Newseum or Mausoleum?

Posted 05.13.2009

Newseum2 Last Saturday, I took my mom, dad and son into D.C. to see the Newseum, the Freedom Forum’s monument to journalism and free speech.  It’s a beautiful new building situated on Pennsylvania Avenue with an amazing view of the U.S. Capitol.  It also feels like a mausoleum to something that’s almost dead.  Literally the first thing you see before you even enter the building is a long row of display cases on the sidewalk with the daily front pages of newspapers from Newseum1 all 50 states.  One of the next things you see is a wall inside the building with more of the day’s front pages of newspapers from all 50 states and a few foreign countries.  After that, you can walk through a large room with pull out display cases of newspapers from 400 years of history through the present.  Leaving that room, you come upon a tribute to the journalism of 9/11.  What draws your eye is a large wall of reproductions of newspaper front pages covering the attack on the World Trade Center.

Newseum3 Do you sense a theme here?  Newspapers are at the heart of the Newseum.  Sure, there are exhibits on television and radio journalism.  There’s a bit on internet based journalism, but those exhibits feel like they were grudgingly bolted on by the curators.  It’s clear that when the Newseum was designed and built over the last several years that it was primarily about newspapers.  I think what it has turned out to be is a reminder of what happens when leaders become so wedded to a delivery channel or a process that they ignore what’s changing in the world around them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love newspapers.  I’m one of those geeks who has the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal delivered to my driveway every day.  But, there aren’t many of us left and I think it’s only a matter of time before one or more of those papers stop showing up at my house.

Newspapers have played a storied and critical role in building our democracy. Newspaper journalists have set the news agenda for other media and play an important part in establishing checks and balances among powerful institutions in business and government.  But, for lots of economic, technological and societal reasons, newspapers are dying.  In last Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich had a piece called, “The American Press on Suicide Watch.”  In the Washington Post this week, media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote an article titled, “Lack of Vision to Blame for Newspaper Woes.”  And the Newseum is mainly about newspapers.  No wonder it feels kind of depressing.

Like so many other industries, the news business is in the midst of what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction.  Something old is dying and the something new hasn’t been fully invented yet.  What can the leaders of this industry, or the leaders of any institution facing great change, do to create the future?  The first thing, it seems,  is to face reality.  A good second step would be to reframe the goal.  In the case of the newspaper industry, media strategist Clay Shirky has done a good job of boiling this down in a recent post on his blog:

“When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”

What would happen in your organization if you shifted the conversation from preserving the institution to doing whatever works?  As unpleasant as that shift might be, it probably beats the alternative.  For a limited time only, you can read about the alternative in your newspaper.