Remarks by Charles L. Overby, CEO of Newseum, Inc., to the Newspaper Association Managers on December 7, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

It is a pleasure to be with you today and to give you an update on the Newseum and a few thoughts about the newspaper business.

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue opened about a year and a half ago. In our first year, we attracted more than 700,000 visitors—pretty good for a museum that charges admission in a city where other museums are free.

You get what you pay for, and that’s one of my themes today.

But first, I want to emphasize how important newspapers are to our Newseum and how much visitors enjoy looking at them every day.

The Newseum displays Today’s Front Pages on the front of the building, one from every state and a few countries.

I enjoy watching people stop and study these front pages. We carry more than 700 front pages daily on our Web site.

The day after the election of President Obama, people were lined up, sometimes four deep, taking pictures of the front pages.

Inside the Newseum, there are 368 historic newspapers on display, dating back to a 1526 news book about the Treaty of Madrid.

The Newseum owns about 35,000 historic newspapers.

Of course, we have a lot more than newspapers, from the most pieces of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany to the Unabomber cabin.

This shows how engaging a newspaper can be, even for young people.

I want to relay an incident from last week that brings the story of the Newseum and newspapers together.

Regrettably, we announced last week that the Newseum was going to eliminate 29 positions to help balance revenue and expenses. Attendance at the Newseum has been good, up from our first year of operation. But fundraising has been somewhat slower this year compared to last year.

But that has been true for most museums and nonprofits.

We get daily reports of Newseum mentions in newspapers and Web sites.

Gawker wrote: “News and museum combo The Newseum is laying off 13% of its staff, the second round of job cuts since the place opened just in time for the total collapse of the newspaper industry. These are the most predictable museum layoffs since … whatever is the auto industry museum. They probably had layoffs, too.”

So the narrative is that newspapers are failing. Therefore, the Newseum must be failing. The Newseum certainly is not failing, and I believe newspapers control their destinies more than some people realize.

I gave a speech a few years ago that dealt with fairness in the media.

We held town hall meetings with community leaders, with news people and with average readers to ask them about fairness. We found that fairness was not a one-word definition with these groups. Newspapers could be accurate, for instance, but still not considered fair.

From those sessions, I realized that too many editors and reporters failed to take into account that fairness encompassed a lot of things—some large, some small—in order for readers to view a story or a newspaper as fair.

So I came up with a simplistic formula that helped summarize readers’ views toward fairness: A + B + C + D + E equals F, Fairness.

Accuracy plus balance, plus completeness, plus detachment, plus ethics equals Fairness.

If a reporter can put all of those things into a story, then a reader will deem it fair. If the reporter misses just one of those things—even if the other four are there—then the reader might think the story is not fair.

Over the last week, in preparation for my remarks to you today, I went back over the stories and reports I have been collecting about newspapers. I don’t have to tell you that most of the news is negative—declining circulation, declining revenues, doomsday predictions that the end is near.

The news about newspapers seems to get worse every month. There are a lot of people who seem almost gleeful about these doomsday reports. And the people who aren’t necessarily gleeful seem generally willing to accept and pass on to others this message of collective doom and destruction.

I enjoy reading history, and I have recently completed a couple of books about the early days of World War II. Now, if you want gloom and doom, read about London in the early 1940s.

There were two primary optimists during that period—a couple of leaders named Churchill and Roosevelt. They refused to accept the conventional wisdom that Hitler was going to take over all of Europe. At the time, it was more than conventional wisdom. It was seen as inevitable that Hitler would win and dominate Europe and beyond.

But, on the strength of those two leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt—determined, optimistic, unyielding—they stopped Hitler and changed the world. They made a lot of mistakes getting to the point of success. But they turned around public opinion, they motivated the Allied armed forces, and they provided the bold vision needed to stop the most dangerous tyrant of the 20th century.

It is a hard thing to change public opinion, but it is done all the time as a result of strong leadership, bold actions, clear communications and unyielding determination.

