WASHINGTON, D.C. — Surfing the web changed the course of my life. Twice. The first time, being about a decade ago when my mom stumbled across the “Today Show Kid Reporter Contest”. It was in 2009 when I was a finalist in that contest, that my opportunities in journalism soared exponentially. The second time was last November. My mom, again, stumbled across the “Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference.” It advertised a free trip to DC and a $1,000 college scholarship. One student selected from every state to participate in this high school journalism conference.
The trip to DC and the scholarship was enough to sell my family and I on the conference. Although, little did we know, the conference itself, the experience, the people I would meet, and the memories I would make, would far outweigh the trip and the scholarship.
We sent in the application on February 1, and being the impatient person I am, I thought about it every single day without fail until April 13. April 13, I cruised down 19th Street in Stillwater, during the teacher strike, when a call popped up from Washington DC. I usually don’t answer calls from unknown numbers, but I knew this was “the” phone call. Sure enough, I was selected for the prestigious conference. Call it a God-wink, because if not for the teacher strike, I would have likely been in school and would have likely missed the call. I would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. The best way I could describe the timing is impeccable.
(Sidebar – Finding the correct adjectives for this will be quite the challenge for me. It is impossible to overstate the impact of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference).
But that’s enough about the back story. Allow me to tell you the wild tale (highlights) of my 6 days in Washington DC.
It is no coincidence that one of President Trump’s favorite phrases is, “drain the swamp.” Pollen and wind is to Oklahoma as humidity is to Washington DC. The city is modeled after Paris, so it’s not a grid system. Most of the roads are diagonal. It’s also not the cleanest city ever.
My flight time was not ideal. I touched down in Baltimore at 3:56 p.m. That allowed me an hour and fourteen minutes to make a mad dash for the hotel for the opening ceremony. Needless to say, I didn’t make it on time. If it makes it any better, 3 other people were met at Baltimore, so I wasn’t late alone. After enjoying the final 30 seconds of the opening ceremonies (literally), we went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, then on to the Newseum for a team-building news trivia game.
The Newseum is a massive, free standing, building along Pennsylvania Ave. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a museum of news. It’s about a mile away from the capitol building, and is on the same plot of land as the Canadian embassy. I give my highest recommendation to anyone visiting the district to make a stop at the Newseum. It features the largest section of the Berlin Wall, anywhere in the world, an antenna from the World Trade Center, and a newspaper from the 1400s. I took a 2 hour tour of the museum and I barely saw a lick of it. It is well worth your time.
The next morning we had the privilege to watch a taping of “Meet The Press” with Chuck Todd. Just the longest running show in television history, no big deal. Before we could even get in the building, an NBC rep got on our bus and told us that Kellyanne Conway was going to be live on set. We had to wait for her motorcade to arrive before we could even imagine entering the studio. At one point, I was within two feet of Conway. (I’ve been asked a lot what she looks like, so I’ll tell you here. Exactly what she looks like on TV). I received the compliment of a lifetime from Todd who told his producer that I’m, “ready to be a correspondent now.”
That night we visited some breathtaking landmarks around Washington. The White House, the Jefferson Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Monday’s luncheon guest, was Lesley Visser. She was presented the Al Neuharth Award for excellence in the media, later that night at dinner. If you don’t know who she is, you should, and you can find out here. Later that night I was given my table assignment for the award dinner. Table two, or as I called it, the “big shot” table. The only other student to sit with me at the table was the North Carolina Representative, Ashley Tysiac, who, like me, is interested in sports journalism. Once we sat down, the president of the University of South Dakota arrived along with a Newseum trustee. Others at the table included a high-ranking officer of the Freedom Forum (the group that puts on the conference) a former CNN anchor, and none other than Visser herself. When Visser arrived at the table, I looked to my left at Tysiac, and mouthed “wow” to her. My eyes were as wide as bowling balls. I didn’t eat a bite of the food, (I’m an extremely picky eater), but it was the greatest dinner I’ve ever had.
Tuesday’s luncheon featured former President Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, who gave my fellow scholars insight into the daily life of a press secretary. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be. He’d wake up at 4:30 a.m., walk his dogs, then grab the biggest newspapers, such as the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, etc. and plaster them upon his desk. He’d highlight various lines, prepare his answers to questions he knew he was going to get, then get them approved by the president. After the briefing, it’d all start over again.
