But just as the profession it celebrates is in distress — struggling financially in the internet age and attacked as purveyors of “fake news” — so, too, is the Newseum.
The Newseum has run up deficits every year since it opened a grand new home in 2008. Though it attracts a respectable number of visitors (820,000 expected this year) who pay top dollar ($24.95 for adults) in a city filled with free museums, the institution is simply not taking in enough money to cover its bills.
It still owes roughly $300 million on its new building, and the interest rates on the loans spiked last year. Its fund-raising has long been sluggish for a museum with a $61 million operating budget. It relies each year on large infusions of money from the Freedom Forum, the foundation that created the museum and has given it more than $500 million over the last 20 years.
“They have one significant donor, and that’s a risky proposition,” said Susie Wilkening, an independent museum consultant. “Because what happens when that significant donor decides, ‘This may not be what I want to be doing with my assets’?”
In fact, the Freedom Forum, which champions the First Amendment and whose own endowment has shrunk since the recession, now says it cannot continue to support the Newseum at the same level. In 2015, the most recent year for which financial statements are available, the Forum provided $21.4 million, or more than a third of the museum’s budget. It also took in $7.5 million in admissions. Still, the museum ran up a $2 million deficit.
“We have not been successful in closing the gap,” Jan Neuharth, the chief executive officer of the Forum, said.
All of which has put the museum’s future in doubt.
Jeffrey Herbst, who served as the Newseum’s chief executive officer and president for two years, stepped down from his post at the end of August.
“We had different visions of how to address the Newseum’s financial challenges and at the end of the day, decided to separate amicably,” Mr. Herbst said in a phone interview. He declined to elaborate.
The museum has just begun an in-depth review to try to right the ship. Everything is on the table, museum officials say, including selling the building that houses the Newseum.
That would be an ignoble fate for a structure borne of such ambition. The concept for the museum was hatched by the Freedom Forum, which was started in 1991 by Al Neuharth, Ms. Neuharth’s father and the founder of USA Today.
In 1997, the Newseum opened in a smaller location in Rosslyn, Va. But Mr. Neuharth had a bolder plan to build a palace to journalism on a piece of prime real estate in downtown Washington. The gleaming building overlooking the National Mall covers 643,000 square feet and has seven floors of gallery space and two floors of conference space. All 45 words of the First Amendment are etched into a 74-foot-tall marble tablet on the building’s facade.
“It’s a great venue.” Ms. Neuharth said, before acknowledging, “it’s very expensive to run the museum here.”
It didn’t help that the museum’s new home opened just after the recession hit. News organizations who were generous supporters at the outset found themselves contending with their own financial challenges. Journalists, who do not have the deep pockets of some professions, were not a particularly bountiful source of money. Unlike other museum boards, the Newseum did not require its members to donate to the institution until 2015. The Newseum would not say how much its trustees are expected to give.
Bob Schieffer, the retired CBS anchor and author of a new book “Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News,” said he wasn’t surprised that the Newseum had struggled to raise funds from news organizations and journalists.
“I think it’s probably more difficult now than ever because you have these big newspaper chains, their revenues are down,” Mr. Schieffer said.
In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, the Newseum collected $6.3 million in donations, or about 10 percent of its budget, a small amount for a museum of its size.
That has put pressure on the Freedom Forum to make up any shortfalls. In 2007, the Freedom Forum’s endowment was at a little more than $550 million. Two years later, in the Newseum’s first full year of operation in the new building, it shrunk to below $400 million. That same year, it provided $52.4 million of the Newseum’s $92 million budget.
“For large, mature museums,” Ms. Wilkening, the consultant, said, “very few are likely to have a single donor or foundation contributing even five percent of their operating budget.”
That budget has been trimmed significantly in recent years, and there have been four rounds of layoffs.
In addition, the museum has boosted its revenue from other sources and took in $21.4 million in 2015 as an event space for conferences and weddings, up from $12.1 million in 2011.
Ms. Neuharth and Mr. Williams said that the financial review was in the early stages and could have initial findings by the end of the year. As part of the review, the officials will convene a team that includes real estate experts, financial advisers, senior staff and trustees, among others, to try and make the Newseum and the Newseum Institute, its related educational center, sustainable over the long term.
Wayne Reynolds, a Washington-based philanthropist and a former Newseum board member, said he did not expect the review would find some miracle cure.
“They’ve known for years that their institution is unsustainable,” Mr. Reynolds said. “To have a strategic review at this point seems ludicrous.”
Mr. Reynolds said he was a museum trustee for about a year before resigning in 2015. Among the reasons he cited for leaving: “Their unwillingness to change their direction.”
Among his objections: the size of the admission fee, which he said was an obstacle to building attendance.
“It’s the fact that they’re charging $24 a person to go through a place,” Mr. Reynolds said. “Every other place that they are competing against along the Mall is free.”
Though the Newseum is listed as a popular attraction on TripAdvisor, attendance is still meager compared with other top museums in the area, many of which are federally funded. The National Air and Space Museum, for example, a division of the Smithsonian that charges no admission, has already taken in 5.8 million visitors this year, according to data reported through September.
Will President Trump’s attacks on the news media spur attendance, or hurt?
So far, the museum’s popularity seems to be on the upswing. But admissions, even at the most popular museums, typically offset only a fraction of an institution’s operating budget. So the solutions will need to be much broader, museum officials agree.
“Our advocacy is more important than ever,” Ms. Neuharth said. “We need to get a handle on the finances so that going forward for generations to come we can continue that advocacy.”