Al Neuharth, founder of USA TODAY and the Freedom Forum, had a powerful call to action for young journalists: Dream, Dare and Do.
It’s the motto of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, an annual program that each June brings top high school journalists from across the United States together for a week of programming focused on journalism and the First Amendment.
Rising high school seniors who are interested in pursuing careers in journalism are selected to receive $1,000 college scholarships based on the free-spirited qualities they demonstrate, from creativity to risk taking to perseverance.
Since 2000, student representatives from every state and Washington, D.C., have gathered in the nation’s capital or, since 2020, virtually, for the Free Spirit conference. They leave the conference with new mentors in the field, friends from every state and models for how the path to success in the media is not a straight line.
From having a big impact in a small town, to landing jobs at some of the top newspapers and media brands in the country, to launching something new, Free Spirit alumni continue to Dream, Dare and Do in ways that foster First Amendment freedoms for all.
Free Spirits Pay It Forward
Angel Brock, a news producer at WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio, and 2011 Free Spirit scholar from Washington, D.C., said the conference has opened doors for her and connected her with lifelong friends. Brock continues to be involved in the conference, paying it forward and inspiring other young journalists.
Devna Shukla, a 2006 Free Spirit from Maryland, returned to Washington, D.C., the next year for a summer internship with then-Sen. Barack Obama. She spent six years at CNN, rising in the ranks at “Anderson Cooper 360” from production assistant to editorial producer. After getting her master’s in business administration, Shukla became senior business development manager for search, ads and news at Microsoft.
“My time with the Freedom Forum was the first time I was able to connect my passion for journalism and storytelling to something bigger than myself,” she said. “I learned the crucial role that journalism and the First Amendment play in our country, from those who have been on the frontlines. My time as a Free Spirit ignited my career path — and showed me that true journalism is a public service that is meant to make us uncomfortable because of the truths it uncovers and amplifies. These values still are with me today, in all of my endeavors.”
Mary Pilon, who represented Oregon at the 2005 Free Spirit conference, said the conference introduced her to people from every corner of the country she had previously only known on a map. Pilon went on to work as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, wrote two bestselling books and is now a journalist, author and screenwriter focused on sports and business.
Like Brock, she often speaks at the annual conference. Pilon’s talk is among the most popular sessions. Students relate to her because it was not too long ago that she was in their shoes. Pilon encourages students to keep in touch with one another, noting how their paths are sure to cross again, whether they end up at the same college, in the same internship or on the same staff.
“My time as a Free Spirit ignited my career path — and showed me that true journalism is a public service that is meant to make us uncomfortable because of the truths it uncovers and amplifies.” — Devna Shukla, 2006 Free Spirit from Maryland and Microsoft senior business development manager
Free Spirits embrace Al Neuharth’s entrepreneurship
Al Neuharth’s entrepreneurial spirit is reflected in many Free Spirit alumni, and many have gone on to launch new media ventures.
After spending more than a decade in television news and online media, Andrew Springer, a 2005 Free Spirit from West Virginia, is focusing his energy on a new target audience: high schoolers. While leading social media teams at NBC News, ABC News and Mashable, and developing the NBC News Snapchat news show, “Stay Tuned,” he saw that the news media was not doing all that it could to help youth be more thoughtful news consumers.
Now Springer, who also speaks frequently with Free Spirits about pursuing a career in the media, is launching “NOTICE News,” a five-minute weekly news show for high school students.
When Free Spirits start something new, they often find their best collaborators from the Free Spirit network. Josh Mysore, a 2020 Free Spirit from Texas, and Joshua Yang, a 2020 Free Spirit from California, co-founded a project called The New Journalism Collective, an Instagram-based news platform featuring young perspectives from across the country. They also brought on 2020 Free Spirit Willa Poland-McClain from Oregon as managing editor.
Free Spirit alumni like these are bringing the Dream, Dare and Do approach to their careers. They are advancing First Amendment Freedoms. And they’re passing Al Neuharth’s call to action to every new Free Spirit class that follows them.
The 2021 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference kicks off June 21! Learn more.
Above, Free Spirit alumni Isaac Arnsdorf (2007), Catherine Cheney (2006) and Devna Shukla (2006) talk about their careers at the 2011 Free Spirit Conference.
By Catherine Cheney, Freedom Forum Free Spirit alumni coordinator and 2006 alumna of the program.