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The Hawkeye

Making the Newseum my home and 50 other student journalists my family

By Stephi Smith, Executive Editor

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(Courtesy ifreespirit51 via Flickr)

I stress over having answered a question incorrectly during our game of News Mania, a news trivia game curated by the Newseum Institute.

Sometime in the January of 2015 I tweeted “the Newseum is literally my home” after having taken a trip while visiting D.C. for a national high school journalism trip and later, in June of 2016, that became all too true.

From June 18-23, I was able to make that tweet a reality when I spent five days in the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum with 50 other student journalists from each U.S. state and Washington D.C.

It all began with an email. The subject line read “WINNER – 2016 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.” I was sitting on a hotel bed in downtown Seattle when I opened it. I felt my heart stutter and immediately screenshotted the email and sent it to the Hawkeye editor from two years prior, Nick Fiorillo, with an excess of exclamation points. I would be attending the 2016 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference as the Washington state representative. 

Between then and June, I was able to become close with my 50 other Free Spirits, primarily using the group messaging app, GroupMe. We all soon became close friends and I found out my roommate would be Nina Raneses from Virginia -I also realized Nina and I were similar beyond belief. I couldn’t have felt luckier.

Before I knew it, I was waking up at 5 a.m. to be at SeaTac by 6 a.m. so I could board a plane to the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport by 8 a.m. Every chance I could, I was on my phone messaging the Free Spirit group chat with updates.

“Boarding the plane!” I remember sending.

“MY PLANE JUST LANDED OMG I’M SO CLOSE TO YOU ALL,” I would send the second the flight attendant allowed me to turn my phone off airplane mode.

The chauffeured car ride to the hotel would be about an hour and I was the last person (along with the Idaho representative, Olivia Tocher. The Free Spirit charter bus left the hotel for a group dinner just as Olivia and I arrived there so we would take an Uber and it was soon a joke that I didn’t actually exist and wouldn’t be attending the conference.

Eventually, of course, I was able to meet all my Free Spirit friends and eat and laugh with them. Which is when everything started.

We were taken from the restaurant to the Newseum where we would play a game called “News Mania,” letting everyone’s inevitable competitive side show. We would also explain to the group which of the five parts of the First Amendment we found the most important.

Most of my Free Spirit friends said speech was the most important because it was “all encompassing” and the rest wouldn’t be quite possible without free speech. I agreed, but I said I found press the most important because, as our host and Chief Operating Officer of the Newseum Institute Gene Policinski stressed, the press must act as a type of “watch dog” over the government. A free press, I explained, is able to give free speech to those who cannot otherwise be heard.

For the next four days, I would be traveling from my hotel room to the Knight Conference Center to NBC studios where I would watch a live taping of Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press (and ask him a question! Which was just so cool) to outside the White House to inside the Capitol for an exclusive tour (where I would be able to pose behind the same podium Speaker of the House Paul Ryan uses to brief the media! Also so cool) to the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse to participate in a mock trial presided by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth back to the Newseum for our graduation and the Media Excellence award dinner to a giant paddlewheel steamboat down for a cruise down the Potomac river. It was a lot! And it was all absolute heaven.

My roommate Nina and I always woke up at sunrise for each day absolutely exhausted due to staying up way too late talking and bonding and becoming even closer (and making hilarious memories over Spongebob references).

We would then get dressed and drag ourselves down to the hotel’s breakfast room where we would sit with our other Free Spirit family members to excitedly talk about what we had in store for us.

The Knight Conference room had a long table against a window with Peet’s Coffee (a Seattle girl felt so at home) which would, of course, be filled and refilled and refilled again with each session.

At about noon each day, we would be awarded a lunch. I say awarded because it was the most amazing food I could have ever imagined. Lunch, of course, being no break from learning. While we ate, we would have a speaker who would share experiences and anecdotes to us and we would be able to ask questions to learn even more.

My favorite part of the conference, I must say, was the guest speakers. I’ve always found real, professional journalists the most valuable part of any journalism conference I’ve ever attended.

For the Free Spirit conference, I had the privilege of hearing from some of the most inspiring and important journalists, including National Geographic editorial director Susan Goldberg, VICE News social media head Dan Fletcher, Washington Post story team editor Emily Chow, author and free-lance reporter Mary Pilon and, my personal favorite, CNN reporter and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim.

Hearing everything they had to say and everything they’ve done absolutely amazed me. Ganim was incredible. She told us about her story, the one she wrote for her local Pennsylvania paper that uncovered the Sandusky trial. She also told us about times that reporting for her got intense and a little scary, she admitted. She recounted a time that she was anchoring for CNN and literally running backward from a mob. Scary as it sounded, she looked almost proud that she had done that because she knew it was important and she knew she was doing an important job. The fire in her eyes matched the same one I’ve felt in mine before.

“There’s a feeling that by seeing the change that comes with telling the story, you see that difference that’s being made,” Ganim said at one point.

I loved hearing from her because I saw the reporter I’ve always wanted to be, the one I’m currently striving to be. Ganim didn’t give up easily and she fought the good fights and she was, honestly, pretty badass about it all.

She told us that she had terrible backlash when she reported on Sandusky and that people still send her hate mail over it, but that wasn’t enough to silence her and censor herself.

I’m so grateful for my Free Spirit experience. I’m grateful for all that I learned and for the friends I made along the way.

When I told Nick Fiorillo I’d won the Free Spirit scholarship, he told me it’d be an experience I’d never forget. I was excited for it, but I had no idea how right he’d be.

I’ll never forget those five days I spent in our nation’s capital with 50 other student journalists, my Free Spirit family.

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The student news site of Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
Making the Newseum my home and 50 other student journalists my family