When the Radio-Television News Directors Association recently changed its name to the Radio Television Digital News Association, it did a lot more than just transpose two letters. The group’s chairman, Stacey Woelfel, says the goal is to reach out to “all electronic journalists, including the newest members of our newsrooms working on the digital platforms.” He also talks about working to break down the traditional barriers that have separated broadcast and print journalism and efforts to stage a joint national convention with the Society of Professional Journalists in 2011.
Last month, with the flip of two letters, the Radio-Television News Directors Association — better known as the RTNDA — became the RTDNA, the Radio Television Digital News Association. It marked the second name change in the organization’s history, which was founded in 1946 as the National Association of Radio News Directors. It embraced television and became RTNDA in 1952.
By whatever combination of those five letters, RTDNA is the world’s largest organization for TV and radio journalists representing professionals in the United States and in more than 20 other countries.
The new economic realities have impacted the organization. Attendance at the annual convention has declined over the years. Exhibitors have slowly faded away. The financial burden for convention support, awards and organization membership has shifted from companies to individual managers and newsroom staffers.
And with the departure of longtime president Barbara Cochran earlier this year, an executive director now runs the association on a day-to-day basis and the onus of leadership has fallen to the elected chairman.
The current chairman is Stacey Woelfel, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and news director of KOMU, the Mizzou-owned NBC affiliate in Columbia.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Tom Petner, Woelfel says he wants to reach out to “all electronic journalists, including the newest members of our newsrooms working on the digital platforms.” Along those lines, he also talks about the RTDNA’s efforts to break down the traditional barriers that have separated broadcast and print journalism and efforts to stage a joint national convention with the Society of Professional Journalists in 2011.
And he offers up his thoughts on the prospects of a federal shield law and the return of the fairness doctrine and his visions for the two-tiered newsrooms and two-tiered local news markets.
An edited transcript:
You did some alphabet magic with the organization’s name. What’s that all about?
News directors and news managers have always been an important part of our membership. But we saw an increasing number of reporters and other people who weren’t news managers, but we’re still interested in our training, our code of ethics and things like that. So we were having trouble saying we were a news director’s association, when we really felt we were a news organization overall.
We were also seeing other people in newsrooms who weren’t radio or television journalists, who were online, digital or multimedia journalists. They also were using our resources and benefiting from what we had to offer. So we were looking for a way to include them.
We spent quite a bit of time in board meetings over the last few years and we ran names up and down the flagpole. Ultimately, we ended up with this letter swap in the middle of the name, which I thought was brilliant when I heard it, because it still allowed us to keep that RTNDA brand. It was an instant hit.
You mentioned the RTDNA goes beyond news directors and managers. What do you think is the new face of the organization? Is there a generational difference? Is it cross-platform?
Generational is always a pet topic of mine. I have written a few things for the association and other places about millennials. I work almost exclusively with millennials in my newsroom, so I have a great laboratory here to watch. One of the things I have noticed about them is that they are joiners, certainly more than the gen-x folks or baby boomers. They like memberships, clubs, cliques and groups and so I saw an opportunity there to take a meaningful, professional organization and say to a whole fresh group of recruits that the RTDNA is worth joining. A lot of our training and communications efforts have been aimed at that group.
We have jumped in with both feet to be on Facebook and Twitter and reach people that way. So we’re trying to reach them in the places where they already are.
On the cross-platform side, one of our goals in the name change was to go beyond just radio and television. Our own newsrooms have changed to become 24-hour-a-day publishing centers that aren’t just driven by those broadcasting deadlines. We’re trying to reach out and serve those people who are manning the guns all night long to put those things together.
As we get ready to have a partnership with SPJ and try to put together a convention with them in a couple of years, we can see people at newspapers, bloggers and people who do things with video, audio and digital publishing who could benefit from what we do.
That’s a perfect segue. Will the organization be combining the conventions with the SPJ?
We are working to make that happen. There are still a lot of details to work out. We’re working on a location and the finances. I know that the SPJ board and our board are very eager to make this happen. I hope we can announce the location and some other things before too very long.
It’s not a merger. It’s a joint convention that will offer something great for members of both associations. If we’re going to say we’re not just TV journalists or radio journalists anymore and we’re doing all these other functions of multimedia journalists, why wouldn’t we have conventions together? And why wouldn’t SPJ members, who are more traditional newspaper people, want to sit in and find out what the RTDNA speakers want to say about writing to video or using natural sound?
So the joint convention will be in 2011?
We’re aiming for fall of 2011. We’ll obviously still have our full convention in Las Vegas in April 2010 and we’re in talks with NAB now to maintain an RTDNA presence at that convention,
For many years, I was a member of the RTNDA, and there was always talk about the organization’s and the convention’s relevance. You would always hear a lot of RTNDA bashing: It’s the same old, same old. What do you say to those cynics and the naysayers?
One of the toughest sells we have is how much we do and how much goes on that is intangible to most members. That’s mainly on the First Amendment and Freedom of Information front. We maintain a presence in Washington so that we’re well connected to that. We put our name, time and effort into making every journalist’s job easier and more effective. It’s very intangible for people who would write that membership check. If we didn’t step in for broadcast and online journalists or for all journalists really, who would?
We have seen membership decline and it’s somewhat stabilized now. A lot of that was due to the fact that companies stop paying dues. So, now it’s a decision that people have to make. That was a big test for us in terms of relevance. It’s easy to spend your boss’s money, but would you pay your own money to join.
