Al Neuharth Conference Inspires Future Generation of Journalists

By Roz Kutsch

Many people are under the impression that newspapers are dying, TV stations are biased, and everyone gets their news online. To an outsider, it may seem like the traditional field of  journalism is quickly dwindling into obscurity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The image of journalism may changing, but the role journalists play has never been more important in keeping a check on governments around the world and keeping citizens informed. The term ‘journalism’ , conjures images of persistent reporters and stuffy newsrooms, but should also bring to mind important guardians of democracy and honest governance. This association was underscored for me last summer in Washington DC during The Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Conference hosted by USA Today and the Newseum. The conference was a gathering of 51 rising high school seniors-one from every state and DC, who had the opportunity to hear from journalists and policy makers about the ever changing field of journalism. The conference introduced its participants to leaders of modern journalism who clearly demonstrated the ongoing importance of the field.

Many people are discouraged by the state of the media, blaming bias and special interests as huge problems. Much like politics, however, these issues won’t be addressed until engagement and involvement by the public is taken. One of our speakers was former Press Secretary to President Ford, Ron Nessen. He spoke of the evolution of the digital age and how the ease of technology allowed for widening of the term ‘journalist’. According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of 18-34 year olds in America own a smartphone. Because of this, news has never gotten out faster. Nessen said a new consequence of smart-phone journalism is that policy makers have less control over what is being leaked to the general public. This is true especially in war zone areas, where restrictions on military journalists and reporters are mitigated by civilians with access to the internet. Nessen was a broadcast journalist during the Vietnam War and saw firsthand the effect of media on public opinion. Because so many people now have the ability to disseminate news to wide audiences, they need to be mindful of the role and responsibility that comes with being a news contributor.

Another problem brought up by Nessen with today’s media rests in ‘the spotlight effect’. This is when news stations focus on one news story for an extended period of time and ignore other important news for the sake of gaining more viewers–such as in the case of the Malaysian airline story this summer. This can cause the public to become narrow minded and ignore important concurrent news stories. This a perilous road, one that could harm the awareness of the public for a long time. Gwen Ifill, PBS NewsHour co-host, warned against public ignorance by saying,

“It is too dangerous to simply ignore the things going on around us.”

One way journalists have sought to combat this ignorance is by actively working to avoid the “fluff” in the media (reality TV shows, time fillers,) and focus on presenting the hard news.  However, Ifill told the group that presenting the hard news in an appealing and interesting manner is crucial in getting information to those who don’t actively seek it out.

We listened to everyone from political journalists focused on covering the White House to foodies that that cover topics as simple as cheese. Many of them had a novel idea for us aspiring journalists: you don’t need to have a degree in journalism to break into the field. Former host of ‘Meet the Press,’ David Gregory, recommended avoiding studying journalism in college and instead focus on skills that would be relevant to the field.

“Know how to write well, and think clearly,” he said. Greg Linch, technology editor at The Washington Post, suggested to us that we have a specialty when it comes to journalism–whether that be finance, politics, international relations, or crime. Sara Ganim, Pulitzer Prize winner for her piece on Jerry Sandusky, advised us that diversification of skills was vital to the success of a journalist. Ganim also warned us that many colleges teach an outdated style of journalism that won’t be relevant to the field today. Above all, the key to being successful as a journalist is gaining experience. Zeke Miller reporter for TIME Magazine, who attended Yale for journalism, told us that he worked 10-12 hours on the school newspaper.

“I didn’t attend Yale, I attended The Yale Daily News,” he joked. These editors and reporters gave us invaluable advice and then pressed us to combat the issues facing the media today. They reminded us that it is up to us to expose the fraud and misinformation, fight the bias that so many of the media stations rely on, avoid the “fluff” and unnecessary news, and work towards making the vital information available.

Journalism is obviously evolving and the impact that technology, especially the internet, has had on journalism is undeniable. This shift has presented both negatives and positives in the field. Above all, technology has allowed the field of journalism to spread and make it possible for everyone to share their side of the story. Though the medium is different, the endless search for interesting and relevant stories will never go away. As Jan Neuharth, daughter of Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, puts it,
“It is the content that matters, not the delivery.”

This conference motivated young journalists across the country to continue to seek out the stories that will stir the hearts and minds of the world, as well as receive reassurance that the work they hope to do remains relevant and important.



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