30 for the Newseum

Of course this had to happen. In a nation where old and once trusted newspapers fall like autumn foliage, who would have thought that a museum in tribute to the news industry could possibly succeed? Publishers, I suppose, who saw the place as a tribute to the ideals they held dear.

That’s why they stuck it in such a juicy location downtown in Washington, D.C., so it could compete with the wonderful institutions of federal government, Congress, the White House, all those federal trappings and gothic and modern buildings housing the agencies.

That’s what they would want you to think.

But there is a bigger truth about journalism that even we former journalists sometimes forget. First, of all things, it was only a business. A business with an important public service calling, of course, but a business nonetheless. The instant it stopped producing bandit level profits, the passion for that cooled. Local news was most important. Chopped to pieces. Foreign and national news, a few stalwarts still do them. Mostly not.

The Newseum is going away for diminishment, just like the industry it represented so loudly down in the heart of Washington. It will take a while, but before long, you won’t even know it was there, just like the morning paper that used to land without fail on your porch (or in the hedges or somewhere.)

It’s fashionable to blame it all on the internet and point the finger at Craig’s List or a host of other inventions that came along and sucked the profits right out of the news publishing business. But I think it goes beyond that. The newsroom scandals of the past couple of decades, and they transcend newspapering and reach all the way into broadcasting (even public radio!) point to one of those defining internal rots that erode a lot of big businesses over time.

We developed such a sense of self-importance in journalism that it was only a matter of time before life came along and leveled us, put us back down with the rest of the fallen angels and, amid weeping and cries of unfairness, showed us that as a business, we were nothing special.

I know, that sounds like my own bitterness speaking, and I suspect some of it is. But I also know I did an honest job very well, along with a lot of other reporters and editors, and in the end, it didn’t mean a lot of anything except to us as individuals. We drank lots of hard liquor over the years and argued about how unfair change was. Some people even tried to ride that wave. But it got smaller and smaller as it approached the beach. Forward motion stopped and our news surfboards sank with us standing up there waving our arms. It turned out to be deep water for some people and places, I am sad to say. Full of sharks and stinging jelly fish.

Wow, there’s a terrible metaphor that should end right now!

Look at the world of business and how it has weathered all of the change that has come sweeping along over the decades. Who knew Amazon was going to cut the legs off of its competitors and let them bleed out? Sears. Struggling but just about gone. Marshall Field, Bon Ton, on and on the list could run. But don’t think of it that way, think of it as the price attached to change.

Why did the news business think it would be immune, especially when it became clear that technology would change everything from how information is collected to how it is distributed? And remember, no one ever creates an iteration that costs as much as what it replaces. That would be dumb.

I think what we need to remember as the Newseum evaporates and shows up in some tiny building somewhere is that nothing last forever. It just lasts as long as it is supposed to last. The markets decide that, no matter how hard we try to change the course.

I used to argue that the money peed away on that building and its contents (it even has a cast off helicopter from some news channel) would have been better spent gathering news and making it readable, watchable, hearable, whatever. The problem with creating museums is they really need to emphasize what is eternal about the institutions they are honoring. The most revealing thing about the decision to sell to Johns Hopkins is that it came so quickly.

I don’t think I want to blame the folks behind the effort. I’m sorry it went this way. I’m sorry the Tribune Tower in Chicago is going to be fancy condos, too. But that’s what’s happening.

Their Newseum intentions were sparkling, just unrealistic.

An honest pursuit of truth, that would still be worth honoring and pursuing diligently. But individually, not in a collective version in a spunky building in the nation’s capital. You saw how long that lasted.

In your heart.

That’s where journalism values should continue to live.