During RTNDA conventions it was routine for most broadcast groups to hold get-togethers with all their news directors. That’s declined over the last several years, especially in this difficult economy. How do you reach out to the station groups?
I don’t know what sort of group meetings we’ll see in Las Vegas next year or at another location after that. I just don’t know. There’s not much good news coming out of the groups. It just seems hard to imagine that happening.
I have talked to a few groups about whether RTDNA could be of service as a training organization on best practices, technical issues, online, ethics, things like that. There’s some interest out there in trying to set something up, trying to figure out a way to make that work. There is a desire on the part of the groups and the networks to find a way to train their people, even though the expenses are hard to cover.
There’s a negative attitude out there among some newsroom managers. What’s your take on that?
That’s definitely the case. I try to stay optimistic, but it’s awfully tough to adjust to the new times. I’m not sure I have a lot of great advice other than get used to it. The optimistic part of me sees a smart group of young managers coming up who don’t know any better, I guess would be the way to say it. They come into it with energy for the 24-hour publishing and with energy for being out there on all platforms. I’m optimistic that those people will be the people who take over this business. I’m excited about what they’re going to do with it.
The old timers, who have been news directors since the 1980s or early ’90s, just have to get used to it, unfortunately. But everybody who is smart knows it’s not going back to where it was two years ago, much less 10 or 15 years ago.
You’ve been working on winning passage of a federal shield law. Will students and bloggers be covered? Do you think they should be?
It’s yes to both questions. It looks like there is some coverage there for nontraditional journalists, coverage that wasn’t there before. While it’s not perfect, it does look to open the door to expand that over time.
I always have some concerns about who calls themselves a journalist these days and who we want to get in bed with on some things, but I am also fairly absolute in terms of saying I want as little government intrusion into all sorts of reporting as possible. I don’t want the government to intrude in bad reporting anymore than I want it to intrude into good reporting. I would rather keep the government out and let us police ourselves.
The market is not perfect for that, but more information is always better. A good shield law at the federal level is going to mean more information. It’s going to mean more freedom and access to sources.
What about the fairness doctrine? Do you think that is coming back?
I would say no. It’s a great political football to throw out there because it raises the specter of government managing content. It’s great to rally the troops and get people worked up, but there’s probably not much support to actually pass the fairness doctrine again.
Multimedia journalists and VJs seem to be in vogue these days. What do you think about this approach to news?
It was inevitable. We all saw this probably 25 years ago when efficiencies started coming to the newsroom. Most newsrooms are going to end up with a sort of two-tiered system of journalists, where you have the VJs or multimedia journalists who would cover the everyday stuff — the shootings, the news conferences at the county commission and all of those sorts of things. It doesn’t require a Herculean reporting effort. Then, stations will also have — I guess you could start calling it the upper tier — specialists, the investigative reporters and political reporters, who will work in a traditional way.
How is the RTDNA reaching out to students and academics?
We’re working on that right now. We gave our academic members full voting rights, something they did not have before. Some of the strongest members were academics. They came to the conventions. They participated online, they participated at regional gatherings and they assisted in programming in all sorts of ways. Yet they weren’t allowed to vote. They didn’t really get to have much of a say.
We’re also looking at a way to go back to student chapters and student members. As I mentioned before, they are joiners and they like the idea of groups and associations that can help them. So we’re trying to reach out to make that membership more affordable and to provide resources, whether it be access to professional training or other student-oriented things.
Is there something we should be teaching students or something we should be saying to them about the business? Newsrooms can be tough 24/7 places.
We could do a whole other interview on millennials. I wish we could teach them how important writing is. I know for sure that writing is not emphasized in the same way that it was when you or I were in junior high or high school or elementary school, so we have a whole generation of weaker writers than we used to have.
As they enter our newsrooms, they kind of get the 24/7 part. It’s the holidays and the weekends part they don’t get that much. They love to work around the clock on projects and other things during the week, but, boy, those holidays and those weekends are pretty sacred.
They have to toughen up on that. It’s not that they’re lazy. It’s not that they are unwilling to do what it takes to do the job, but they just have to realize that, as I like to say, Thanksgiving is just another Thursday. They have to be prepared to do that and, if they’re not, then they’re going to be miserable from day one working weekends and holidays.
We’ve seen a lot of cutbacks in the newsrooms and it’s just a tough time for people right now. What’s your take on economic challenges facing stations?
More than a few people are saying that we’re probably at a point where three, four or five stations can no longer maintain doing local news in a market, that it’s going to get down to the top two.
I probably see that happening in a lot of places where there’s really just room for two players — hopefully not one, because I like to have as much diversity of voices as we can. Two is minimal.
The stations that aren’t doing local news will have some decisions to make. Are we just going to be an area for news from another content provider, or are we going to get out of this television station ownership business.
So I see two rays of hope here. One, those stations that continue to do news will be the good ones. They will be the ones that should be doing news and the ones that put some resources into it. They probably have a tradition of meeting the viewers’ needs.
The other possible good news is there’s a chance some of the weaker stations will go on the auction block. I would love to see local owners pick those up. And with the kinds of prices they are at, perhaps the new owners will run them differently than they’ve been run in the past — as hyperlocal information centers.
We may see news happening on a couple of fronts. The two dominant stations that survived doing a more traditional news approach, and maybe these locally owned stations, run like a co-op radio station, but with some commercial ability to sustain itself, covering something completely different, giving people a news programming choice that’s super local, that’s maybe not as crime driven and that does things that really address public policy in a block-by-block way. That’s optimistic, but I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if it at least didn’t happen in a few places.