In Depth

Cochran Steps Down

RTNDA’s Outgoing President Looks Back at Accomplishments, Forward at Challenges as She Enters Final Gathering as Group’s Leader

After 12 years at the helm, Barbara Cochran will step down from her post as president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in June, capping a career phase spent defending the First Amendment and freedom of information and journalism shield laws.

This year’s RTNDA conference, running concurrently with the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas this week, marks her last as the head of the association that promotes electronic journalism.

She has not yet determined her next career step, but she does not plan to retire. Among other things, she is considering teaching at a university.

“I would like to stay active in journalism,” said Ms. Cochran, who announced in November that she would depart by this summer.

She also will continue as president emeritus of RTNDA for the next year to help with the transition to new leadership.

Last week, RTNDA announced that her role will be filled by two current RTNDA staffers, Jane Nassiri, VP of finance and administration, and Kathleen Graham, VP of foundation programs. Ms. Nassiri and Ms. Graham, who will take over in late June, were not available for press interviews.

“They are very experienced and very familiar with the operations and the association and the foundation, and they have had a lot of interaction with the members over the years,” Ms. Cochran said.

But they will have their work cut out for them. Television journalism has entered a time of tremendous upheaval as broadcasters struggle to keep pace with their digital counterparts.

Young Viewers Still Key

The broadcast business has been beaten down in the last few years by the migration of younger viewers away from television and to online news. The results are shrinking audiences and smaller budgets.

Stations have responded by reducing staff and training their journalists to become multimedia producers who create for TV, Web and mobile mediums.

In fact, the theme of this year’s RTNDA conference is how to produce and reinvent news for the multiplatform world. That’s a business necessity given that the new generation of viewers is not naturally inclined to turn to the TV first.

A recent study by multimedia production firm Generate found that 13-to 24-year-olds trust newspapers the most, followed by the Web, with TV third. They also spend most of their media time with the Internet compared with TV and magazines.

In a desperate bid to win over these millennial viewers, local broadcasters have been devoting more resources to the Internet, overhauling their Web sites to include more video and interactive capabilities. They’re also redoubling their online sales efforts to bring in the bucks they need to make up for what they’re losing on TV, especially in this battered recessionary year that has wrought double-digit ad revenue declines on TV stations.

The Obama Advantage

Some aspects of the job will be easier for the new RTNDA leaders, though. They’re fortunate to work with a White House administration that’s more open to freedom of the press. The RTNDA faced tougher challenges under the Bush administration, but that’s now shifting under President Obama, Ms. Cochran said.

As an example she cited the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, which is making its way through Congress and, if passed, would offer shield protection to reporters under federal law.

“The proposals establish a qualified privilege and detail the circumstances under which a reporter can be compelled to testify regarding his or her sources, such as when national security is at risk or an eyewitness has observed a crime,” the RTNDA wrote on its Web site.

In addition, President Obama has already given federal agencies a clear mandate to disclose more information under the Freedom of Information Act, RTNDA said.

In a similar vein, RTNDA also took an active role recently in support of a reporter whose audio recording of an interview with a veteran was seized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ms. Cochran said.

In a letter to the department, Ms. Cochran wrote, “[David] Schultz was interrupted by a Veterans Affairs public affairs employee while interviewing a veteran at a public meeting and ordered to turn over his recording equipment and the memory card containing the interview. Armed police officers were summoned and surrounded Mr. Schultz, who turned over the memory card after consulting with his news director. … The government may not lawfully seize audio or videotape at the scene of an event or otherwise impose a prior restraint on the dissemination of news material without following judicial procedure and establishing the highest level of need for the restraint.”

About a week ago, the department returned the recording to Mr. Schultz, Ms. Cochran said.

“When I look back, the thing I feel the proudest of is we were able to be the organization that maintained high standards for electronic journalism and freedom of the press,” she said. “We have a good track record; we have called a number of things to public attention and then worked to defend the journalist.”