After our time with McCurry we had the chance to visit the USA Today headquarters. It’s on the third floor of a, massive, glass, office space building, in McLean, VA. This is random, but the lobby of that building, had a very distinct smell, maybe the greatest smell my nose has ever encountered. The best way I could describe it was a musky fruit. You’d have to be there. Anyway, my favorite part of the tour was visiting the digital hub of USA Today. They constantly monitor the USA Today website. At any given time, about 35,000 people are on the website, spending a whopping 34 seconds on an article. Thirty. Four. Seconds.
Wednesday morning, we had an exclusive tour of the US Capitol building. All of the scholars got to see the press deck of the House and Senate chambers. Two gorgeous chambers, where photography is strictly prohibited.
After our tour of the capitol building, we had, for my money, the best session of the whole week. Doug Mills, the highest ranking photographer of the New York Times, met with all of the scholars to talk about his experiences. He shoots all of America’s major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four, the Olympics, and, the list goes on. If those events aren’t enough, he is assigned to the President of the United States, and has been, since Ronald Reagan. Not only is he assigned to cover POTUS, he travels with him on each and every trip aboard Air Force One, with a handful of other journalists. It costs the New York Times, a first class ticket to destination X, plus one dollar for each trip he takes on Air Force One. He opted out of going to Duluth, MN with President Trump to meet with the Free Spirit Scholars. Much of what he said during the session was various stories of his career. I can tell you, he’s been on countless jogs with both George HW and George Bush, has been to the beach and McDonalds with Bill Clinton. And, yes, he was with George Bush on 9/11. I do not have the appropriate adjectives in my vocabulary to describe the story he told of his time with Bush on 9/11. In other words, Mills has been there and done that. I could have spent the whole week with him.
Thursday morning at 5:00 a.m. I had my first, and only, Dr. Pepper of the trip, at the Baltimore Airport, along with my favorite breakfast, Chick-Fil-A chicken minis. I was pretty petered because I had been awake since 3:45 a.m., but when I saw Chick Fil A, my mood turned 180°.
I made a connecting flight in St. Louis before returning home and I sat with the owner of Eskimo Joe’s on that flight. What are the chances?! An appropriate way to cap off my representation of Stillwater to say the least.
If you are afraid of the future of journalism, don’t be. I know you’ve heard that journalism is “dying,” but that’s not exactly the case. Things within journalism are dying for the evolution, and greater good of journalism for its consumers. For example, USA Today sells around 700,000 copies of their paper, compared to the 2,000,000 they sold in their early days. That’s not to say that the USA Today is dying, because it’s not. The newsroom itself can show you that. Most people’s view of journalism is skewed because all they’re taking in is FOX and CNN. Cable news, and I will admit, a lot of journalism, has become showmanship today. Walter Cronkite is spinning in his grave. But I have a feeling in the next two or six years, that will change. Like President Trump’s policies or not, he has changed the face of journalism to make it the show business it is today. Many of the journalists we met with, want to get out of this show business stage, but it really isn’t up to them. It’s up to the corporate big-wigs, and the consumers of journalism. I suppose you have to crack an egg to make an omelette.
The 2018 Free Spirit and Journalism Conference changed my life in quite a few ways. First and foremost, it reaffirmed my belief that I’d like to stay in Oklahoma. DC is a great city to visit, but it ain’t for everyone. It really did change my view of journalism. I was never one that subscribed to the belief of the demise of journalism, but I did think, that the show-biz journalism was something all of the DC journalists did willingly. Plus, I now have at least one friend from every state and, Washington DC.
If nothing else, I can assure you, there are 50 people out there, who I have personally met, who are the future of journalism. Young, inquisitive, bright, driven minds. 51 people that aren’t afraid to toot their own horn, 51 people who are unafraid of pushing themselves to the front of the line. 51 people who just know what they’re talking about. 51 people who are eager to get into the reporting business, whether that be in sports, the environment, politics, general news, you name it. The future of journalism is in good hands. The hands of 51 Free Spirits.