The Rewrite Man
Charles Overby Had a Plan to Increase Circulation. Build a New Newseum.

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

Charles L. Overby, the chief executive officer of the Newseum, had one question for his senior management team.

"How do we increase our impact?" he asked the dozen officials of the Freedom Forum, gathered for a retreat in Williamsburg about nine years ago.

This query was unusual because the museum had just opened just two years earlier, on a busy street in Rosslyn. But Overby outlined the hard facts: It had outgrown its site and it was too far off the tourist track to get drop-in visitors. Those who found its door, on the ground floor of an office building, loved its immediacy -- the front pages from around the country and the chance to do a stand-up just like the real Washington correspondents.

Overby thought something else, something bigger, could be done. At that point, what he was asking seemed astonishing. But Peter S. Prichard, the Newseum's president, says they had all worked under the tutelage of Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today and the Freedom Forum, and nothing in their boss's vision was defined as impossible. Plus the foundation had more than $1 billion in assets to use for any future facility.

Overby pressed: "Can we make a quantum leap forward instead of incremental steps?" The answer came back, "Well, if we could ever get a site on the Mall."

Overby, who arrived for work at 5 a.m. yesterday, has now seen his dream come true. The reincarnated Newseum opened, and Overby was so busy it took a while before he noticed the line of visitors snaking down Pennsylvania Avenue.

By the end of the day, 10,854 people had come through the door, and Overby pronounced himself "ecstatic."

The best day in Rosslyn? About 5,000.

* * *

Once the decision to move was made in early 2000, Overby went about every step in a methodical way, listening to every interested party, weighing every alternative. He considered a place on Constitution Avenue because he liked the symmetry with the museum's focus on the First Amendment. However, the Newseum would have to fit into an existing building.

Then Lois Zambo, a real estate broker, drew up a map with about a dozen buildings, some on the market, some with just some buzz.

"Charles saw the Pennsylvania Avenue site and said, 'That is where I want to be.' I said, 'Do you know how difficult that is going to be?' " Zambo says. The parcel was only 643,000 square feet, with a local government office hugging the corner. It was not on the market but the city was willing to consider a deal.

Overby was smitten, by the location, by the symbolism, by the challenge.

"Just the idea of being able to locate this museum right on Pennsylvania Avenue . . . it was location, location, location," Overby says.

The list of obstacles was long. He had the team prepare an unsolicited offer, a package he thought the city couldn't refuse.

The Newseum team thought $50 million was a good offer to the city, but they also wondered if foreign investors would be eyeing the site. They decided on $75 million. But then Overby decided to put another $25 million (to be used for affordable housing) on the table. "I am a strong believer in the round-figure number. I thought the number would take everyone's breath away," he says. Zambo remembers being flabbergasted by Overby's plan. "Our jaws dropped," she says.

The $100 million not only chased away any competition, it allowed the Newseum to set a deadline for the city's response.

Overby also studied how major projects often attract critics, especially when the city is trying to build a livable downtown. He enlisted advocates. One of the first was Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "He's very adept and he does it in a way that has inclusivity and consensus, rather than leadership that rams something through," Lynch explains.

Weeks before the deal was final, Overby and Prichard went to a reception at the Canadian Embassy, their new next-door neighbor. They went up on the balcony for the first time to see the view they would someday share.

"The sun goes down, the light goes on in the Capitol, and a full harvest moon rose behind the Capitol dome," Prichard recalls. "Charles says, 'We didn't pay enough.' "

Now Overby, a thin Mississippian with Southern manners, talks a lot about how collaborative the creation has been. About 300 people -- a gaggle of writers, an army of builders, entertainment producers and technicians -- have pulled together the new museum. They closed the first in March 2002 and took time to get this one exactly as they wanted. They had a big checkbook. This is a museum with a $450 million price tag.

Overby, 61, has been a constant presence with both Newseum 1 and Newseum 2. The first one was ordered up by Neuharth. Jerry W. Friedheim, the former president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association and executive director of the first Newseum, came up with the name.

When the city gave its final approval for the deal, Overby was in Ghana, where the Freedom Forum was hosting a debate for the country's presidential candidates. His lawyer called and said "it was a done deal." Overby ran into the hotel lobby, gave his assistant a congratulatory kiss, and then his team toasted with champagne.

Overby recalls the steps required to turn a hole in the ground into the most important addition to Pennsylvania Avenue since the Reagan Building. Overby's office on the ninth floor has a sweeping view of the Capitol dome, the roof of the National Gallery of Art, the clock tower of the Smithsonian Castle and the nation's other cultural sentries along the Mall. The upper tier of Nationals Park beckons in the distance, as do the ever-present cranes of gussied-up Washington. If he turns just so, he can look toward the Senate press gallery, where he worked for three Southern newspapers after running up and down the hallways as a junior aide to John Stennis, the late senator from Mississippi.