I’ve put together another simplistic formula for today’s newspapers dilemma.

A + B + C + D + E equals F, Future.

Act, Believe, Compete, Differentiate, Evolve. These concepts equal the future.


Do something, even if it’s wrong. It can’t be worse than simply giving away the news for free.

The time for wringing our hands about the plight of newspapers is over. It is time to act now. Every day that newspaper owners continue to give away their product on the Internet is a lost opportunity.

This is not rocket science. In any business, if an owner decides to give away the product without gaining revenue from somewhere, that business will fail as a profitable enterprise.

I believe the decision to start giving away the content of newspapers on the Internet more than 10 years ago created a Lost Decade for newspapers. I’m hoping the next decade will be the Found Decade.

It should not take us 10 years to recognize giving away the product was a mistake. Why don’t more newspaper owners act to correct this mistake? I believe they are paralyzed by critics who insist that to be cool and to be “with it” you must surrender your product to the Internet for free.

I am reminded of my wife’s uncle, Chauncey Godwin, who owned a shirt factory in Tupelo, Miss. He told me that he once pulled into a gas station, and the station owner said, “Hey, Chauncey, when are you going to give me some shirts from your factory?” Without blinking an eye, Chauncey said, “When you start giving me your gas.”

The notion of giving away news is shortsighted and counterproductive. Newspaper owners spend a lot of money hiring reporters and editors to assemble news every day for their communities.

They need to act now to reverse this destructive trend.


Newspaper owners, newspaper staffs and state newspaper association managers must begin by believing in their own product and believing in the viability of the news and advertising that is assembled every day.

I have had the opportunity to work with Howard Baker, the senator from Tennessee who was majority leader of the Senate, chief of staff for President Reagan and ambassador to Japan. He is highly popular wherever he goes and in whatever role he accepts. In Tennessee, he was not known for having a great grass-roots organization of precinct and county chairmen.

But he always won.

Someone asked him what the most important thing in politics was. He said, “You have to get the talk right.”

In order to do that, you need the people around you and your supporters believing in you and telling others.

The talk is not right about newspapers today. And part of that reason is that newspapers staffs and even some owners have quit believing in the future of newspapers.

If the people who work for newspapers don’t believe the content is worth paying for, who will? From top to bottom, the people in the newspaper business have to start believing in themselves again.

The community leaders need to believe that the content of newspapers is worth paying for.

What if the people around Barack Obama had gone around saying, “We’ll never win.” Obama supporters really believed they were going to win, they dedicated themselves to winning, and they did.

We need the same belief and dedication from people about newspapers and news content. Sure it’s worth paying for. It always has been, and it always will be.

This is nothing less than a campaign. Before it can be launched, the people closest to the newspaper business have to believe in it. The talk has to be right.


For too long, newspapers did not have to compete to get people to buy newspapers and newspaper ads. They had to ask for the order—at least most of the time—but they didn’t really have to compete in the dog-eat-dog way required of many businesses.

As a result, I believe newspapers got a little flabby, a little content, a little overconfident. And that probably contributed to the disastrous decision to give their content away on the Internet.

Now, with circulation and ad revenues down, newspapers need to learn to compete aggressively to win back readers and advertisers.

It is an all-out fight, and just doing what has always been done will not suffice. Newspaper publishers have to be willing to embrace new—even radical—approaches to change the momentum of what is happening.

I believe newspapers must embrace the idea that they have to campaign to win back their communities. I want to repeat that for emphasis. Newspapers have to campaign to win their communities back.

For a business that specializes in communicating to readers, newspapers do a pretty poor job of communicating about themselves.

The publisher and the editor and the ad manager have to treat this like a political campaign. They have to organize, develop and target the right messages, gain endorsements, persuade doubters, confront the skeptics and use every means available to win the community back.

This will take more than rhetorical flourishes and a few well-turned phrases. The competition starts with content and pricing. If it means producing different or better content, produce it. If it takes better pricing, adopt it.

