of these same organizations that might be complicit in exacerbating the crisis? I’m not suggesting that anyone is intentionally trying to suppress some bit of information. But if part of the story of the newspaper crisis is based on structural components of the news business, we need to recognize that it might be hard to tell that story when surrounded by the very structure to be discussed.
This post is about a museum, but clearly these controls apply to the news business as well.