Bugay: Three lessons I learned from the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference

LeAnne Bugay, Editor-in-Chief

Six months ago, nervous, alone, and sweaty, I boarded a plane to represent the state of Nebraska at the 2019 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington D.C. The annual conference is a week-long, all expenses-paid trip that teaches one rising senior from every state and the District of Columbia how to carry on USA Today founder Al Neuharth’s legacy and to “dream, dare, and do” as a journalist. 

In my week in D.C., I learned from countless professional journalists, First Amendment champions, government officials, and people who dedicate their lives to changing the world for the better. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist David Fahrenthold talked through story ideas with me. Tenured Associated Press photojournalist J. Scott Applewhite critiqued my photography. Bloomberg reporter Shira Stein coached me on how to stand up for myself as a female reporter in male-dominated newsrooms.

While the conference introduced me to 50 new friends and (hopefully) future colleagues, the fanciest food I have ever seen or eaten, and culture shock for my Midwestern-indoctrinated life, the information I digested still runs through my mind everyday. And over the past six months, I’ve had time to process it and form three overarching lessons for the future that I feel are most important.

Most important lesson for my future

Hard work will earn me a career in media, not a J-school dripping with pedigree.

While my head spun in joy for six days straight hanging out with kids just like me, I was rather insecure hearing so many of them talk about the Ivy League schools they’ve visited, how many degrees their parents have, and how so many are dead-set on a top tier college.

Don’t get me wrong, I get giddy thinking about attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln next year, but I’m still a teenager that tends to compare myself to others more than I should.

To my surprise, at least once a day at the conference, my insecurities were settled with the phrase “It doesn’t really matter where you go to college,” coming out of the mouth of a professional journalist. One lunch in particular I spent with New York Times reporter Rick Rojas, who told me he didn’t even major in journalism at the state school he attended in Texas.

Instead of dropping his life’s savings on a name-brand college, he worked his way up through small news outlets, built a strong portfolio, and trusted in his hard work ethic to get him where he is today, which is the route I am proud to start soon.

Most important lesson for the future of journalism

In order to reflect the values, opinions, and concerns of our country, our newsrooms must be as diverse as our audiences are. 

I’ve always valued this concept, but it was really solidified listening to former newspaper editor Julia Wallace discuss the impact of USA Today’s active recruitment of female journalists soon after the founding of the paper. Wallace said hiring women reporters made the paper more credible, attracted more readers, and inspired young women to seek professional careers.

And as any writer knows, it matters who’s behind the pen. Every journalist, even the most careful and fair ones, will produce an ounce of bias somewhere in the reporting process. And no, it’s not because the media are the enemy of the people and want to watch the world burn, but rather, it’s because we are human beings with just as much emotion and as many opinions as our readers.

With that, a diverse newsroom can more accurately report on a community than one dominated by a certain race or gender, because multiple perspectives find diverse story ideas and connect better with sources similar to them.

Take for example a white, middle-aged, male-dominated newsroom (which far too many are, as pointed out by Pew Research Center), trying to profile a young black woman and her new business. The reporter from that newsroom may miss crucial questions, assume facts, or glaze over important details because of implicit bias that all people have.

Now give that same story to a young reporter, a black reporter, or a female reporter. Since perspective matters, these diverse reporters will be able to empathize more with their source and can more easily put themselves in this woman’s shoes to tell her story.

To achieve this, we need to work from the ground up. Schools need to be set up to push all students to become better writers, regardless of whether their race, income, or gender make teachers doubt their potential. Colleges need to recruit minority students to train the next generation of diverse reporters to save newsrooms’ current failures. And what can be done most easily is for newsrooms to simply hire more minority reporters.

The excuse that there aren’t as many out there is a lie. Those reporters are out there, and it is the responsibility of those leading newsrooms to give them an opportunity.

Most important lesson for the future of our country

Even though the Constitution guarantees the five freedoms of the First Amendment, our rights are under attack every day.

Yes, I can march up to the Nebraska state capitol tomorrow morning and peacefully protest just about anything I want. I can practice any religion I desire, or create a whole new personal set of beliefs. I can file a Freedom of Information Act request to see what restaurants in my town passed their health inspection this year and report my findings. I can collect signatures on an issue and send it to my state senator. I can even shout “Pineapple does not belong on pizza,” in the middle of downtown Omaha.

But even though I can live out the five freedoms of the First Amendment, it’s the small actions from government officials, and even ourselves sometimes, that are slowly chipping away at our rights.

Founder of the Freedom Forum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center Charles C. Haynes used his past to inspire my friends and I to be champions of the First Amendment. Haynes detailed how subtly, yet assertively, police, the government, and anyone in authority tried to downplay and mock his efforts protesting for countless social issues like the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the fight against AIDS.

Even though some protesters around him were discouraged and benched their freedoms for another day, he never let up. My generation needs to do the same if we want to keep our freedoms.

The second we slip into the mindset that we can save a protest for another day, or it doesn’t really matter if we call our congressional representatives, or it won’t make a difference if the press don’t release secrets hidden by authority, we will surrender our rights to those in power.

As long as we inform ourselves about how the First Amendment works and take pride in using it, our country will be just fine.

Attending the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference was hands down the best week of my life. I will forever be thankful for the opportunity to completely immerse myself into the world of journalism for a week. And even though one day some memories may fade, the inside jokes may dwindle, and the details may blur, I am confident that these three lessons will stick with me forever.


A previous version misidentified Charles C. Haynes’ title. The Thunderbeat regrets the error.