This goes on in every other business every day. Everybody in the newspaper business should wake up every morning thinking of ways to compete better for the paying reader.


To reclaim paying customers, newspapers need to do more to differentiate their content from the things that are free on the Internet. First, that means either charging on the Internet for those different things or not putting them on the Internet at all.

I have been involved with newspapers for more than 50 years, first as a newspaper carrier and then a reporter and editor.

Even I wince at writing a check for $18 each month for my subscription to my local newspaper. I wince because I already read that information on the Internet for free. Every month when I write that check for $18, I feel that I am making a charitable contribution to that newspaper. Because my local newspaper is owned by Gannett, I feel I am making a charitable contribution to Gannett.

How many people out there want to make charitable contributions to Gannett or any other big media company? People want substance, and they are willing to pay for it. They want to give their charitable dollars to other causes.

Just look at television. Television used to be free. Now people pay a lot of money every month to cable companies to get stuff on their TV. Why do people pay the cable companies? Because they are getting content they can’t get anywhere else for free. Newspapers would do well to study the cable television model and figure out what they can provide that customers will pay for. The premium channels on cable bring in a lot of money. A few newspapers are beginning to look at providing readers with premium packages for a fee.

The key to more paying customers is differentiation. Newspapers have the ability to produce better, more interesting daily products than any other local media. The question is will they do it and will they have the courage to quit giving it away.

Again, this is like a political campaign. The best candidates work hard to make their message different and frame it in a way that voters can understand and appreciate.

Newspapers need to do the same thing. Each local newspaper needs to figure out the major things that make it different.

Too many newspapers are dangerously close to cutting their news budgets in a way that will make it harder to produce distinctive, different news products.

You cannot produce interesting, informative different news products every day on the cheap. Readers notice, especially when given a choice between paying and free.


Now after all this, you might think that I believe only in a seven-day-a-week home-delivered print newspaper. That would be wrong.

I believe in news, and I believe in delivering it to the public for a fee. But the paper part of that surely will evolve over time. Of course, it is already evolving.

I subscribe to the print versions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY. I also get the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on my Kindle. I get the e-edition of USA TODAY on the Internet.

Candidly, I don’t consider the Kindle or e-editions as satisfying as the print versions, but sometimes they are more convenient for me.

I believe we are evolving toward a wireless tablet, large enough to capture the feel of newspapers, both in pictures and display ads.

That time is probably closer than we realize, but in the meantime there are other evolutionary things that are important to the future of newspapers.

You have probably read that the Federal Trade Commission is holding hearings about the future of struggling news organizations. It makes me nervous to think of the government “helping” newspapers, particularly since I work in a building that has a 74-foot-high marble sign on Pennsylvania Avenue with the 45 words of the First Amendment. I don’t have to tell you that the First Amendment starts out this way: “Congress shall make no law….”

The best thing Congress could do is eliminate some of the laws they have already written pertaining to newspapers, particularly relating to bans on cross-ownership of media. There is plenty of competition in the media world.

Many newspapers are experimenting with evolving models, and that’s a good thing. In Detroit, the Detroit Free Press delivers to homes Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays but continues to print all seven days. They sell the paper on the other days as single copies at 18,000 different locations.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle is trying glossy paper to improve the look and feel of the paper.

The point is that every community newspaper should feel free to experiment, to evolve into the future.


That brings us to the F word, Future. The country has always depended on the delivery of news to its citizens.

The Newseum carries the famous quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Of course, after Jefferson became president, he had other ideas about newspapers, but go to the Newseum if you want to hear about that.

President Obama offered his own version of the Jefferson quote recently: “A government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America.”

The future of our democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Newspapers—and the content they provide in evolving models—are central to that future.

So I ask you to consider the A, B, C, D and E of the Future.






The future of newspapers and the important content they provide will continue to be essential to our citizens, IF our leaders act decisively and wisely.