“I seldom go into a natural history museum without feeling as if I were attending a funeral.”
By Alex P. Vidal
EVERY TIME fellow journalists from the Philippines visited the United States—in New York City, in particular, we exhorted them not to miss visiting the Newseum.
Where in the United States can we find the names of our fellow Ilonggo print and broadcast journalists and other Filipino journalism martyrs slain in the line of duty in the Philippines and being given importance and prominence?
The names of Eddie Suede, Noel Teneso, Severino Arcones, Josef Nava, among other Ilonggo community journalism martyrs had a special place in the Newseum on the soaring Pennsylvania Avenue building in Washington D.C., a six-hour bus ride from New York City.
The bad news is Newseum, dedicated to the history of journalism, had shut down after 12 years of difficulties before 2020.
We’ve visited the Newseum twice in 2017 and we were so impressed by its journalism and historic event exhibits, including those involving free speech and civil rights issues.
The building became recognizable for its four-story high marble presentation of the First Amendment since it opened in 2008. It previously operated nearby in Rosslyn, Virginia.
That amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the freedoms of speech and the press among others.
The Newseum finally closed its doors actually on December 31, the last day of 2019. The building was sold for $372.5 million to Johns Hopkins University and the the school reportedly plans to use it for some of its graduate program.
Some of the artifacts in the Newseum that we will miss are:
-A copy of a 301 year old newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, which was "the first successful newspaper in the Colonies."
-A 1789 front page that printed the first 12 proposed amendments to the Constitution. "Article the Third," about freedom of press and speech and religion, eventually became the FIRST...
-The NYT's 1927 front page about the test of a new medium called "television." It's "like a photo come to life," but commercial use is "in doubt," the headline said!
"We're on deadline," the museum's website screamed “We’re on deadline” as it urged people to come visit before the 2020.
As a consolation, The Newseum’s popular Today’s Front Pages, which shows nearly 1,000 newspaper’s front pages each day from around the world, will reportedly continue online after the December 31 closing.
As for the marble entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue, Paulson wrote in USA Today, “It was a dramatic and valuable reminder of the role our freedoms of press, speech, religion, petition and assembly play in ensuring that the United States remains the most vibrant, powerful—and free—nation in the world.”
The Freedom Forum, by the way, the nonprofit that runs the museum, promised that its work will continue in new locations and in new ways.
Analyst Brian Stelter claimed “the shuttering of the Newseum space is a big disappointment to the journalists and press freedom advocates who have supported the Newseum over the years.”
He described the farewell event as “bittersweet. More bitter than sweet, really. We need more places like the Newseum, not fewer.”
Johns Hopkins University purchased the Newseum property for $372.5 million so that it can reportedly consolidate its various Washington-based graduate programs in a single building.
The sale helped Freedom Forum with its crushing debt load, it was learned.
All along, with the Newseum, "the problem was expenses and debt," former USA Today editor Ken Paulson wrote recently. "The Washington building was too ambitious ($450 million in construction), the upkeep was too costly and donations were too few." In its twelve years in DC, the museum was never able to break even.
The chair of the Newseum, Peter Pritchard, talked about these challenges at Wednesday night's farewell event. Among other things, "we underestimated how hard it would be to break even when the competition is free," meaning all the government-subsidized museums up and down the National Mall.
Still, more than 10 million visitors experienced the Newseum during its 12 years smack-dab between Capitol Hill and the White House. The location always seemed so perfect to me -- because, as one of the exhibits stated, the Americans who wrote the First Amendment knew that "a free press could be used to challenge the government should it grow too powerful or abusive."
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo)