My unforgettable summer: experiencing D.C. through the eyes of the press

© HAWKEYE Nick Fiorillo
That's me at the podium that usually belongs to the U.S. House of Representatives. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spoke there just hours later.

In my backpack lays a small, peach-colored booklet. Bound just by its two staples, the booklet I carry with me daily contains 50 epithets written by one of the most innovative and influential media moguls in history: USA TODAY Al Neuharth. Through the 2014 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, I experienced today’s changing media landscape, met the most remarkable individuals and learned about Neuharth’s tremendous character and legacy. It was the single most powerful week of my life.

Selected as the Washington state delegate to the Free Spirit Conference, I left for the nation’s capital on Saturday, June 21 and was thrown in to an amazing itinerary, full of sight-seeing, remarkable guest speakers and powerful conversations about the evolution of journalism and the preservation of its ethics, along with great, great food.

Think Big. Big dreams. Big risks. Big rewards.”

— Al Neuharth, founder of USA TODAY

Sponsored by the Newseum Institute and the Freedom Forum, a great amount of the conference was held at the top floor of the Newseum in Washington, D.C. We were first introduced the Newseum, located on Pennsylvania Avenue (yes, that Pennsylvania Avenue). The Newseum champions the freedoms of the First Amendment and displays important moments in our nation’s and world’s history through the eyes of the media. From the remarkable Berlin Wall display to the emotionally draining 9/11 exhibit, the Newseum left me speechless. And although we had a great amount of time to explore, I could have spent hours more combing through the newspaper archives or just gazing in awe at all of the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs.

When we weren’t at the Newseum, we were doing something just as powerful and exciting. From a backstage tour of the U.S. Capitol, to a beautiful river cruise on the Potomac at sunset, to wandering through the National Mall, D.C. blew me away. Although I felt on top of the world during that incredible week, it was a very humbling experience. Many have a distrust or even disgust with the federal government. And while some of those claims have great merit (trust me, I know), seeing the nation’s capital is quite moving. There is something about being there that’s rather hard to describe. It’s something that one must feel and experience first-hand to truly understand.

But what really made this experience so phenomenal were the people. In those short five days, I met some of the most remarkable individuals, both younger and older. I met true American heroes Congressman John Lewis and Dr. Rip Patton, leaders of the Civil Right movement in the U.S. I met talented professional journalists, from then Meet the Press host David Gregory, to the first all-female network anchor team of Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of PBS Newshour, to political reporters Bill Nichols and Susan Page, and so many more. I met some of the most amazing student journalists and young men and women: my fellow Free Spirits. We bonded instantly over our journalistic experiences, common interests, strong political views and uncapped excitement over the next day’s agenda. This part, for me, was maybe the most unexpected. I knew that I would see, do and hear incredible things, but I hadn’t anticipated becoming so close with so many people from so many places. The conference has undoubtedly created friendships for life (and probably future campaign staffs).

Little League failures lead to Big League successes.”

— Al Neuharth, founder of USA TODAY

Throughout the conference, we were told to “Dream. Dare. Do.” These three tenants define what it means to be a Free Spirit. Al Neuharth came from very humble beginnings. He was raised by his mother for a great deal of his upbringing, and had to work tirelessly just to survive. But despite the rough circumstances he was born into, Neuharth worked his way to become one of the most iconic media moguls in history, founding USA TODAY and leading the Gannett Corporation.

Page 46 in my little peach-colored book reads, “Life is not an undefeated season.” It is reminder that we will all experience failure. Neuharth argues in his book Confessions of an S.O.B. that we all must experience failure in order to experience great success. Neuharth tells the story of how he failed royally in his efforts to achieve success with his South Dakota sports newspaper, called “SoDak Sports,” printed on peach-colored paper. Our failures make us better, Neuharth says, and makes success possible. Neuharth points to the failure of SoDak Sports to his immense success with USA TODAY.

Neuharth’s message to the Free Spirits was clear: set out to do great things, expect both failure and success, and enjoy the ride. He said it best in the last page of the book, “Enjoy sunrises and sunsets.”

Here’s to you, Mr. Neuharth. I never had the chance to meet you, but you’ve certainly changed my life.