"Our main mission is to teach people about the First Amendment. To do that you fish where the fish are," says Overby.

"The way I try to define my role is to be the chief encouraging officer, and I tried to be behind what everybody does and give them the resources," says Overby. He had the staff hold daily story meetings, just like newsroom planning sessions. Eight out of 12 senior managers were former journalists. Polshek Partnership Architects and Ralph Appelbaum Associates headed the architecture and exhibition design teams.

"Those of us with a daily journalism background, we are used to completely building a newspaper in a day and sending it out, enjoying the fruits of that work, getting the feedback and building something else all over again the next day. If something doesn't work out well, you try something different the next day," Overby says. "This construction project, you start building on Pennsylvania Avenue -- you know, we don't have a corrections department. We are building for 100 years or more."

High on his list of what had to be done, and done right, were the windows. "We made an important strategic decision five years ago to put the views out front for the visitor," he says. The Wolfgang Puck signature restaurant and the condominium apartments -- part of the unusual mix -- would not have the prime vista. "The visitors have the best elevated view of Washington that is available. We said, if we are going to teach people about the First Amendment, we need to inspire them. There is nothing more inspirational than to be able to look at the Capitol and the monuments around here."

The number of details in a complex building didn't throw Overby and the team off-track. "Charles has always been very calm. And if you are going to have frayed nerves, this is the project to make it happen," says Edward M. Rogers, a partner with Nixon Peabody, the project's lead outside counsel.

Overby insisted on a clean work site, Rogers says, and would point out imperfections. "If the corners of the railings weren't right, he would say, 'That is uneven and you need to do it over.' " Zambo, the real-estate broker, remembers only one angry phone call from Overby, when she got off-message and told a reporter the appeal of the site was because it was on the inauguration route. "It came across as negative," she says. "And he was stern and said he didn't like it."

When it was apparent the project wouldn't be ready by the original opening date in October, Overby accepted the blame for not anticipating the extra time needed.

One overhaul he wanted was the news history gallery. In the first museum, "we made a decision to not start using television to show the history until television was invented. That blocked out several centuries," says Overby, and that was a mistake.

Overby represents the television generation, and decided to scale back some of the television history to make room for the story of the digital transformation in the news.

Overby was born in Jackson, Miss. After his father died, his mother, a secretary, raised Overby and his younger brother. "She worked for some years for a construction company," says Overby, thinking a minute about that irony and his recent hard-hat years.

After finishing at the University of Mississippi in 1968, he worked in Washington and then launched what became a long career for the Gannett newspaper chain. He worked as a reporter and editor at the former Nashville Banner, then as executive editor of Today in Cocoa Beach, Fla. He became president of the Gannett Foundation, the nonprofit fund of the media company, in 1989, and then chairman and chief executive officer of the Newseum and the foundation's successor, the Freedom Forum, in 1997. The forum has given $5 million, added to $2.5 million from the state of Mississippi, for a new journalism and politics building that will be named for Overby at Ole Miss.

There are two episodes regarding civil rights and Mississippi history, now told in the museum, that he particularly remembers.

Overby recalls the day in 1963 when Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary, was killed outside his own home in Jackson. He also remembers how the local paper covered it the next day. " 'Californian charged in murder.' And the guy had lived in California maybe as a child. I said, we have got to get that front page." And it is part of the 35,000 front pages in the museum.

He shakes his head at the bravery of his friend Jack R. Thornell, who captured the 1967 prize-winning photo of the shooting of civil rights activist James Meredith. "Everyone else was ducking behind parked cars while the shots were being fired. He stood up and took the picture, and you can see Meredith lying on the ground in pain. You can see the rifle. That was such an act of courage," Overby says. That's in the museum's Pulitzer gallery.

Overseeing the museum's development follows another important achievement in his professional life. In 1983 Gannett's Jackson Clarion-Ledger, where Overby was the editor, won the Pulitzer Prize Public Service Medal for news and editorials on education reform in Mississippi. "I thought there would never be, and I hate to say this out loud, never be a more exhilarating feeling than the afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi, when we won the Pulitzer Prize," Overby says. He wells up for a minute and continues talking about the collective effort the newspaper joined to change education in the state.

One of the hardest decisions, he says, was closing the Freedom Forum's six offices. The offices in London, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, New York and San Francisco sponsored conferences on politics and the press and special issues such as photojournalism in the digital age. The work has been folded into guest international journalists programs and work in the museum's World News Gallery. "I loved those offices," Overby says. "But if you are going to run a big-time museum on Pennsylvania Avenue, you can't have programs and operations on every continent."

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