What a Chronic Aspirer Learned as a Free Spirit Scholar
When I straightened my tie and strode — with more than a little excitement — into the conference room, I had no idea what a week I would be in for.
In my week representing Texas at the 2023 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, I made 50 friends and so many memories: our fun sightseeing nights taking crazy pictures, our wildly active group chat, some amazing chocolate mousse and the raucous boat party.
Amid the fun and bonding, I dined with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, heard from talented media professionals, learned about the legacy of Al Neuharth, got a breakdown of press freedom, and much more.
My lessons from the week are best boiled down to this: Focus on what’s in your control, do your best and don’t worry about the outcome.
These four takeaways should help define what “do your best” really means.
1. Be a Free Spirit and “dream, dare, and do.”
This philosophy lies at the core of Al Neuharth’s being and the Freedom Forum. The easiest way to tell you what “dreaming, daring, and doing” means is by how Neuharth lived. His life shows that there's no age limit to success (he created USA TODAY at 58), failure is not fatal (his failure in creating SoDak Sports motivated him to excel), and that the courage to continue counts.
2. Be kind, always.
“The biggest mistake you can make,” Maria Hinojosa said, “is being mean to someone, both in this line of work and the world. Because who knows? You might work for them one day. And 'sorry' is a word that loses meaning to those who’ve heard it enough.”
Understanding the power of being kind in all circumstances not only contributes to our professionalism but also fosters healthy and long-lasting connections.
3. Authenticity matters, both on Instagram and in real life.
This tidbit of advice was from Ashwath Narayanan, founder and CEO of Social Currant, a creator-led platform and managed service focusing on making a difference through the power of social media.
In the panel discussion “Influence in the Social Media Age: Gen-Z and Activism,” he emphasized that it’s important to be yourself online, despite the prospect of hateful comments. Authenticity is equally crucial in person, where others can detect and call out lies simply by looking into your eyes. Authenticity fosters trust. If you’re trying to make a difference in the world, whether by “influencing” or being an activist, showcasing the real you (while also not intentionally offending people) is crucial.
4. Don’t let anyone put you down for choosing Elvis over The Beatles.
One of our most electrifying speakers was 81-year-old C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. He explained the root of polarization in American media: money.
But he also said many journalists come under fire for no reason because they simply choose to report on Elvis instead of The Beatles. In other words, in a world with so many stories to be told, they choose to report on story B and not story A.
“Every storyteller has the right to pick the story they write; if multiple people report on Elvis, that’s just parallel thinking…not necessarily a plot to silence another story.”
Unfortunately, in our modern world, people grow suspicious of or, worse, ignore places that don't give them the news that they want to hear. Therefore, some are skeptical of many news outlets trying to tell the stories they believe matter.
The Free Spirit Conference showed me that the First Amendment is not just important in theory but also in practice, so we can get a diverse array of stories and opinions within specific beats and in general in our news-scape. A free press matters deeply because it is the cornerstone of a well-informed society, allowing people to access accurate and diverse information without censorship.
We visited The Wall Street Journal, and I saw in the experiences of wrongfully imprisoned journalist Evan Gershkovich the dangers of a lack of press freedom for journalists and audiences. In such environments, the truth becomes obscured, and the voices of the oppressed are silenced.
In the USA today (see what I did there?), everyone has a choice, whether one is telling stories, looking for a job or even applying to colleges. Have self-respect for your choices and make them wisely, but also respect journalists and newsroom executives making decisions that impact the stories you consume.
Eshaan Mani, 2023 Free Spirit Scholar representing Texas, has been a contributing writer for numerous media outlets including PBS NewsHour, Time For Kids, The Buzz Magazines, The Teen Magazine and KIDS FIRST!. He also started his own literary magazine, the iWRITER, to amplify the voices of young storytellers eager to report on their communities.
Apply to be an Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholar.
High school juniors receive a $1000 college scholarship and all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.