The Newsman Behind the Newseum

Share Button
Building exterior with First Amendment text

Class of ’74 | When Alberto Ibarguen L’74 was attending law school at Penn in the early 1970s, he paid some of his bills by peddling newspapers.

“To help make ends meet, I wound up standing on a major street corner in West Philadelphia every Sunday,” recalls the former publisher of The Miami Herald, who last April took the helm as chairman of the board at the recently launched, $450 million Newseum in Washington, D.C.

“The corner was located across from a Catholic Church,” says Ibarguen, “and I sold the Inquirer and the Bulletin to everybody going in and out. And one of the things I’m proudest of is that I tripled the sales [for that location] of the two newspapers during my time on that corner. Years later, after I became publisher of the Herald, I enjoyed sharing that fact with all my circulation directors!”

For the 64-year-old Ibarguen, who departed the Miami morning daily back in 2005 to run the $2.6 billion John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (a job he continues to hold), making lots of money from newspaper sales and advertising had been the norm throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It was an era in which many of the big U.S. print-media corporations ran profit-gorged newspaper monopolies in major cities across the country.

News Corporation News History Gallery

But in the 1990s, the surging Internet started attracting more and more newspaper readers to websites that could deliver up-to-the-minute news at the touch of a few buttons. Almost overnight, traditional newspaper revenue sources—such as classified ads—were switching to the Web. The increasingly besieged U.S. newspaper industry lost 20 percent of its ad revenues between 1997 and last year, and one-fourth of the editorial jobs at America’s daily newspapers vanished without a trace. (Last year, according to Editor & Publisher, newspaper ad revenues experienced their steepest decline in 50 years: $42 billion, a one-year drop-off of more than 9 percent.)

While it may seem like a strange time to be spending $450 million to launch an ambitious, seven-story museum, Ibarguen is undaunted. The Newseum, located only a few blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, features 250,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to the history of newspapers and TV news—with special emphasis on how the First Amendment has protected what Newseum publicists describe as “the free flow of information, ever since the framers of the Constitution decided that Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of the press.”

Having enjoyed an extraordinarily successful stint as a newspaper publisher who racked up record profits at both the Herald and its Miami-based, Spanish-language partner, El Nuevo Herald, Ibarguen readily admits that his industry now faces “enormous challenges as we continue our longstanding effort to reinvent ourselves in an era that’s increasingly dominated by electronic journalism and the Internet.”

A talented media manager with a knack for innovations that improve the bottom line, Ibarguen concedes that it won’t be easy to rescue America’s ailing newspapers from potential collapse. “I think the problem is that we haven’t figured out yet how to make the World Wide Web meet the specific community needs of the towns and cities in which we actually live,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s clear that the democratic process requires a free flow of information—and especially the kind of community-based, local information that newspapers have traditionally provided. Figuring out how to protect that flow is going to be a major challenge for all of us.”

Berlin Wall Gallery

Ibarguen, a native of Puerto Rico whose marketing-executive Cuban father brought his family to the U.S. when Alberto was eight, grew up in suburban New Jersey, then attended Wesleyan College before signing on with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s. He spent a couple of years paddling canoes along the Amazon River in South America, and by the time he got to Philadelphia, his Kennedy-era idealism had been tested in the villages of southern Venezuela.

After graduating from Penn Law, Ibarguen spent several years as a legal-aid lawyer in Hartford. He joined that city’s Courant as senior vice president for finance and administration, and never looked back.

 “From the first day I walked into the newspaper, I was hooked on the idea of journalism,” he says today. “What I learned there—and also [during several years] at Newsday and then later at The Miami Herald—was that an unimpeded flow of information is absolutely essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.

“At the Knight Foundation, we give away more than $123 million a year in support of good journalism,” he adds, “and I try to make sure we use our endowment income to make grants that will encourage and expand the flow in small towns and major cities.”

Along with funding such Internet-savvy media projects as online local community newspapers, investigative reporting at local public-radio stations, and teams of youthful reporters from MTV who are “covering the presidential race with texting and video clips on their cell phones,” Ibarguen says he’s constantly looking for “ideas on how journalists can use digital platforms for the delivery of shared information to geographically defined communities.

“At the Foundation, one of our goals is help communities meet their information needs,” he adds, “and at this point, it’s very clear that nobody has yet figured out where journalism is going in the age of cyberspace. This is a very exciting time to be in journalism—because the entire field is changing in front of our eyes.”

While he acknowledges that a giant news museum (which has received mixed reviews so far) is “certainly not going to be a magic bullet” for the ailing newspaper business, Ibarguen says that the Newseum “is going to provide the entire nation with a treasure trove of fascinating—and interactive—information about the vital importance of unbiased news reporting as an essential component of democracy.”

“We’re going to be bringing classrooms full of kids through there every day of the week,” he adds. “This will be the most interactive museum in the world today.”

It includes everything from historic front pages and laminated press passes from bygone U.S. political conventions to a blasted hunk of the former Berlin wall and a bullet-riddled newspaper truck that once delivered Time magazines to readers in the war-torn Balkans. The lavish layout will also offer visitors an interactive exhibit in which they can pretend to file breaking news as a “live” TV correspondent, or wrestle with story assignments in a mock-up newsroom.

“We also like the fact that the Newseum is located right on Pennsylvania Avenue,” says Ibarguen. “When the next President of the United States is inaugurated, he or she will look up and see this seven-story slab of Tennessee marble on which is carved the First Amendment.”

—Tom Nugent

Share Button

    Leave a Reply