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By: Zoe Stack


The sign was bright, way too bright for the time of the day. I am not one, while on summer vacation, to awaken when the time is still in single digits. Yet here I was at 4:30 a.m on my way to Washington D.C for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference.

The conference was created by an amazing man, Al Neuharth, a farmer’s boy from South Dakota who rose to the top though his hard work and dedication to the journalistic world. He created a revolutionary paper known as USA TODAY, set up the journalism foundation Freedom Forum, and oversaw the building of the Newseum. Both the Newseum and the Freedom Forum teach about the importance of the First Amendment and journalistic excellence. They sponsor an annual conference where 51 rising seniors, one from each state and the District of Columbia, are selected to come participate in a 5 day all-expenses-paid trip to D.C.  

I couldn’t believe that I had been selected to represent the state of Wisconsin. Yet, here I stood, at an ungodly hour of the morning, about to head off to D.C. Even as I stood at the ticket taker and waved with trepidation at my parents, I could not quite wrap my head around the idea that I had been chosen to attend this conference. As I boarded the plane, I was keeping up a rather negative mantra of why me? I must have been the only applicant from Wisconsin. ME? A FREE SPIRIT? It all seems quite laughable now doesn’t it, Zoe. Why you?


The first rays of sunshine were peeking over the horizon as I stood waiting to board the plane. The pink, orange, and red rays momentarily pushed the worry and self doubt from my mind. I managed to board and sit down with little mental turmoil. Despite the circulatory sequence of negativity I was excited, beyond excited. Yes it was early, yes it was scary, but I still knew that I was headed off for some of the greatest days of my journalistic career.


Most of all that happened next was a blur, a whirlwind of flights, baggage, meeting my first fellow Free Spirits (Camden from Arkansas, Apoorva from Georgia, and Caiti from Mississippi), meeting yet more Free Spirits in the airport, car rides, yet more Free Spirits at the hotel, the air and space museum, and then finally rolling up to the first night of conference at the Newseum. We got introduced to the program and had our first taste of what the Newseum holds. We heard from each of our fellow Free Spirits on which part of the First Amendment was their favorite. That was particularly powerful. Not saying that we don’t really learn about the Amendments in school, but I had never been asked to really pick apart an Amendment and investigate just how important and influential it is in a single person’s life.


The rest of the week only got better. We had sessions with amazing people that talked about things such as the changing world of journalism, social media in journalism and many more interesting topics. We got to go to the Capitol building and speak with a White House photographer, tour places such as the Newseum, headquarters of USA TODAY, and naturally do the touristy bit of visiting most all the monuments.


All of those speakers and presentations were amazing, but we had some particularly phenomenal and more well known speakers such as Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, PBS Newshour co-anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, and former Press Secretary Ron Nessen.


We did not just get to talk with Chuck Todd, we got to watch him live on Meet The Press. We watched as he interviewed GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee and discussed the day’s talking points with his panel board, which included one of my long time favorite New York Times columnist contributors, David Brooks. The Meet the Press event was definitely one of the most impressionable parts of the whole experience.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

One of the things that struck me most, not just with the Chuck Todd event, was how quickly things in the news world change. A scheduled event or presentation may have to change because of incoming news. I suppose that this should not have surprised me seeing as I was at a journalism conference. However, I had never faced that upfront and close before. While in D.C many extremely important events were taking place, events such as the two escaped convicts from the high security prison in New York, imminent gay rights ruling of the Supreme Court, and the even bigger Charleston shootings and resulting Confederate flag deliberation.


Chuck Todd’s Sunday morning show naturally had to be about that particular event, because it was so big and important to the whole nation. We had a speaker come and talk to us about standing up for freedom, and he told us how he switched his whole presentation because of the Charleston event. One scheduled presenter could not make it because she was deep in the woods covering the convict case. Despite the fact that this should not have surprised me, it did and really impacted my views on journalism and its future career potential for me.


Going into the conference, I was truly not sure whether or not I really wanted to be a journalist in the future. I even felt like a fake next to all these amazing individuals who not only seemed to know that that was what they wanted to do, but were phenomenal at it. However, so many things showed me that, even if I didn’t know for absolute certainty, I really did want to be a journalist. The excitement of ever changing news, such as I saw with Chuck Todd and those other presenters, was really appealing.


Another extremely informative part of the conference for me was getting the chance to listen to Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff speak to us. Everything that they said was really amazing and inspirational, but a few things truly stood out to me. As mentioned before, I was really concerned about not being sure I wanted to be a journalist. At one point Gwen Ifill said that, “You don’t have to make up your mind right now, but you have to have the same passion in whatever it is.” I really appreciated that. That was what I needed to hear, and to hear it from someone like Gwen Ifill made it all the more amazing. I didn’t know for sure I wanted to be a journalist, and that was perfectly fine for now.


Gwen Ifill said something else that really did help me while I waded through the pool of confusion. On the topic of why she became a journalist, she said, “I liked the idea of telling a story and to this day that is what we are all doing.” That really helped me to strip away all confusion and show me that when boiled down, that was really all I wanted as well.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Another of the greatest things about this conference was that I got to hear not only from the amazing presenters, but also from my astounding fellow free spirits. It was wonderful to be around so many young people like myself all sharing the same passion for journalism. I met some true friends that I hope to keep for a long time. All 50 are amazing, wonderful and inspirational people, all, I know, will go extremely far in life. They have been a great support as I have tried to take the things I learned from the conference and apply them to my publication back at home. I was heading back to a publication that was still rising from a state of slumber. It was daunting, but it has been so much easier having such great people behind me all the time.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Probably one things that have helped me the most with my journalism leadership these last few months have been those 3 essential words that were repeated all throughout the conference. The simple three words of Dream. Dare. Do. That slogan, thought up by Al Neuharth’s daughter Jan Neuharth, state that all a Free Spirit has to do is dream of something, dare to take that jump to start it, and then just make it happen.


I was terrified of applying to the conference. I was sure that I wouldn’t get chosen. Then my teacher told me that I had to learn to fake it til I made it, fake that I knew what I was doing and I would grow into being able to do so. I never thought that that could possible work or be true, but I have found that it is. It is as Al Neuharth once said that, “the difference between a mountain and a molehill is your perspective.” All a person has to do is Dream. Dare. Do.

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute