IHSPA student board member Carley Lanich shares her experiences at the Al Neuharth Journalism Conference. The deadline to apply for the next conference is Feb. 1.
By Carley Lanich
On the week of July 13, 2013, I boarded a plane alone for the first time. When the plane touched down in Baltimore I was lost and confused. After pacing what seemed to be the world’s longest baggage claim, I could not find my ride into town. “They’ll start without me,” I thought. “What am I getting myself into?”
Half an hour later I was safely on a bus with four other student journalists heading toward the nation’s capital to attend the14th annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. The conference, hosted by the Freedom Forum, invites 51 rising seniors each summer to participate in an all-expenses paid interactive journalism experience.
Once we had all arrived – one student journalist from each state – we settled into our hotel. After we had gone over the conference rules, the real adventure began. That evening we visited the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, ate dinner at the Hard Rock Café, and broke the ice in the Newseum’s Knight TV Studio, playing Newsmania—an interactive news quiz—and discussing our favorite aspects of the First Amendment – as only student journalists would do.
The next five days whirled by. The days were long and nights were short. With each day planned up to the minute, there was never a dull moment. The week’s activities could be divided into three categories; Newseum activities, on-location explorations, and student-based free time.
As members of the conference, we had special access to participate in Newseum activities before and after museum hours. A majority of the conference was held in the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center, where we attended sessions led by top journalists such as digital media expert Val Hoeppner, Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim and PBS Newhour’s Judy Woodruff. Here we also had the extraordinary opportunity to partake in an enlightening conversation between civil rights champions Rip Patton and John Seigenthaler, and attend a live NASA space walk Q&A session with astronaut Thomas Marshburn.
The on-location activities of the conference were by far the most immersive experiences. In the four times I have visited Washington, D.C., never have I seen so much or have had such open access. We took a tour of USA TODAY’s Washington headquarters, sat in on a live taping of NBC’s Meet the Press, followed by a short Q&A session with David Gregory, and participated in a First Amendment mock trial with former U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth in the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Court House. But I found our tour of Capitol Hill was the most impressive. Not only did we get to take a general tour, but we also visited both the House and Senate press galleries and press conference rooms, while both branches were in session.
While we did follow a busy schedule throughout the conference, we had allotted free time as well. The Free Spirits, as we call ourselves, bonded at various open exploration activities, such as our two night tours of popular D.C. monuments, a Potomac riverboat cruise and dance, and our free exploration time of the Newseum.
After a week’s time I had returned home to Indiana with an incredible enthusiasm to share with my newspaper staff and a network of 50 other reporters, photographers and editors across the country. At this conference they preached a simple message: ‘Dream. Dare. Do.’ Returning from the Free Spirit conference, I felt more motivated than ever to do just that. With journalism being as transient a profession as it is, this conference instilled in me a renewed confidence to follow my passion and pursue journalism as a career.
For more information on the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism and Conference or to apply, visit freespirit.org . The application deadline is Feb. 1.