Putting More New in the Newseum  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

Putting More New in the Newseum   

The Washington museum gets a new chief and a heightened emphasis on new media. Wed. July 27, 2011

By Alison Kitchens
Alison Kitchens (akitchens@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


As incoming president and CEO of the Freedom Forum, James Duff's overarching goal is to keep the old and bring in the new― new media, that is.

He's arrived at the right time.

In August, the Freedom Forum's Newseum will start construction of its HP New Media Gallery, which will feature interactive tablets and touch screens, allowing museum visitors to shape their own media experiences, says Paul Sparrow, the Newseum's senior vice president of broadcasting. The initiative was underwritten by a $5 million donation from Hewlett Packard.

The Newseum, a museum of news in Washington, D.C., pays homage to journalism history and focuses heavily on traditional forms of media. Now it wants to devote more space and attention to the fast-evolving digital world and such important and rapidly growing phenomena as social networking.

"Even when we opened in 2008, it was obvious that we had underestimated the rate of change that the business and the world was undergoing," Sparrow says. "Seeing that, we started work around developing a new-media gallery."

Says Duff, "Connecting with new media, I think, will be very important. It's something we are targeting."

Plans for the new gallery include two large touch screen walls comprised of multiple liquid crystal display monitors highlighting new-media milestones, like the first pictures of the US Airways plane that landed on the Hudson River, which surfaced on Twitter, and the key role played by social media in the Egyptian revolution earlier this year.

Another section in the gallery will present museum-goers with news stories brought in via multiple RSS feeds, giving them the opportunity to assemble what they think are the most important news stories of the day.

"They'll be able to see in almost real time how news is being distributed throughout the world, how different people are editing the news and how their editorial judgment ranks with everyone else's," Sparrow says. "It helps them understand that the old rules have changed. It puts them in the role as editor."

The HP New Media Gallery is scheduled to open in April in empty space at the end of the Newseum's news history gallery. Sparrow says the gallery is being developed with the knowledge that its features will constantly change. "We know that any decisions that we make right now about what new media is, a year from now, five years from now, it is going to be different."

Duff, a lawyer who is finishing up work as chief administrator of the U.S. court system, says he hopes that as they evolve, new-media institutions will become more committed to advancing the First Amendment, a major part of the Freedom Forum's mission. "I think we are hoping that they will naturally see their role in this continuum of history, and that they will want to participate in educating the public about it and being a part of that history."

Duff, 57, is replacing Charles Overby, a former reporter and editor who has led the Freedom Forum for nearly 22 years. "When I started running the foundation, we really were in the wholesale business―we primarily dealt with news people to advance the First Amendment," Overby says. "Now we're in the retail business. We reach millions of people through our programs every year."

Another challenge for Duff, perhaps his most daunting, is raising money, as the Newseum has hardly been immune from the financial difficulties of the past several years. Since it reopened in 2008 after moving from its original home in Washington's Virginia suburbs, the Newseum has undergone several rounds of staff layoffs.

Duff says he plans to leverage the organization's past efforts on behalf of the First Amendment. (Besides the Newseum, the Freedom Forum includes the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Diversity Institute.) "It really is a good fundraising tool just to see the good works that can be done and have been done through this organization," he says.

The Newseum has encountered criticism for its admission fee, now $21.95 for adults, in a city where many museums are free. Duff says he has not received any complaints about the fees, which are used to offset the costs of running the museum. "The feedback that we have been given from those who visit the Newseum is very positive and well worth it."

The museum has made attempts to accommodate those who may not want to pay the full freight, including offering deals through Groupon.com. This summer the Newseum waived the $12.95 fee for minors from July 1 to September 5. The Newseum also sells annual memberships for $75 a person, which allow visitors to have unlimited admission to the museum and discounts on products and food.

"I think Washington is the most wonderful city in the world because of all the museums that people can attend," Duff says. "And the museums in the Smithsonian are very fortunate to be supported by the federal government in part, which enables them to be free to the public."

Duff says attendance at the Newseum is steadily increasing. "The visitor numbers are going up every month... We are setting records each month this year for the number of visitors."

When Duff's appointment was announced in May, it marked a significant departure for the Freedom Forum, whose key executives have come from the world of journalism. He describes himself as a regular media consumer, reading daily newspapers every morning (he declines to list them) and checking Web sites throughout the day on his BlackBerry. He plans to start using an iPad in his new position.

Duff says he stays connected to his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, by following local news online and has tried to stay current on Washington legislative and political issues, which have a large impact on his court position. He's now splitting his time between the Freedom Forum and the courts, and will start full time at the Freedom Forum by the end of the summer.

Duff was appointed to the court administrator position in 2006 by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. From 1996 to 2000, Duff served as counselor and administrative assistant to then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, where he assisted Rehnquist with his responsibilities as chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution.

In 2000, he became a managing partner at the Washington office of the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, where he served as counsel to the Freedom Forum. That experience familiarized Duff with the organization and gave him the opportunity to get to know some of his future colleagues.

Duff's fans include U.S Court of Appeals Judge Anthony Scirica. "He's never one to seek out center stage, but he's the kind of person that everyone gives responsibility to because he's so extraordinarily competent and such a decent human being," says Scirica, who has worked with Duff over the past few years. "He was a soft-spoken leader, but he was a leader."

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby, who also worked closely with Duff, describes the new Newseum chief as hardworking, dependable and trustworthy "We will not replace him," Hornby says. "We will find a successor, but he will not be replaced."

Peter Pritchard, a former president of the Newseum who helped lead the search for the new CEO, says the committee was "looking for someone who had the experience and management skills to lead a complex organization," skills he thinks Duff possesses.

"He has wide-ranging legal and First Amendment experience, and he is just a superb administrator and superb handler of people. We are very grateful that we were able to attract and hire somebody of his caliber."

Pritchard says the Freedom Forum's goal is to "preserve the best and to improve the rest."

"It's a good goal and Jim understands that, and I know he'll do that," he says. "He'll preserve the best traditions of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, and he'll have the fresh perspective that's needed to improve the rest."

Overby, who worked for 16 years as a reporter, editor and executive for Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, says he's more than ready to pass the reins to Duff. "I'm on my way to being a has-been, and I couldn't be happier about it," he says.

He's confident that Duff has the leadership ability to take charge of the Freedom Forum and all of its initiatives. Overby was particularly impressed with Duff's past as a member of the University of Kentucky basketball team. Duff didn't receive a basketball scholarship but made the team as a walk-on. "It is just extraordinary that on a team of such legendary proportions that Jim was able to walk on and be a part of that," Overby says.

"He is almost what you call a walk-on here because he doesn't have what you'd call the traditional background," Overby says. "He walked on at the University of Kentucky, and now he's walking on at the Freedom Forum and the Newseum."

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