Learning to Dream, Dare, and Do: The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference

Learning+to+Dream%2C+Dare%2C+and+Do%3A+The+Al+Neuharth+Free+Spirit+and+Journalism+Conference

From July 13– 18, 2013, fifty one rising high school seniors, one representing each state and D.C., participated in the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. The conference, which is named for Al Neuharth, the visionary founder of USA TODAY, the Freedom Forum, and the Newseum, brings together diverse students from across the country united by a passion for the written word. As the Virginia conference representative, I was able to spend a week in D.C. learning from the best in the field, both in terms of professional and student journalists.

Meet the Press host David Gregory offered his advice on surviving the "turbulent" new age of journalism: "Write well, think well, and have a good knowledge of history." Photo courtesy of the Newseum.
Meet the Press host David Gregory offered his advice on surviving the “turbulent” new age of journalism: “Write well, think well, and have a good knowledge of history.”
Photo courtesy of the Newseum.

Throughout our time in the capital, the Free Spirit scholars were given the opportunity to explore the city in a way many people will never have the chance to view it. Our first adventure was attending a taping of Meet the Press. This was an especially exciting event due to the guests (Reverend Al Sharpton discussing the Zimmerman trial and Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell relaying their side of the filibuster conflict) and the simple fact that it was Meet the Press. We entered NBC Studios and absorbed the excitement surrounding us: David Gregory sipped his coffee while thumbing through notes, and guests stood by the door waiting for their turn to speak.
Sara Ganim, a CNN correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, shared tips on investigative journalism with the Free Spirits via a Skype conference call.
Sara Ganim, a CNN correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, shares tips on investigative journalism via a Skype conference call, saying, “Getting all the sides of the story out there is better than regurgitating all the facts and only telling one side of the story.”
Photo by Meilan Solly.

After Meet the Press, our insider’s glance at the competitive, constantly evolving landscape of journalism continued with speakers including Judy Woodruff, co-anchor of PBS Newshour; Ron Nessen, former Press Secretary to President Gerald R. Ford; and Sara Ganim, the reporter who broke the Sandusky scandal last year and earned the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for local news reporting.
Each session was unparalleled in terms of the level of access the Free Spirits were given.  Instead of each speaker merely giving a presentation, we were allowed to have real, in-depth discussions in the form of Q & A’s.
Aside from meeting fellow journalists, we participated in a tour of the USA TODAY newsroom, a Q & A with NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn, a tour of the Capitol that included a conversation with Senate Historian Don Ritchie, and a luncheon with Freedom Rider Dr. Rip Patton and First Amendment rights activist John Seigenthaler.
Mr. Gene Policinski (left), the Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum, directed Free Spirits in a televised Q&A with NASA astronaut Dr. Thomas Marshburn.
Mr. Gene Policinski (left), the Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum, directs the Free Spirits in a televised Q&A with NASA astronaut Dr. Thomas Marshburn.
Photo by Meilan Solly.

While the speakers and events which kept us busy from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day are a large part of what made the conference so incredible, they are matched in importance by the bonding which occurred between the 51 Free Spirits.
Chosen because of their journalistic accomplishments and ability to be free spirits (those who dream, dare, and do), the group was diverse in everything from race to beliefs, yet we were able to relate and become a family in just six short days thanks to our common passion. I will never forget our giant group dance to “Stay” by Rihanna at the end of the conference, or the memories we made throughout the week, including singing on the bus and dancing on a Potomac River boat tour.
And, thanks to the technology which has completely changed the face of journalism, the class of 2013 Free Spirits’ ability to maintain our newly formed relationships has also grown. Several weeks before the conference, our Wyoming representative created a Facebook group that enabled us to start the awkward introductions before we even arrived in D.C. Months after the conference, not a day goes by without a Free Spirit posting an interesting article or call for advice.

“In 5 years, only the very largest and very smallest newspapers will put ink on print seven times a week.” -Val Hoeppner, digital media specialist

In the months following the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my experience. I heard views on the future of journalism which ranged from digital media specialist Val Hoeppner’s belief that “in 5 years, only the very largest and very smallest newspapers will put ink on print seven times a week” to editor-at-large of Politico Bill Nichol’s thought that journalism will change and already has changed to “match a society that’s too loud and too fast.” I was also able to juxtapose the past of political journalism against the new age, thanks to discussions with veteran reporter Susan Page, who has covered 9 presidential campaigns, and younger journalists Zeke Miller and Elicia Dover, both of whom covered the campaign trail in 2012 by utilizing social media.

At the conference graduation ceremony, Mrs. Jan Neuharth, Al's daughter, congratulated all of the Free Spirits.
At the conference graduation ceremony, Mrs. Jan Neuharth, Al’s daughter, congratulates the Free Spirits.
Photo courtesy of the Newseum.

Today I realize that journalism is, at its best, a vehicle to impact lives, effect change, and, most importantly, tell the truth. And while many believe the newspaper is disappearing or that the long upheld professionalism of the business is dying thanks to the rise of citizen journalists, meeting my fellow scholars and those who have seen America through everything from Watergate to 9/11 has truly helped me reach the conclusion that this is the only profession to which I want to dedicate my life. In the words of Al’s grandson, AJ Neuharth-Keusch, “Without journalism, the world doesn’t spin. It shapes everything.”