BY LISA BURGOA
PRINT MANAGING EDITOR
Viewed from the eighth-floor window of the Newseum’s conference center, Washington, D.C., seemed conquerable. Heck, the world seemed conquerable. The sprawling scope of the city was reduced to a diorama of matchbox cars and pebble-sized people, flanked on one side by the white wedding cake of the Capitol Building.
My reflection glinted on the glass plane, refracting across the patchwork of tree-lined streets. It looked like I had been absorbed into the soul of the city itself. I was part of this buzzing, electric nucleus of politics and history and art. I was part of D.C.
For five sun-soaked days from June 21-26, this was the stomping ground for me and 50 other young journalists selected to represent their states in the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. Together, we were treated to a dizzying, all-expense-paid program of speakers ranging from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists to civil rights champions, tours through the USA Today offices and press boxes on Capitol Hill, as well as excursions to the district’s monuments and museums.
The Newseum, a museum devoted in chronicling the history of American newsgathering and educating the public about the First Amendment, spared no expense in funding our media immersion. Its conference center on the eight floor served as our home base for sessions with journalists from Politico, TIME magazine and the Washington Post.
No amount of preemptive research (i.e. Facebook stalking) about my fellow Free Spirits could have prepared me for the colorful cast of characters I would encounter at the conference, a motley crew replete with the creativity and courage of seasoned journalists.
There was a boy from the district who immediately trumped all our introductions by nonchalantly mentioning that he once played basketball with the president. There was a girl from Atlanta who could spurt out little-known political factoids at a mile a minute.
There was my roommate, a pageant queen from Idaho who was every bit as brainy as she was beautiful. And there was a girl from Alabama who, in what was one of the most stupefyingly happy moments of my life, announced it was my birthday and caused a chorus of 50 voices to erupt in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
I’m continually flooded by memories of the experience I shared with the other Free Spirits. Hardly a day transpires when I am not awash with recollections of the time I scoured the entire Vietnam Memorial with the scholar from New Mexico to stencil over the name of her uncle killed in combat, or the time I bristled with indignation as we learned about the student press restrictions imposed by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in the decadent D.C. district court. I still savor my team’s hard-fought victory in a current events quiz show (go blue team!), and fondly revisit each floor of the Newseum in my head.
Even five months later, the words of the speakers still rattle in my brain. I can never shake off the velvet voice of “PBS NewsHour” anchorwoman Gwen Ifill as she recounted the racism that hounded her early journalism career or former press secretary Ron Nessen’s account of his heated exchanges with the press corps during the Vietnam War. Most of all, I’m still chalked with a tremor of emotion at the memory of Rep. John Lewis’s plight as a Freedom Rider when he spoke about the media’s role in the advancement of civil rights.
All these sessions served to invigorate our passion for journalism, even in an era when the industry is shadowed by a rain cloud of uncertainty. We were all collectively taken aback when David Gregory of “Meet the Press” warned us during a taping of his program at NBC studios that a journalism degree was not a prudent investment.
We each had qualms about the decline of newspapers, the editorialized nature of news networks and the massive layoffs occurring all across the industry. But the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference helped assuage our fears and assure us that we could pioneer a new vision for the future of journalism and navigate the new digitized age.
Whenever I revisit my experiences as a Free Spirit, I feel as if I was transported back to the window of the Newseum, surveying the bustling city below me. I can conquer D.C., the world, the journalism industry and all of life’s “little league failures,” as Al Neuharth would say. I’m invincible.
And when I see on Facebook that the Free Spirit from Colorado is organizing a protest against her school board’s censorship of textbooks, or when the boy from Washington launches a vehement political tirade on Twitter, or when the girl from Connecticut is shaking hands with President Obama, I’m overcome with the feeling that one day we’ll change the world.
Because you know what?
We just might.