In Depth

Web Takes Front Seat at RTNDA

Event Aims to Assist in Digital Transition

The news directors and journalists who convinced their bosses to pony up for even a half-price ticket to this year’s Radio and Television News Directors Association conference in Las Vegas will be treated to a heavy dose of Web reality at the group’s annual gathering.

The gist of this year’s RTNDA conference, which runs April 19-22, concurrent with the National Association of Broadcasters convention, is 100% practical—it’s about the Web, the Web and more of the Web.

The actual theme of the conference is “Remodeling the Model: Get Ready for Tomorrow’s Digital Platforms,” and most of the sessions center on how news managers and journalists can reinvent news and workflow for the digital age.

RTNDA’s goal this year is for attendees to walk away with the tools that will help journalists can transform themselves into full-scale Web reporters and video journalists. Those skills are vital for survival as news organizations grapple with how to adapt to new viewer habits that favor the fast-moving Web over traditional TV.

But cutbacks and reduced travel expenses will keep many TV journalists away from Las Vegas and tied to their desks. RTNDA attendance is projected to be lower this year, just as it’s been for most industry conferences in 2009. The Consumer Electronics Show, the Cable Show and the National Association of Television Program Executives conventions all saw big attendance dips.

Barbara Cochran, RTNDA’s outgoing president, declined to predict a final number, but did say the figure would be down from last year’s 775, which also represented a drop from about 1,000 in 2007. “We will have hundreds of attendees. It will be just fine,” she said.

To lure TV journalists to the Las Vegas conference, RTNDA offered through last week a two-for-one discount and a $75 discount off a $250 day pass.

While Ms. Cochran would rather see attendance on the upswing, she said one of the benefits of a smaller show is easier access to speakers and executives. “We are trying to be very relevant and offer opportunities for more intimate, one-to-one interaction,” she said.

With the TV news business shifting online, RTNDA has stacked its session lineup with many Web-centric topics. That includes a three-day boot camp on how to operate as a one-man band. More stations are asking reporters to become self-sufficient and do their own shooting, while also requiring photographers to learn on-camera skills. The boot camp is designed to help journalists become multimedia packages themselves. It also will help managers and news directors learn the same single-person crew skills they are requiring of their staffers. The workshop will cover shooting, writing and editing as a solo operation and will be led by executives from the Poynter Institute, CBS News and NBC affiliate KPNX-TV in Phoenix.

The opening super-session on April 19 was slated to address how newsrooms are reinventing their coverage and strategy in the digital era, Ms. Cochran said. “It’s about what people are doing that’s new and different and changing their models and how news directors are adjusting to those models,” she said. CBS’ “The Early Show” anchor Russ Mitchell is scheduled to moderate.

At that panel, RTNDA plans to unveil new research on staffing, the amount of news being produced at local stations and the profitability of news. “It gives the picture of what’s going on, and the news is not necessarily as bad as what’s been reported,” Ms. Cochran said. “Research shows people are still hiring and the cutbacks are not as sweeping or widespread as feared.”

Even so, the goal of the conference is to equip attendees with the tools to do more with less.
As an example, Monday’s session, “What Is Wrong With My Web Site?” will offer critiques of Web sites from industry experts. “The (News) Doctor Is In: Twitter 101” is designed to teach journalists how to use the microblogging platform of Twitter to build audiences and interest in stories.

Other sessions will dig into tried-and-true RTNDA issues, but with a new-media twist. That includes panels on how to lead in a socially networked world, navigating legal issues on the Web, and ethics in a digital age. The latter promises to tackle the rules of using Facebook, Twitter and other services, as well as challenges posed by citizen journalism, user comments and aggregation of other sources’ stories.

In addition, the conference will offer news managers sessions on understanding the top Web trends and using the top technical tools.

“We have had Web content at the conference going back a decade, but there is a new urgency to have more this year,” Ms. Cochran said. “We used to have Web 101, and now people are familiar and we are trying to keep them on the cutting edge.”

The conference also will cover the basics of business and financial reporting, a growth area.