Eighth grader Omar Alsolaiman worries about the future of the free press in America — but not just on a national level.

“Throughout American history, the press has been a tool for expanding the ability of people to participate in democracy, allowing the U.S. to become more democratic over time,” the Rowland Hall student wrote in an award-winning essay. And, he added, “It is not only national journalism that matters, though. The communities we live in each have their own problems, which can’t be solved without exposure through the press.”

Alsolaiman is one of three winners in the annual essay contest sponsored by the McCarthey Family Foundation in conjunction with its lecture series “In Praise of Independent Journalism.” The eighth grader won in the 500-word category for grades 6-8 and will receive a check for $1,500.

Jonah Carlson, a senior at Davis High School, won in the 750-word category for grades 9-12 and will receive a check for $2,500. Brianna Skaggs, a sophomore at the University of Utah, won in the 1,000-word university/college category and will receive a check for $4,000.

They will be recognized and receive their cash prizes on Saturday, Nov. 9, at the 14th annual McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture at 7 p.m. at Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City. Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Jon Meacham — the author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush — will discuss “The Free Press in America: Past and Present Challenges.”

(David J. Phillip | AP file photo) Author Jon Meacham answers a question from reporters before an event at Texas A&M University to launch his book "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush" in College Station, Texas, on Nov. 9, 2015.

The lecture is free and open to the public, and the winning essays will be printed in the evening’s program.

Foundation trustee Philip G. McCarthey said the contest entries “reflected an exceptionally well-informed student population keenly aware of the challenges facing press freedom in our society today.”

In her piece, Skaggs decried that “‘Fake News’ is a rallying cry in contemporary politics, often shouted over breaking news and muddying the conversation, creating a perception that any news outlet a person disagrees with is telling tall tales, is deliberately deceitful and propagating propaganda.”

She also pointed to a parallel problem — Americans who “are watching only one channel for news, and whether that is CNN or Fox News, the result is diminished access to the complete story.”

In his essay, Carlson similarly argued, “A press that gives transparent, unbiased information to the people is required, giving the people the freedom of choice.” But, he added, “sources such as Fox News on the right and Vox on the left strip away the power that the press bestows in us: the power to make our own decisions with unbiased information. Even our president, who is supposed to serve as a bastion of freedom for American people, repeatedly calls the press ‘the enemy of the people.’”

There were 456 entries this year, up from 400 in 2018. According to the foundation, the number of entries from girls and women doubled in all three categories. And, for the first time, all four of the finalists in the university/college category were women.

The finalists were:

Grades 6-8 • Aiden Gandhi, seventh grade, Rowland Hall; Clara Keller, eighth grade, Timberline Middle School; and Giovanni Nuvan, eighth grade, Madeleine Choir School.

Grades 9-12 • Caylee S. Caldwell, 12th grade, Highland High School; Hannah Ludington, ninth grade, Carbon High School; and Kajal Ganesh, 12th grade, Rowland Hall.

University/college • Whitney Bigelow, Brigham Young University; Kiki Karahalios, University of Utah; and Tatum Lovin, University of Utah.

Jurors included Sarah McCarthey and Tommy McCarthey; Lois Collins, Deseret News reporter and columnist; Mary Dickson, former director of community relations at KUED Channel 7; Nancy Melich, former theater critic at The Salt Lake Tribune; Lex Hemphill, former Tribune sportswriter, columnist and editorial writer; and Terry Orme, former editor and publisher of The Tribune.