In Depth

RTDNA@NAB: A Harsh Realities Show for News Directors

By Elizabeth Jensen

It’s been a rough year for employees in the electronic newsgathering business and the Radio Television Digital News Association convention is offering help for those grappling with the fallout.
From a “Super Session” on the “Future of Broadcast News” to two panels on how to handle management demands on a news department to churn out more revenue, the convention has put together numerous opportunities to explore the new realities of the business.

“After coming through a very difficult financial climate, a lot of news organizations have found themselves having to try to maintain a quality product while having fewer resources, whether people or whatever,” said Mark Kraham, the RTDNA’s chair-elect and chair of this year’s convention, which runs April 11-14 at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“I think broadcasters — radio and television and digital media folks — all of us are looking for how do we get this done: put out a quality product without compromising the quality of it or not getting it done. I hope they come and find the basic essentials they need to keep doing quality work.”

Last year’s convention attendance took a hit because of smaller travel budgets at stations, said Kraham. RTDNA this year is expecting around 600 attendees, similar to last year’s number, according to Executive Director Jane Nassiri.

Monday afternoon, CBS News’ Russ Mitchell will moderate an RTDNA/NAB “Super Session” on the future of broadcast news, both the challenges resulting from slashed budgets and reduced staffs and the opportunities for “repackaging and delivering” news product. Panelists will include Harvey Nagler, longtime vice president of news for CBS Radio, and Paul McTear, the president of Raycom Media.

A joint RTDNA and National Association of Broadcasters session with the Television Bureau of Advertising later that same afternoon will look at a related issue, the blurring of the lines between news and sales at this difficult economic time.

Even the strictest of news directors are being asked to do things they may be uncomfortable with, said Kraham, who is the news director at WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md. “They’re being asked and required to talk about product,” and, he added, they are questioning, “‘Where do you draw the line?’”

Panelists, including Tom Bier, station manager at WISC-TV, in Madison, Wis., and Louis Wall, president of Sagamore Hill Broadcasting, will explore with attendees the concerns from both sides of the business — sales and news — and experiences of how to maintain the integrity of news and still help meet the station’s needs.

Tuesday afternoon, the discussion will turn to “News and Product Integration: Too Close for Comfort?” Steve Schwaid, director of news and digital content, CBS Atlanta News and CBSAtlanta.com, will lead a more news-focused discussion among anchors and news directors on how to manage requests from the sales department.

Finishing off Monday evening, Steve Kroft, longtime correspondent at CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” will be honored with the RTDNA Paul White Award. His speech is expected to continue the theme and deal with the challenges that journalism is facing as a result of the economic climate and rapidly evolving technology.

As in recent years, there are a number of sessions devoted to social networking and digital media, including two that deal with newsgathering by phone.

RTDNA Chairman Stacey Woelfel will be joined on Monday by Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute and Chip Mahaney, director of digital content at E.W. Scripps, to discuss the RTDNA’s new social media and blogging guidelines, which lay out the professional and ethical standards for such endeavors.

That same morning, a panel will look at coming technologies, from “real-time debate analysis tools” to devices to toggle between cell and TV video. Another afternoon session will examine tools being adopted by journalists worldwide.

Tuesday’s breakfast panel will take a look at an iPhone newsgathering application, while later in the morning Scripps’ Mahaney will conduct a hands-on seminar on using social media to build a newsroom brand. In the afternoon, creating content with a cell phone will be explored.

Interspersed throughout the convention days are sessions on some of the more traditional concerns of the business. A topical panel on day one will look at the recent experiences of those who covered the Haitian earthquake. “We’ll be talking to some of the people who were on the ground in Haiti, the challenges they had to deal with in getting their story out, but also in dealing with the basic essentials,” Kraham said.

A Monday panel will grapple with the increasingly controversial questions posed by how stations cover children in jeopardy. On Wednesday, the late Walter Cronkite’s legacy will be assessed.
The rest of the schedule is packed with sessions that prove popular year after year, said Kraham, including those targeted to students and young professionals that explain how to assemble a demo reel and craft a résumé.

The convention’s writing seminar is a perennial favorite, he said, and this year it will be led by Bob Dotson, a national correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show, whose “American Story” feature has won a record five Edward R. Murrow awards for writing.