Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference proves journalism isn’t dead

Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference proves journalism isn’t dead

Courtesy of Freedom Forum Institute

Talia Zitner

Living in DC can often feel like the world revolves around what happens here. I have to remind myself that in states like Wyoming or North Dakota, there might be another teenage girl just like me, trying to find the perfect layout for their school paper’s website. In Nevada, another student journalist may be furiously emailing potential sources, trying to get breaking news out before their local paper. Maybe in Oregon someone is calculating their production costs, realizing that they’re going to have to do some fundraising if they want to publish next month. While I might sometimes think DC is the center of the universe, journalism is the center of gravity connecting me to students all over the country.

I was lucky enough to be selected to represent Washington, DC in the 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference. Every year, the Freedom Forum Institute (funded by the late Al Neuharth) picks one student from every state (and DC) to represent their state and high school publication. Students are awarded a $1,000 scholarship to the college of their choice, and whisked away to DC for a week of immersive journalism experiences at the Newseum. We spent our time listening to and questioning speakers, traveling to sites around the city, and sparring intellectually about everything from politics to paper type (not to mention eating delicious food catered by Wolfgang Puck).

I only had to travel about 20 minutes to our hotel, while my Alaskan and Hawaiian counterparts flew hours and hours. I had never been in a room before where the entire country was represented. Some might find this intimidating (I certainly did at first), or be put off by the diversity of ideas and opinions that floated around the room. It was actually really inspiring to see everyone come together, and reminded me of the dire need for unity in this country. America has become so divided by politics, region, and everything in between. Here I was, in a room reflecting the entire United States, and I could say for certain that every student there loved journalism. It didn’t matter if your preferred news source was The New York Times or Breitbart, but how many pages your school paper was or which website host you used.

When I first heard of this program, I really had no idea  who Al Neuharth was or how he was able to pay for 51 students to have this experience every year. I quickly learned that Neuharth was the founder of one of (if not the most) famous publications of our time: USA Today. The paper’s dynamic design inspired a new wave of journalism, encouraging publications to include pop culture stories and concise reports. The paper has a reach of roughly seven million readers, making it incredibly profitable. Neuharth left behind a legacy of entrepreneurship and pluck, as well as a love of language and news. He was beloved by many, although sometimes criticized for his tabloid-y way of writing. He practically invented what we know think of as  ‘clickbait,’ flashy headlines that draw in readers. Even though Neuharth’s style was sometimes looked down upon, he managed to amass a fortune that now provides opportunities for young people and visitors to the Newseum. Without his innovation and welcoming nature, newspapers would certainly not be the way they are today.

One of the most striking experiences I had throughout my week as an Al Neuharth participant was our conversation with photo journalist, Doug Mills. Primarily a political photographer, Mills shared from his experiences about photographing presidents and their lives. He showed us the heartbreaking image of President Bush receiving the information that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, explaining how the rest of the day’s events unfolded from the perspective of his camera. Mills shared why he finds photographing Melania Trump just as important as the President himself. It was unbelievably fascinating to hear Mills talk about his personal relationships with these larger than life figures. We competed for Air Force One stamped M&Ms, and even got to see photographs that were to be published in The New York Times the next day. I think that this had the biggest impact on me because as a writer, I tend to only see stories from one angle. I’m always considering how a reader is going to perceive the words on the page, rather than how they’ll react to the visuals. Meeting Doug Mills really opened my eyes to how striking a single photograph can be when trying to relay a story. I appreciated the time he took to share his work with us, and the lessons he was able to teach through a simple question and answer.

In a nation so polarized, it’s becoming increasingly more and more important to value what we have in common. For Al Neuharth scholars, it’s a love of news and journalism. It shouldn’t matter what state someone is from, they should be judged by their journalistic integrity. Where one gets their news isn’t nearly as important as how much fun one has when they complete a successful story. All over the country, there are students who are willing to go the extra mile to be first and factual. Being a free spirit just comes with the territory.


Applications are now being accepted for 2019, with a deadline of February 1st.