2011 Florida representative Aiste Zalepuga, a senior at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, Fla., shared her experience in a Nov. 2011 article published on Bradenton.com, her local newspaper’s website.
I was on the plane flying to Washington, D.C., when I was asked what I was reading. I flipped to the cover, and there in big, red letters it read: Confessions of an S.O.B.
The lady in the neighboring seat raised an eyebrow. And so I began telling her about the man who did it all — Al Neuharth — founder of the Newseum, USA Today, Freedom Forum and sponsor of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference.
I had many expectations for these six days of summer, but I could have never imagined all the people, events and experiences that awaited me. I stepped off the plane as one of 51 Free Spirits, one student selected from each state and the District of Columbia. But I left the conference as a member of one big, inspiring family.
Together, we were guided through the meaning and importance of the First Amendment and explored backstage access to the journalism field. Throughout the conference, we were quickly ushered from one location to the next, taking in all of the unforgettable opportunities that Jack Marsh, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, and Karen Catone, Director of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholars, had created for us.
Jack Marsh, or as he later became, “Grandpa Jack,” raised the bar high during his introduction the first evening, but we could have never expected to receive such a great amount of attention and time put in for us. It was an honor to be among these top journalism students and in the presence of the individuals we met.
At the Newseum, we attended presentations on journalistic style, our role in the media, the importance of the First Amendment and other informational, interactive speeches on how to adapt to the way journalism is changing in today’s age.
At NBC Studios, we were told not to sneeze or cough during the live taping of Meet the Press. The introductory music began to play after David Gregory walked into the studio for his interview with Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of President Obama, and Tim Pawlenty, a Republican candidate for the next U.S. presidential election in 2012. We sat in awe when David Gregory talked to us after the show, standing in the bright studio lights, sharing advice and his experiences covering 9/11 and then the death of Osama bin Laden.From presentations in the Newseum to an all-access press pass to Congress, we not only practiced journalistic skills but got to walk in the shoes of top professionals in the field. We had question and answer sessions with several keynote speakers, including PBS’s NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff, U.S. senator John Thune, Freedom Riders and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today John Hillkirk.
We were taken on an editorial tour of USA Today and got a behind-the-scenes media look of Capitol Hill. As one of the eight students chosen to present a case in the U.S. Court House, I remember speaking in defense of the “Fangtastics” with U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth
The days were filled with excitement and new experiences, but the evenings did not go unnoticed. We explored the nation’s capital under the stars and danced a storm away on a yacht.
From all of these different experiences, the actual Neuharth family left one of the greatest impressions on me. Dani Neuharth-Keusch, granddaughter of Al Neuharth and Associate Editor of The Cornell Daily Sun, helped make the journalistic field more approachable by providing a student view. Jan Neuharth, with her consistently warm presence, made the conference more familiar as a whole. Having the actual Neuharth family members present throughout the conference demonstrated the time and energy they have put into this organization, and their sincere involvement has stayed with me to this day.
Of course, our time with Al Neuharth will be an event I will never forget. His red jacket, tie and shoes, stylishly fashioned with a white shirt and pants is an image forever ingrained in my memory. More importantly, his personal story, triumphs and even failures have taught me the most about journalism and life itself. Who else would be able to engage Fidel Castro in a five-hour long conversation on the importance of the First Amendment? Who else would greatly pride himself over his greatest failure? Al Neuharth’s first newspaper, SoDak Sports, flopped, but his greatest failure allowed him to create USA Today, become a legendary media mogul and in the midst of it all, revolutionize the newspaper industry.Al Neuharth and the conference helped me refine my journalism skills and showed me the directions that journalism is taking in today’s digital age. Listening to David Gregory talk about 9/11 and then visiting the Pentagon’s memorial made journalism real. It made journalism and the First Amendment more than just a job but a duty.
The next day after the conference, I was on the plane to Lithuania. I took out Al Neuharth’s Confessions of an S.O.B. and turned the red page over. Inside in black, wispy ink it read: “Go for it! Al Neuharth.”
Beyond just the media aspect, Al Neuharth and this conference showed me that success is within reach, but you have to reach for it; that sometimes you have to be clever to get around; and always to “Dream. Dare. Do.”