Editorial: The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference


Maria Bryk

The 2016 Free Spirits

Nicole Poitras, Co-Editor In Chief

I don’t typically allow myself to cry in school. But during my Spanish class on April 7, 2016, when I sat down with one of the school’s laptops and opened my email, I gave myself an exception — this was the day that I found out I had been chosen to represent the state of New Hampshire at the 2016 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.


The Free Spirit and Journalism Conference is one of the multiple legacies left behind by Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today. Neuharth was a symbol of perseverance, dedication, kindness, and humility. After a failed attempt to independently begin a sports newspaper in college, he founded the nation’s leading publication in the face of intense criticism.


Neuharth’s focus throughout his career was the importance of “free speech, free press, and free spirit.”  In addition to USA Today, Neuharth founded the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and the Freedom Forum, an organization that works to educate students on the rights given to them by the First Amendment.


To further promote the importance of the First Amendment and journalism as a whole, Neuharth began the Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in 2003.


Every year, thousands of student journalists send in their applications, and one rising senior from every state (and the District of Columbia) is chosen to attend, along with receiving a $1,000 college scholarship. This year, I was New Hampshire’s Scholar.


I can hardly find the words to describe the Conference’s impact on me. Attending this Conference changed my life. Every day we would leave our hotel at 7 in the morning and depart for the Newseum, where we would attend panels with impactful journalists and other prominent individuals in the media and communications field.


Pulitzer Prize-winning CNN reporter Sara Ganim discussed the importance of pursuing truth, no matter what story you are covering.


We talked about the future of online journalism with Susan Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine and Dan Fletcher, the head of social media at Vice News.


We watched a taping of Meet the Press and were able to speak to Chuck Todd afterward.


Through these discussions and explorations, I learned more about the field and how to produce and relay the news than I could have ever imagined prior.


These experiences have given me knowledge and skills that will prove invaluable in the future as I go on to pursue a journalism career. However, the best part of the Conference, for me, was not the panels or even the delicious free food, but the amazing people with whom I was blessed to experience all of this.


Because of Free Spirit, I now have 50 new best friends. As soon as the group was assembled on day one, we bonded and quickly became like a family. We shared our experiences in the news room and bounced ideas off of one another, which we would take home to our respective student publications. We played spoons in the hotel lobby. We touched elk fat in the National Geographic Museum. We had a karaoke battle when our bus blew a tire on our way to the headquarters of USA Today.


On our last night together, we took a boat cruise along the Potomac and danced the night away, screaming the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the top our lungs.


The best part about my friendships with these amazing people is that not only do we share similar passions, work ethics, and values, but it is almost a guarantee that I will see them in the workforce someday. We are all connected to the expansive Free Spirit alumni network, and this class will forever be connected to one another.


Free Spirit taught me how to be a good journalist, but above all, it taught me how to dream, dare and do.