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Newseum: Combining history and journalism

Just a few easy stops from the District of Columbia on the orange or blue lines of the new, clean Washington Metro line is the Rosslyn, Va., stop. From there, a two-minute walk will take you to the home of the world's first museum of news, the Newseum.

Housed in a stylish glass edifice about 100 feet from the subway, it was erected at a cost of $50 million by USA Today and the Freedom Forum, "to help the press and the public understand each other better."Since it officially opened April 18, 1997, the Newseum has had a quarter of a million visitors. It is funded by The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan, international foundation "dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people."

Admission is free, and it is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A visitor can take either a self-guided tour or an audio tour narrated by National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards, which is available in English, French, Japanese and Spanish.

Ralph Applebaum, the renowned architect who designed Washington's popular Holocust Museum, also designed the Newseum in a 72,000-square-foot space in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Georgetown.

Applebaum specializes in "reality-based museums."

Eric Newton, the Newseum's Managing Editor, remembers "the longest running news meeting - about three years - to produce the story of news and decide on the front page for the Newseum."

Newton says he and his colleagues studied the history of news, then created a database of 10,000 stories, which they then pared down to a more manageable level.

Newton was previously managing editor of the Oakland Tribune at the time the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its earthquake coverage. At the time, the Tribune saw itself as a "teaching paper, the way hospitals are sometimes teaching hospitals."

Newton's interest in educational programs in journalism lead him to the Freedom Forum and the Newseum.

He says the journalists who assembled the exhibitions "had the best of journalism and the best of storytelling in mind. Newseum paragraphs were written or rewritten 20 or 30 times to say as much as they could possibly say in one paragraph."

The immediate impression is overwhelming, beginning with the word "news" displayed in 50 languages in the lobby, and progressing through three colorful levels.

The first of many startling displays is a magnificent news globe containing 1,841 newspaper nameplates from the United States and around the world. It took me only a few seconds to discover THE DESERET NEWS integrated with the rest.

The 126-foot-long Video News Wall is equally impressive as it shows news from around the world as it happens.

Beneath the video screen is a display of today's front pages from 70 U.S. and international newspapers. A dense news wall displays portraits of notable journalists or bearers of news, ranging from Paul Revere to Ann Landers.

Interactive games with touch-screen monitors allow visitors to step into the shoes of a newspaper reporter or editor.

A visitor can take an interactive crack at the life of a reporter and even make difficult, ethical judgments on how and whether to run news stories that lack evidence or unfairly malign a reputation.

There is even a studio environment that allows a visitor to be on the cover of a national magazine, be a radio sportscaster or go on camera as a television newscaster.

A visitor can go behind the scenes to see how news programs are produced in the Newseum's state-of-the-art broadcast studio.

Visiting professional journalists give the Newseum life. A guest broadcaster may do a morning show from the studio, a top editor may discuss the day's news with a visiting tour group, or a well-known cartoonist might do a "talk and draw" workshop.

A most interesting recent visitor, says Newton, was Bart Barnes, an obituary writer for the Washington Post. Even though Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein get most of the credit, it was Barnes, a rewrite man, who wrote the first Watergate story in 1972.

Newton says, "It played above the fold in the Washington Post, and it even suggested a conspiracy, `according to authorities.' I asked Barnes who the authorities were, and he said he couldn't remember."

Newton says visitors ask all kinds of interesting questions of journalists, such as "Why do stories continue from one page to another?" In the journalistic vernacular, this is called "the jump."

The simple answer, says Newton, is that editors try to get a lot of headlines onto the front page, and all stories won't fit. But, he says, this is not new, because news stories have been jumping for 500 years.

Ernie Pyle, the respected World War II newspaper columnist, is shown outside the Newseum at a memorial to fallen journalists. Pyle, who was killed by a Japanese sniper in 1945, is one of 934 slain journalists honored by a glass and steel spiral sculpture.

There is also an international collection of icons symbolizing the pursuit of freedom, including segments of the Berlin Wall, a replica of a Cuban refugee kayak and a bronze casting of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birmingham, Ala., jail-cell door.

In 4 places in the Newseum, it's possible to view short films, the first a 20-minute race through great moments in history in a 220-seat high-definition video theater with a 20-by-40-foot screen, the largest in the Washington area.

There are also 7-minute films illustrating such things as the making of a news story, freedom of the press or flaws of the news media.

At the Bijou, a 50-seat theater at the end of the News History Gallery, you can watch "Fact or Fiction: Hollywood Looks at the News," an entertaining look at how journalists are portrayed in the movies.

Beginning with an Egyptian scribe statue, dating from 1100 B.C., artifacts show how news traveled anciently. A Sumerian cuneiform tablet (2176-562 B.C.) proclaims "Nebuchadnezzar II has great gates of bronze."

In the News History Gallery, you can see how news has evolved from spoken stories to a worldwide information explosion.

With the use of multimedia exhibits, news artifacts, historic newspapers, magazines and newscasts, the great news stories of all time are brought to life.

One of the highlights during my visit was a traveling collection of Harry Benson's unusual photographs of presidential families, including unique poses of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George Bush and Bill Clinton.

When it leaves the Newseum, this collection will visit the various Presidential Libraries through the year 2000.

Prior to the Benson exhibit, the Newseum featured a display of "60 Years of LIFE: Photographs That Changed the World." After Benson, on Nov. 5, an exhibit called "Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina" will be launched.

The Newseum also operates satellite galleries in New York City and San Francisco, but the world's only real museum of News is likely to remain for many years the one in Arlington, Virginia. As Newton aptly puts it, the `Newseum' is really "a high-tech hybrid," an interesting symbolic as well as cultural blend of two dynamic worlds - history and journalism.