Representing MA at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference

Nathan Zhao


“Dream. Dare. Do.” — Al Neuharth

As I disembarked the plane, I pondered the meaning of Neuharth’s quote printed on my light blue “Free Spirit” shirt, barely bothering to look up at an aptly placed banner welcoming me to our nation’s capital: Washington, D.C.

Wandering through the concourse and to baggage claim, I spotted another teenager wearing a Free Spirit shirt. I walked over and introduced myself as Nathan Zhao from Massachusetts, a custom that would become all too familiar over the next few days.

“Jacob Whitlock, Alabama,” he said, with absolutely no hint of a Southern accent. This would be the first of many surprises over my five days in Washington. I was in for the week of a lifetime.

Last June, I had the honor of representing Massachusetts at the 2018 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. Comprised of 51 representatives — one from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the five-day, all-expenses paid conference offered each participant not only a $1000 scholarship, but also the ability to meet well-known individuals in the world of journalism. The Conference is run by the Freedom Forum Institute, an organization associated with the Newseum that promotes the first amendment. The Free Spirit Conference was started by its namesake of Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today.

From the moment the conference began to the moment it ended, our schedule was packed. A behind-the-scenes tour of USA Today. A mock trial with a real US District Court Judge. A conversation with legendary sports reporter Lesley Visser. A Q&A session with David Fahrenthold, Washington Post reporter who investigated Trump’s charitable givings. A photography lecture with Doug Mills, who has photographed US presidents for the Associated Press and New York Times since Ronald Reagan and took the famed photo of George Bush hearing the news on September 11. An interview with Sara Ganim, CNN reporter who broke the sexual assault scandal of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. A VIP tour of the Capitol, with visits to the Press Briefing room of both the House and Senate. A photo op and two-hour long discussion with the Freedom Riders, who pioneered the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s. A panel with Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary during the Lewinsky scandal. In each session, we acted as any group of aspiring journalists would: asked countless questions, covering all aspects of a specific topic, and pressed for answers to questions that were diverted. The list goes on and on.

Through these sessions and more, I learned so much about journalism itself, as well as its future. Val Hoeppner taught us how journalism is changing with the onset of social media and even taught us to experiment with VR, and Chuck Todd told us how he deals with those he disagrees with on Meet the Press (we watched on-air in the studio when he questioned Kellyanne Conway), just to name a few. We rose at 5am and didn’t return to the hotel until 11pm.

Even with such a full schedule, there was still plenty of time for socializing with the other 50 representatives. We discussed issues that from Wayland, MA, might seem far-off, but for my fellow representatives, were very real: the national drug crisis that most strongly manifested in West Virginia. The teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and more. While I regularly read about national issues, speaking with those who were legitimately affected by them and whose state of upbringing affected their own views on them added nuance to my own beliefs. I realized that living in the state with the best education in the country has its perks, as our journalism program doesn’t need to worry about being defunded or terminated. In Massachusetts, student journalists are lucky to have a law that prohibits censorship of student newspapers in most instances.

On a lighter tone, we also spoke about state stereotypes and surprised each other: Alaskan people do not know what traffic is; Hawaii, believe it or not, has a lot of traffic; Minnesotans are really nice; and yes, people really do live in North Dakota and Idaho. Boston sports teams are absolutely abhorred as winning too often.

Yet the week came to a close before we knew it. Pretty soon, we were saying our goodbyes and promising to see each other again at journalism conventions or in college. We created a GroupMe chat that I still consult for insightful political discussions or advice on how to run a publication.

As I boarded the plane for the short flight back to Boston, I reflected on our five long days of countless activities. Not only can I now say that I have a friend in every state, but I also know that my trust in journalism and the first amendment is as sturdy as ever. The future of journalism is bright, and I’m thankful to have experienced that future this summer.

Find more information about the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference here.