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The Rewrite Man

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

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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.

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"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.

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