Columnist examines how ‘Al-Neuharth and Free Spirits impacted my life’

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Columnist examines how ‘Al-Neuharth and Free Spirits impacted my life’

2019

2019 "Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference" scholars stand outside the U.S. Capitol building. They gathered after receiving a press tour of the building. 2018-2019 ENO assistant editor Haley Stack was one of the high school journalism students who attended this event in Washington D.C., June 14-20, over the summer.

Maria Byrk

2019 "Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference" scholars stand outside the U.S. Capitol building. They gathered after receiving a press tour of the building. 2018-2019 ENO assistant editor Haley Stack was one of the high school journalism students who attended this event in Washington D.C., June 14-20, over the summer.

Maria Byrk

Maria Byrk

2019 "Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference" scholars stand outside the U.S. Capitol building. They gathered after receiving a press tour of the building. 2018-2019 ENO assistant editor Haley Stack was one of the high school journalism students who attended this event in Washington D.C., June 14-20, over the summer.

Haley Stack, Guest Columnist

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Between Jun. 14-20, the Freedom Forum and Newseum hosted the annual “Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.” Fifty-one students from each state across the U.S., including the District of Columbia, gathered in Washington D.C. for a week of learning, fun and bitter-sweet goodbyes. 

This is the basic description everyone is given when applying to the conference. When I boarded my plane at 12 p.m. Friday, June 14, I didn’t know what I was heading toward. This was the first time I was traveling entirely alone, and while I was anxious about what could possibly be the worst week of my life, I was also excited about what could be the best.

Al Neuharth was the founder of USA Today. In a world before cell phones, where people did not want to read full-length articles about who did wrong or right in politics and most just wanted to pick up the paper to see who won the game last night, Al was a game-changer, a free spirit. He founded a paper where people could receive only the most important information in the fastest way possible. While some criticized him as, “not a true journalist,” others saw him as a visionary. He saw what people really wanted.

Going to a new place with a group of 50 other students from every state for a week with only one sure thing in common can seem daunting, but I met some of the most amazing and powerful people. I never would have a chance to meet them if I didn’t apply for this conference. Nobody knew each other, so everyone was willing to make friends. Every day I spoke with someone new to hear what it was like to live in Delaware or Oregon or Mississippi or Georgia. We bonded over our mutual love for journalism and the endless supply of Voss water. Getting to say you have known and spent a week with someone from each state in the country is not a thing most people get to say they have experienced, and I’m so lucky to be one of the few who can. 

Our conference was held at one of the “secret” floors of the Newseum. The Newseum is a museum in D.C. dedicated to journalists and their coverage of major world events throughout history. The building includes shrapnel from 9/11, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and a memorial for all the journalists who have been killed while reporting. What seemed like just another museum to tourists who visit the city every year has become somewhat of a home or a place of belonging to all the free-spirit scholars who have come through the years.

The 2019 Free Spirits stood atop the rooftop deck of the Newseum. In the distance, the Capitol building can be seen. Photograph by Maria Byrk.

Each morning consisted of everyone waking up in what I now refer to as the most beautiful and promising city in the country. I had never been to D.C. before this trip, but this experience gave me a newfound respect for it. We got to see the typical tourist spots of the city while also getting to see how the press works. This consisted of a press tour through the Capitol building and a tape viewing of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. Each day we had panels consisting of people who ranged from past scholars that went on to publish best selling books, work as New York Times and Washington Post reporters, and as sports reporters at ABC. We met with the personal lawyer turned judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan and Two Freedom Riders from the civil rights movement and many more people I could list, but won’t. Reading about influential people we were honored to meet wasn’t what made this trip so impactful, nor will it make a reader believe it was. The feeling the trip left everyone with is impossible to describe because I can’t understand it myself. 

When we were told to recap the story of this trip in our school publications, many students choose to take a news, feature or video route. I knew I wanted to write a column because I see it as the best way to explain not only what this trip was but why it was important to be apart of it. Al Neuharth was a legendary man, who even while he is gone, continues to impact students through his legacy. If you are a student journalist, I recommend you apply for the conference to experience this life-changing trip.

Although the trip is over, we 51 students will be forever bonded. We still keep a running group chat that has caused my phone to continue buzzing. We will hopefully all meet again soon at the reunion held annually after each conference. 

I along with the other 50 student journalists would become referred to as “Free Spirits,” but none of us could truly grasp what that meant until it was over. I have never had a more memorable experience than the one I had that week in Washington, D.C.

https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/initiatives/al-neuharth-free-spirit-and-journalism-conference/