Faced with a troublesome economy, the growth of digital journalism and the resignation of President Barbara Cochran, the RTNDA is remaking itself, says the current chairman. Among the changes: no replacement for Cochran; a new, more inclusive name and membership; the end of the Communicator; and lower costs of joining and participating.
Just like the TV news operations it serves and represents, the Radio Television News Directors Association has been struggling to keep pace with the digital media revolution while watching its operating budget shrink.
The need for fundamental change in the 63-year-old association intensified last year as the economic downturn tightened its grip on the nation and became even more urgent last November when longtime President Barbara Cochran announced that she would be stepping down at the end of June.
With Cochran on her way out, the chief agent for change is now RTNDA Chairman Ed Esposito, vice president of information media for Rubber City Group, operator of an AM, two FMs and AkronNewsNow.com in Arkon, Ohio.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Esposito says that he and the other member of the RTNDA board members are working hard to stay true to its original mission, embrace new media and bring the association’s costs in line with TV’s new economic reality. At less than $3 million this year, he says, the operating budget will be less than half of what it was just a few years ago.
Among the most notable changes in the offing: no replacement for Cochran, a new, more inclusive name and membership, the end of the Communicator and lower costs of joining and participating.
Barbara Cochran has given notice that she is going to leave at the end of June. How is the search for a new president coming?
We posted the search back in January and we received close to a couple hundred applicants. There were some very qualified candidates in there, but it became apparent as we moved into February and really started to see the impact the economy that this was an opportunity for remaking RTNDA. One of the questions was, is it a good idea now to bring in another president when we may very well be fundamentally changing the association.
If not a president, then what?
It’s very interesting what some of the other associations do: The board is much more engaged; the chairperson is much more engaged and has more of a hands-on role. It’s hard to find someone who can run an association and a foundation and speak on behalf of journalists at the same time. Those are very big shoes to fill.
I can see board members handling some of the fundraising and spokesperson functions. What about administration?
We’re looking for a staff solution.
You say you are looking to strategically reposition the association. How so?
We want to take the association into a more digital environment. The last edition of Communicator will be published this summer and RTNDA will be going all digital. We need to have a much more robust and reactive and forward-thinking Web presence.
In terms of outreach, we are trying to figure out how we remain relevant with our members and at the same time do so where it’s affordable. There are quite a few voices on the board that have serious concerns about the ability of the industry and individual members with current pricing structures. We need to get our prices down.
You’re talking about the dues.
I’m talking about the dues, yes, but also reducing the cost of participating in the [Edward R.] Murrow Awards. We went digital with the entries this year. We did have some glitches, but for the most part it worked fairly well. We want to make it more affordable, especially when companies don’t necessarily support the fees involved with entering contests and awards programs.
What are the other sources of your funding now?
The sources of our funding now are primarily through RTNDF and the foundation support we get through programs like the high school journalism program and excellence in ethics — programs we would use in conjunction with presenting workshops to members, working with the Reynolds Foundation and the economics reporting.
Another source of revenue is with that the RTNDF dinner, which provides us with unrestricted income to help run the foundation. That is a big source of unrestricted income. Restricted income is when you get money from foundations and they’ll say we’ll pay you X amount of money to do this program. The unrestricted is what actually keeps the doors open and allows you to pay people to do that. The Murrow Awards obviously is a big revenue center. The convention is a revenue center, thanks to the largess and welcomed support of NAB, and the dues themselves.
Are you considering lowering your dues?
There is consensus on the board that we do need to do that and that we need to simplify the dues structure.
Your annual convention is part of the larger NAB convention in April now. How do you get broadcasters to go anywhere these days?
It’s going to be tough. We will obviously see fewer people at the convention than we have in previous years. We had in the neighborhood of 600 members last year and last year was down from the previous year. This year I would not be surprised to see attendance off another 25-30 percent.
Are you kicking around any other ideas for generating revenue?
We’re taking a hard look at investment opportunities, but those are pretty damn slim these days. I know there’s been some discussion in the past on getting far away from traditional business models. Do you work with other journalism organizations to offer pooled health insurance for freelancers or out-of-work journalists? I think you could probably make an argument that there might be some benefit to that. It sure works for AARP.
There are a dozen journalism organizations like us. What we do can be so much stronger if we all did it together instead of doing it separately. Looking at pool insurance arrangements might be one thing to look at.
Has there been any discussion about merging with one of these other organizations?
We haven’t really used the merge word, but we have talked about cooperation. We’ve had a much better relationship the last year with the Online News Association in terms of opening up communication. I know Jonathan Dube, its chairman, and its board have been receptive to trying to figure out ways to do things together. We’ve talked to SPJ [the Society of Professional Journalists], and we’ve even had some very soft discussions with ASNE [the American Society of Newspaper Editors] and other groups as well. I don’t know that we need to work only with broadcast-oriented journalists anymore. When you really look at the convergence, shouldn’t our own associations be a model of that?
Let me back you up a little. Why did you decide to cease publication of the Communicator?
We couldn’t support it anymore. It was a money loser for us. There is content of value to our members in Communicator, but doing it in a printed magazine form 10, six, or four times a year couldn’t be supported by the advertising model and there wasn’t enough in terms of the dues structure to pay for that either. We were taking losses on every issue.
The strategic restructuring sounds of RTNDA sounds a lot like downsizing. What are you doing to grow the organization?
It’s not just the downsizing. It’s just that RTNDA has got to reinvent itself and everyone’s on board and understands we have to do that. We had an experience earlier this year where we did two regional workshops, one on ethics and the other on managing through change in tough times.
We’ve looked at doing more workshops with smaller groups as one way to expand the outreach and value to members at a time when we know they will not be attending the national convention. So that’s certainly one product that we would look to expand.
Given your interest in going beyond conventional TV news, have you given any thought to changing the name?
We actually took a vote in our December meeting to change the name we do business as. It would not require a bylaws change. We would change the name to the Radio Television Digital News Association so that we would no longer be focused on just news directors and news managers. I think there is a recognition that RTNDA has kind of grown beyond that.
And the idea behind that is to embrace online media.
To embrace online, of course, but also to be more representative of what the focus is now. There was a time when it was just the radio news directors and there was a time when a lot of the focus was just on television news directors. Now, it is radio, television and digital.
And you want everybody in now, not just the news managers.
Yes. We did that about three years ago where we kind of opened up by allowing non-managers serve on our board. That’s another thing: we have about seven or eight different categories of membership and I think there’s a feeling that we need to make that a lot simpler.
We also agreed in December to open up so that broadcast educators could be voting members of RTNDA. Many educators are either former electronic journalists or are running student media newsrooms.
So I’ll have to get use to saying R-T-D-N-A now.
Right. It’s a tongue twister when you’re used to saying R-T-N-D-A.