Excalibur Editor in Chief reflects on national journalism conference

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The 51 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholars pose in front of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. on the last day of the conference.

Story by Alice Samberg

From June 18-23, 51 of the most qualified high school journalists, one from each state and the District of Columbia, met in Washington D.C. on an all expenses paid trip as part of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference. Those six days were spent in lectures , as well as question and answer sessions with some of current news’ and media’s biggest names, including Chris Berman, Sara Ganim and Susan Goldberg. As one of the Free Spirit Scholars, I not only had the pleasure of learning so much about the constantly changing world of journalism- which will influence how the Excalibur runs this year-  but also got to meet 50 of the other biggest journalism nerds in America, with whom I will always share an incredible experience.

The majority of the conference took place in the Knight Conference Hall in the Newseum Institute where multiple speakers lectured and participated in panels. We heard from eminent people in the journalism world such as the editor-in-chief of National Geographic, the managing editor of the Washington Post, CNN reporters and ESPN broadcasters. They could relate to our journalistic aspirations because they were once in our shoes, but could also provide invaluable insight on the road to success. The guest speakers reminded us that journalism is a tough business to be in, but also an essential one.

Val Hoeppner, a media consultant for journalists, spoke to the group twice, both times on the importance of technology and how it can be used in digital journalism. In a world where most people receive news on their phones, Hoeppner highlighted the value that social media can play in news distribution which inspired many of us- including me- to make more of an effort to bring social media into play at our school newspapers.

When we weren’t in conferences, we took exciting tours of places such as the USA Today newsrooms, the U.S. Capitol building and the district courthouse. The USA Today headquarters were very inspiring: as aspiring professional journalists, all 51 of us hope to work in a newsroom as prestigious as that one some day.

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The 51 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholars toured the Capitol building (above) and other key sites like the USA Today newsrooms and the Meet the Press studios.

However, the visits to the courthouse, Senate and House of Representatives were just as important. The value of the First Amendment was the main theme of the conference and seeing how our basic rights are protected, besides through the press, was driven home during these visits. It became clear that it takes a myriad of people and jobs and laws to uphold and enforce the freedoms given to us by the Constitution and gave me a new appreciation for all the people, including journalists, who work daily to protect those freedoms.

We also got the chance to watch a live taping of the morning news show “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.” After watching the show from the back of the studio, we had a quick Q&A session with Mr. Todd; as one of the most well-known broadcast journalists, his advice was priceless to all of us.

I learned countless things from the speakers we heard from and the places we toured, but I also learned just as much from the other high school students who were part of the conference with me. From layout designs, to story ideas, to website launching, to prior review horror stories, the other Free Spirits helped me to view the Excalibur in a new light and taught me to appreciate it, but also aspire for more, for better. And after those six motivating days, I returned back to Room 106 in McQueen High School with a head full of ideas.

Moving forward, the Excalibur will still be printing newspapers occasionally, but will be using our website and social media accounts for regular McQueen news distribution. These changes have been a long time coming and we hope that our transition to a primarily digital news publication will make the Excalibur more accessible to all of our readers.

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference taught me so much that I can apply to my job as the Editor-in-Chief, but it also gave me friendships that will far outlive my time as a high school journalist and I am beyond grateful for both of those things.

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