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The Newseum: The Past and Future of Journalism

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The Newseum is Washington's newest tourist attraction. A gift from the Gannett Foundation, the modernistic $450 million edifice looms over Pennsylvania Avenue just down from Capitol Hill, an ironically grandiose tribute to the struggling newspaper industry. It had its formal opening last month, and it's definitely worth visiting, even if tickets cost $20.

I didn't make it to the opening but I went there Saturday on a beautiful spring day with my wife and a couple from Richmond, Va., along with hundreds of other visitors. It's an incredible museum, as technologically - and architecturally - advanced as any in the world. We spent two hours but could have spent the entire day; there are seven levels with 14 permanent galleries, including a section of the Berlin Wall, 15 theaters and dozens of interactive displays detailing the history of print, broadcast and photojournalism.

The history of newsgathering is told from the early days of the Republic to the Civil War to the Great Depression, to the two World Wars to Vietnam to 9/11 to the war in Iraq. There are even 48 kiosks where you can pretend you're Wolf Blitzer or the editor of the Washington Post, or call up a color display of your hometown newspaper, whether it's from St. Paul, St. Petersburg or Sao Paolo.

But for me, the highlight of the Newseum's vast array of exhibits promoting freedom of the press are the facsimiles of the front pages of newspapers from all over the country and the world aligned in front of the building along Pennsylvania Avenue. They are the latest editions, electronically reproduced each day in full-size color, and they provide a snapshot of what newspapers are offering their readers.

I stopped there on Wednesday on my way to the U.S. Capitol to see what kind of play newspapers were giving to the jeremiads of Barack Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. No question it's a big deal as it was the lead story in all but a handful of U.S. papers, complete with huge photos or Obama and/or Rev. Wright in most of them.

Some examples: Chicago Tribune ("Obama Outraged by Wright"); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ("Obama Forcefully Cuts Ties to Rev. Wright"); Charlotte Observer ("Obama: I Find These Comments Appalling"); Omaha World Herald ("Did Obama Split with ex-Pastor in Time? Political Analyists Say It May Be Too Late to Help in Primaries"); San Francisco Chronicle ("Will Rebuke Rid Obama of His Pastor Problem? Analysts Say Response to Wright Likely to be Effective"). The Indianapolis Star's coverage of the key Indiana primary, buried the Obama-Wright story under one about Clinton urging Democrats not to switch sides whoever gets the nomination.

Only a handful of U.S. newspapers failed to front page the Obama-Wright controversy. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot understandably devoted its coverage to a devastating tornado in the area, while the Shreveport Times reported that Hillary Clinton outraised Obama $749,000 to $387,000 even though Obama won the state's primary by a 57-36 percent margin. The big news in the Casper, Wyo., Tribune was not Clinton or Obama or John McCain but "Tribe Opens Casino", while the Des Moines Register, obviously moving on to other things now that the Iowa caucuses are over, asked, "Which Salsa Tastes Better?"

But the message I came away with from my visit to the Newseum is that every newspaper. as well as radio and television, is now devoting enormous resources to online journalism, where the future of the news business is headed, if it has not already arrived. The Newseum's impressive displays highlight a reminder that while newspapers represent "the first rough draft of history," as the Washington Post's late publisher Philip Graham once declared, they also serve as a reminder that in the brave new world of the Internet, we journalists have to become MPCP's, or multi-platform content providers if we don't want to suffer the fate of dinosaurs.