(WASHINGTON, D.C.) “We need your voice, we need your courage, we need it now.” During the 2017 Al Neuharth Free Spirit Conference in June, Charles C. Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute, was asked about his confidence in the future of journalism, and he promptly responded with this call to arms, deeming the current state of journalism and the media an “All hands on deck moment.”
Haynes is not the only individual concerned with the future of journalism. Of the countless “Q and A” sessions with distinguished journalists that were a part of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit conference, the most frequently asked questions seemed to concern the future of journalism. The journalists asking these questions were not distinguished professionals, but rather 51 student journalists, each representing their home states (and Washington, D.C.), all concerned with the future of a field in distress.
The Free Spirit conference offered its chosen participants the opportunity to interact with some of the most prestigious journalists our country has to offer. Some of the more prominent guest speakers, just to name a few, included Chuck Todd, host of “Meet the Press;” David Fahrenthold, Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post writer; and Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post. In almost all of the questions asked to these distinguished speakers, there seemed to be a deep tone of concern for the future of journalism.
“The state of journalism is one of unprecedented proportions,” said Pennsylvania representative Simon Williams. “Never before has there been such a vehement distaste for mass media.”
One doesn’t have to be a genius to see that American journalism has seen better days. Media platforms have massively changed in the last decade, making news writing and reporting more and more difficult and elusive. Those who attended the Free Spirit conference probably heard the phrase, “Print is dead,” close to 1,000 times. And that’s because it’s absolutely correct. Times are changing, and the future of news reporting is wildly unpredictable. Other “free spirits” were concerned with the massive decline of Americans’ trust in the media. They thought that this was due to corrupt media coverage, bias, and the fiercely divided political climate. And yes, “fake news” was greatly discussed and debated.
“I’m not necessarily concerned with our ability to report accurately and fairly, but more concerned that the country is only reading the news that they want, and it’s dividing us more,” Illinois free spirit Natalie White said. “Every journalist will say that fake news is a problem, and the only way to combat it is to keep doing good reporting.”
It is for these reasons, and the undeniable hardships facing journalism in the future, that Haynes called the trade’s current status an “all hands on deck moment.” These 51 young men and women were chosen as shining figures among the thousands of student journalists considering a career in journalism in America, but these free spirits spent five days in Washington, D.C., for a purpose much greater than their own respective careers.
“This week truly changed me,” Georgia free spirit Molly Weston said. “I realized how important journalism is right now, and that created a fire in me to produce good work. I was able to meet incredibly passionate students that completely humbled me, which made the environment of the conference insanely inspirational.”
“I got to see that journalism isn’t dead, it’s just changing,” added South Carolina representative Stephen Wise. “It’s adapting as a business and as a medium for information, changing with the times along with the introduction of new technology.”
The American people are thirsting for honest, fair and respectful journalism in a time where honesty, fairness and respect appear to have vanished from the country. It takes great courage to be fair, to tell the truth and to roll the dice on a field that many fear is on the brink of collapse. It is up to all of those who consider themselves free spirits, and all of those who care for commutative journalistic integrity in America, to restore the trust of the American people in the only line between fact and fiction.
As the free spirits filed into the Newseum in Washington, D.C., each morning of the conference, they were taken aback by the view of the First Amendment gloriously carved into the marble above the entrance. Its purpose is to remind Americans that without the First Amendment, democracy is not possible. Without the First Amendment, Americans lose their ability to progress as a society. Without the First Amendment, America is nothing. The First Amendment is what will always keep journalism alive, even in its darkest times.
For more information on the Al Neuharth Free Spirit conference, visit the Newseum’s website.