Dream, Dare, Do.

Journalism conference shows how writing skills transfer to everyday life

By Emma Suttell

Not many people can say that they’ve been in one room with exactly one person from each state and the District of Columbia. However, this summer I found myself on a plane to meet the most diverse group of people I had ever encountered.

Sharing the Newseum as our second-home for the week, I convened with 50 other high school seniors from around the country for the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.

Created by USA Today founder Neuharth, the conference selects students with journalistic experience from around the country to attend a week-long conference in Washington, D.C., that promises to be life changing.

I had applied for the conference in January and was stunned to receive an email on April 23, informing me that I had been chosen to represent the state of Arizona. Within weeks, I was browsing the itinerary, reading Neuharth’s books and doing everything I could to learn about the history of USA Today. As it turned out, none of my research would come close to preparing me for the phenomenal first-hand experience I had at the conference.

Upon arrival, because I wasn’t coming from a school-sponsored journalism program, I couldn’t help but worry that the other students in the program would think of me as the underdog. I was beyond proud of the work I had done back home, namely with 85086 Magazine, but I had never had the chance to show my work to others in an environment such as the Al Neuharth Conference.

To my surprise, as I stood in front of the group and introduced myself while presenting an issue of 85086 Magazine, each person in the room embraced my unique experiences and even asked questions about my journalistic work outside of school. The program presented me with my first experience of being surrounded by several students who are just as passionate about journalism as I am.

After introducing ourselves, the conference leaders promised that our itinerary would be packed to the brim with activities, which couldn’t have been closer to the truth. Each day began around 6 a.m. and consisted of seminars, panels, and incomparable meals prepared by Wolfgang Puck and several local restaurants.

Besides the expected curriculum of journalistic training, each panel headed by professionals in the industry presented me with new skills that not only applied to my writing, but to my everyday lifestyle. I was encapsulated with how many practices of journalism play directly into all career paths, especially the advice of Val Hoeppner, a media specialist.

Hoeppner taught me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I took home this summer: “Get it first, but first, get it right,” she said.

As a journalist, I often feel the pressure to share information, perspectives and rapidly developing stories the second that I hear about them. Whether there is an outpouring of information about homecoming or a notification from CNN that pops onto my phone screen, I have to remember that before I share anything, I have to be sure what I am sharing is accurate and truthful.

“If they close the door on you, you’re going to find a window,” David Fahrenthold said, an investigative journalist with The Washington Post, referring to the persistence one must pursue not only as a journalist, but also as an individual.

The Pulitzer Prize recipient told us of his daily promise to consume news in its purest form, both to stay engaged as a citizen and claim inspiration for his own work.

Every journalist at the conference, including Fahrenthold, made it a point to offer themselves as a resource after the conference concluded for the week. I have great faith in my future career path knowing that so many people in the industry offer themselves as mentors and place a priority on accessibility for budding journalists.

Oftentimes in life, we miss out on things because we don’t ask enough questions. Before the conference, I had never been put on the spot to ask questions and delve deep into topics I thought I knew on surface-level. From Fahrenthold, I learned that in life, it’s not so much the questions we ask, but the ones we don’t. Journalism is founded on curiosity and good-natured interest, a skill that anyone can benefit from in any field.

One of the most encouraging parts of the program was a panel populated by Free Spirit alumni who have gone onto professional careers.

Washington Post reporter Maura Judkis focuses on features; her work felt familiar to me, as most of what I write for 85086 are features and profiles of students in Anthem. Judkis smiled while telling us of her different story experiences, from her food reviews to covering local cultural events.

The panel of Free Spirit alumni encouraged me to take my work back at home to a new level. They suggested that instead of asking if there is anything else I can do, I should ask, “What more can I do?” The Free Spirit conference pushed me to always settle for more, whether it be in school or in my journalistic work; seeing successful alumni from the program rejuvenated my hope for my own future.

To round out the week, we sat in on a live taping of NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd, a show that plays Sunday mornings to discuss the current political climate. After visiting Todd, we headed to Capitol Hill for a press tour, the headquarters of USA Today and several veteran and war memorials to pay our respects to those who have served our country.

Never before had I realized the vastly different environments that journalists work in. Chances are, anywhere you go, there is always someone who has the job of keeping everyone else informed. Journalists truly possess the responsibility of providing accessible and clear information to everyone around them using various formats, whether it be written or multimedia journalism.

Besides introducing me to journalistic perspectives I had never encountered before, the conference allowed me to investigate several political concepts that most history classes don’t cover with much depth. Home to the First Amendment Center, the Freedom Forum Institute led the majority of the conference and revealed to us several survey results they had discovered.

In a 2018 survey of 1,009 people, 40% of those surveyed could not name any of the five freedoms of the First Amendment (Freedom Forum “State Of the First Amendment” survey).

Upon arrival, I realized that I couldn’t even name all five freedoms myself. Throughout the week, we focused on freedom of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly. I highly valued becoming well-versed in my First Amendment rights because although most don’t realize it, the First Amendment heavily impacts Americans every day.

While maneuvering through the Newseum and engaging in the conference, my fellow Free Spirits and I came up with ideas to share the First Amendment with our schools, as well as ways we could encourage our peers to actively seek out their own rights and responsibilities and citizens.

Every person I met at the program, especially my fellow Free Spirits, empowered me to fully commit myself to what I love. I heard from high school students who had started their own podcasts, filmed documentaries, started independent newspapers and lead organizations of their own.

Thanks to the Neuharth family, I have the confidence I need to advance in the industry and find a home for myself, as well as my newfound family of students around the United States. Because of Mr. Neuharth specifically, I have been inspired to dream of what I wish to accomplish, dare to take steps toward it, and freely do what I love.   

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