Five Days at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference


Peter Warren

photos courtesy of the Newseum Institute

What can be accomplished in 120 hours?

You can watch every episode of the US and UK versions of The Office and have time to watch Steve Carell in both Anchorman movies.

You can watch every game of the 2015 Denver Broncos season and still manage to sleep for over 20 hours.

You can, with no traffic and no sleep, drive from Boston to Chicago to Seattle to Los Angeles to Phoenix to Houston to Jacksonville to Baltimore to New York City.

You can watch the movie 127 Hours over 76 times.

But, there is nothing that gets the most out of 120 hours than the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.

The brainchild of the late newspaper icon Al Neuharth, the conference brings together fifty-one of the best and brightest young journalists from around the country,one from every state and the District of Columbia, for a five day extravaganza based at the Newseum in Washington D.C. where the First Amendment is used as a stepping stone to a passion in journalism.

The motto of the conference is “Dream. Dare. Do” and the attendees, called Free Spirits, take that adage to heart as they become enamored with the Conference and the ideals of Neuharth.

Every day of the Conference was filled with activities with no room for a break, leaving the Free Spirits with a contradictory feeling of satisfaction and wanting more.

In one day alone, I listened to a lecture from Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim and roundtable on preparing for a career in journalism, was a part of a discussion with former press secretary Mike McCurry, visited USA Today headquarters, attended a private concert, and saw the historic Lincoln Memorial and WWII Memorial.

And all of that was accomplished with our bus breaking down on the highway.

There was always stuff to do and things to see. We visited the Capital Building and the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Court House. We watched the taping of Meet the Press. We heard from journalism leaders in all different aspects of the field. We attended the 2016 Al Neuharth in Media Excellence Award Ceremony where Chris Berman was the recipient of the award.

I even recited one of Berman’s signature catchphrases, “Nobody circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills” with him.

While all of these moments were fantastic, they were only one aspect of the conference. For most of my favorites memories of the 120 hours involved my fellow Free Spirits: laughing for what felt like hours over YouTube videos at Busboys and Poets, playing games on the bus rides, trying to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the FDR and MLK Memorials, introducing ourselves to our tablemates at the Ceremony, dancing the night away on a Riverboat on the Potomac. Those memories are just as vivid in my brain and just as meaningful to me.

Which is why saying goodbye to my fellow Free Spirits was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of my life. I did not want to leave. I did not want it to end. I wanted to spend one more day, heck one more hour, with my fellow Free Spirits.

In such a short amount of time, I felt such a strong bond between all of my fellow Free Spirits and, for as much as I got to know them, there was so much more that I wanted to learn.

Less than an hour after my train dropped me off at Metropark and said my final good-byes to my train-traveling companions, I was at SPFHS talking to my journalism advisers Mrs. Novik and Mrs. Tessi about my experience.

For two hours.


Yes, I was tired. And, yes, I would sleep for like 13 hours that night out of exhaustion. But, I was so enchanted about the Conference that I need to talk about it.

I talked and talked and talked, only stopping when my mouth was so tired from smiling and talking so much.

It was then that I truly felt the impact of the Conference. There are few things more appeasing than spending time with fellow like-minded students. And for those 120 hours, I was as content as I have ever been.

For learning from such distinguished professionals is one thing, but learning with such great scholars makes the experience that much more rewarding.

And while I wish I could have spent more time with my Free Spirits, I am thrilled to have even spent those 120 hours with them.

For, when I first saw an email titled “WINNER – 2016 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference” on Apr. 7, I had no idea that it would lead to the best 120 hours of my life.