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A popular museum dedicated to journalism and freedom of speech will shut down in just a few days on Dec. 31. The Newseum in Washington, D.C., has faced years of financial difficulties. Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU looks into what the future could hold for this struggling institution.
MIKAELA LEFRAK: The Newseum is a landmark here in Washington. It has a gleaming glass building on Pennsylvania Avenue right across from the National Gallery of Art.
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LEFRAK: Its facade features a nearly 80-foot-tall marble tablet engraved with the First Amendment. Visitors often stop to look at its sidewalk display of newspapers from across the country. The entrance hall with its soaring ceiling is a showstopper. Carrie Christofferson meets me there. She's the Newseum's executive director and curator.
CARRIE CHRISTOFFERSON: We'll go upstairs from here on one of our fancy-pants glass elevators.
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LEFRAK: On the building's top floor, there's a postcard-worthy view of the U.S. Capitol.
CHRISTOFFERSON: Of course, I see the symbolism. But we've got to focus forward.
LEFRAK: She's referring to the almost unavoidable metaphor of a museum dedicated to the free press shutting down right in the middle of what some call a crisis period for journalism. Local news outlets are struggling to stay afloat, and the line between unbiased reporting and fake news is getting murkier by the minute.
Amy Eisman heads the journalism program at American University. She's also on the board of the Freedom Forum, the organization that runs the Newseum.
AMY EISMAN: It's a tremendous loss for us personally and academically. It's actually part of the fabric of our program.
LEFRAK: Educators in the region have relied on the Newseum to teach students about journalism's history. Some of the most popular exhibits include a room full of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs and one on the free press's role in the Cold War, which features large segments of the Berlin Wall.
EISMAN: It's been more than a routine part of our curriculum. It made history come to life.
LEFRAK: But the Newseum's approach wasn't universally beloved.
ROBERT MCCARTNEY: I was not a big fan of the Newseum.
LEFRAK: Robert McCartney is a reporter at The Washington Post. He's one of a dozen journalists I talked to who thought the Newseum relied too much on gimmicky exhibits, including one on presidential pets. McCartney wishes he'd seen more in there about the real problems facing journalists today.
MCCARTNEY: Conservatives say that the establishment media is biased to the left. And there is much less accountability for city government and state government, especially as a lot of these regional newspapers are going out of business. So take that on.
LEFRAK: And speaking of business, the Newseum has struggled with debt for years, just like many of the news outlets it celebrates. For one, its landmark building cost around $450 million to build. Admission costs nearly $25, which is a tough ask in a city full of free museums. Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch hoped the Newseum would have experimented with more interactive exhibits and programs as a way to connect with today's media-savvy audience.
LONNIE BUNCH: I'd really love to see a much more engaging back-and-forth so that it really changes every day not just through the traditional headlines but through engaging people around the country around what they think these issues mean.
LEFRAK: But for now, there are no concrete plans to reopen the museum. Executive director Carrie Christofferson hesitates to speculate on the museum's future.
CHRISTOFFERSON: It's sort of an interesting moment because then you've sort of got a blank page. You get to decide what you're going to write on it next and what you're going to...
LEFRAK: It's the journalist's nightmare.
CHRISTOFFERSON: All right. Maybe we'll go blank canvas, and it's an artist who gets to - you know, what are you going to paint next?
LEFRAK: As for that giant tablet of the First Amendment, she says they're actively searching for a place to display it as they figure out what comes next.
For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.
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