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Considering The Future Of The Media: The Al Neuharth Free Spirit And Journalism Conference In DC



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Walking through the Capitol Building, alongside 50 awe-struck and ambitious high school journalists, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy stopped us outside the Senate press briefing room. The veteran Democrat and most senior member of the 114th Congress teasingly asked if we were the “perspiring” journalists he’d heard would be clogging up the halls of Congress that day. For the sweat-drenched “aspiring” writers attending this journalism conference who had just trudged through Washington DC’s grotesque summer air, Leahy’s quip gave everyone a lift.

I was honored to have been selected as Connecticut’s representative to the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, a weeklong, expenses-paid visit to the capital in June. Fifty-one rising high school seniors, one from each state and the District of Columbia, congregated at Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism, with a common interest in journalism.

We darted around DC in what was truly an unforgettable week: we met Chuck Todd after watching a taping of Meet the Press; we barraged PBS NewsHour anchors Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill with questions; and we honed in on panels featuring some of the brightest writers, bloggers, photographers, and broadcasters in the nation.

Yet leading up to the conference, I had expressed a concern, shared by fellow school newspaper editors and even some of my teachers, that I am deeply invested in what is becoming an obsolete and not particularly lucrative career trajectory. But if I had to take away a single lesson from the week in Washington, it would be that journalism is far from moribund, and that skeptics, like my previous self, shouldn’t fret.

True, with the rise of digital media, fewer journalists may find themselves sitting behind desks and e-mailing sources. But the art of thinking critically, communicating and writing clearly and, well, talking to people, is only becoming more valuable as new media — whether they be smartphones, Twitter, and who knows what else for disseminating important news and information — take the place of traditional platforms.

So Sen Leahy was spot on. The 51 young journalists he encountered in the Capitol were indeed also perspiring, and not just thanks to the Washington humidity, but over the current state of the media. As we would discover over the week, however, while journalism’s many moving parts are radically evolving, there isn’t a piece to the puzzle more overt than social media, an area that, in many ways, is less worrisome to the next generation of journalists-to-be.

When I asked Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill how they planned on expanding PBS NewsHour’s target demographic from people like my grandparents, who are huge fans, to millennials, who may not even know what PBS is, both of their answers centered on digital and social media. Speaking to the show’s new and improved website features and its increasingly popular Twitter feed, they recognized the importance of social media as they seek to expand their viewership.

New Technologies

Celebrated media consultant Val Hoeppner also spoke to our group, on multiple occasions, on the rise of new technologies. She enlightened us about different applications, software, and devices that journalists “in the know” should be using. She showed off her Apple Watch, which hosts an hourly news update and seamlessly integrated Yahoo News and Twitter applications. She touched upon the importance of live video through emerging platforms like Snapchat’s “My Story” feature, and the breaking news potential of Periscope, a live video-cam iPhone application.

That said, the changes challenging the traditional newspaper and broadcast businesses were hard to escape. Perhaps the most poignant example was taking place, somewhat ironically, during our visit to the headquarters of USA Today, whose founder, Al Neuharth, established the Free Spirit conference that brought us there in the first place. We toured USA Today the day before its parent company, media giant Gannett, was splitting its print operations from its television business on Wall Street.

Not surprisingly, the still-robust broadcast entity also retained popular classified websites, such as cars.com and CareerBuilder, creating a new company called Tegna. The newspapers remained part of Gannett. When the two companies went their separate ways, Tegna shares saw a three percent spike on their first day of trading. Gannett’s shares declined, perhaps speaking to the demand and faith shareholders may have in the future of print media.

Some more optimistic news awaited us back at Newseum, in a presentation by Greg Barber, the Washington Post’s director of digital news projects. Mr Barber is working on something called The Coral Project, an attempt to create a open-source software that will ultimately “improve communities on news sites,” according to the project’s website.

Mr Barber gave us some of the details of the endeavor, such as the possible implementation of so-called karma scores to weed out Internet trolls. The upheaval of currently outdated and Facebook-affiliated comment sections is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, or at least the right transition.

One of the last sessions we had, and certainly one of the most hopeful, was with Mary Pilon, a former Free Spirit scholar from the state of Oregon, and now the New York Times bestselling author of The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game.

Ms Pilon assured us that “this business is full of Eeyores — people who will tell you that journalism is dying.” Far from putting us into a sweat the way Sen Leahy did, Ms Pilon — who at 25 was named a Forbes “30 under 30” media star for her sports coverage while at The New York Times — reassured the aspiring journalists about their potential career paths.

“Journalism is always changing. Life is always changing. That’s what makes it life. If things stayed the same, we’d be bored and have nothing to write about.”

Sam Cox is a rising senior at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor and the editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper Loomis Chaffee Log. He completed a summer internship with The Newtown Bee earlier this week.

Sam Cox, left, asks Greg Barber, not pictured, a question about "The Coral Project" during his trip to Washington DC for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. 
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