After teaming with the NAB for its annual conference, the Radio Television Digital News Association has a new partner this year, the Society of Professional Journalists. It’s a move RTDNA Chairman Kevin Benz says gives the group an opportunity to present a conference “that is absolutely and totally journalism-based. We believe that we will be putting on the most important journalism discussion in the country.”
Ten years ago, Kevin Benz was on his way to the airport for a flight to Nashville, where he was slated to attend the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s annual convention. It was, fatefully, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and the flight was soon canceled. So, too, was the convention.
A decade later, Benz is now the incoming chairman of the organization, renamed the Radio Television Digital News Association two years ago. He is also the principal organizer of its next convention — Excellence in Journalism 2011 — slated for New Orleans on Sept. 25-27. Looking back on that seminal moment in 2001, Benz said the RTDNA has, in a way, been looking to gain back that lost traction ever since.
“That really hurt us because while we certainly had insurance for it, it changed the game for how our conventions could be put together,” Benz said.
Later that year, the RTDNA was contacted by the National Association of Broadcasters, which invited the organization to host the convention under its own umbrella in Las Vegas. The relationship has lasted longer than many launched from Vegas weddings, but this year, RTDNA is mounting its convention with a new partner, the Society of Professional Journalists, at its side and a host of new organizational priorities in front of it. Chief among them is a heightened sense of relevance to its members.
“We need to be important again, and we felt like we weren’t important,” Benz said. With the NAB contract coming up, Benz said, “It was a great partnership, but we felt as though it was time for us to step out from that shadow again and put on our own convention.”
That said, “We knew that from a financial standpoint, as the broadcasters go, so goes RTDNA, and so we were nervous about going out there on our own,” he said.
Enter the SPJ and a two-year contract to mount a convention that stands more on its own feet than the NAB arrangement. “The SPJ partnership is a real game-changer for us in a number of different ways,” Benz said. First, he noted, is simply the invigorating change of a new relationship along with new promotional opportunities because of its independence from NAB.
“And it’s an opportunity for us to present a conference that is absolutely and totally journalism-based,” Benz said. “We believe that we will be putting on the most important journalism discussion in the country.” Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman, is the keynote speaker. Lara Logan of CBS News will be receiving the 2011 John F. Hogan Distinguished Service award and Linda Ellerbee of Nick News will be given this year’s Paul White award for lifetime achievement.
Benz sees the new convention as an opportunity to reverse a decade-long trend of falling attendance, down approximately 40% over the last few years, and dwindling exhibitors, problems he sees stemming from a number of factors.
For instance, while the NAB convention remains a strong draw for general managers and engineers, he said that journalists didn’t always have the same exhibition floor interests in gadgets and new technologies. Benz said that exhibitors also felt pressure to have a presence on both NAB’s floor and RTDNA’s hall and found the costs off-putting. “It started to fragment our convention in a number of different ways,” he said.
And then there was the cost of sending news personnel, a bill that corporate sponsors and stations have been increasingly hesitant to pick up. “That world is gone and it’s gone forever,” Benz said. “That kind of money doesn’t exist anymore.”
But with the new conference incarnation, Benz said exhibitors are already up 50% to 46 this year and that the organization is targeting a conservative number of 1,000 attendees (Benz is optimistic that the number will be closer to 1,200). Overall, RTDNA has approximately 3,000 members.
Other signs are positive, too. “We’re certainly operating in the black,” said Mark Kraham, the outgoing chairman. According to RTDNA’s last income filings in 2009, the association reported revenue of $1,797,763 against expenses of $1,756,305, leaving it with $40,734. Executive director Jane Nassiri said that the organization was still in the process of filing its 2010 form.
Nassiri said RTDNA’s revenue comes primarily from four sources: its convention (20%), annual Murrow awards (35%), membership (15%) and products offered through its website (5%), with the remaining 25% tagged to “administrative.”
Nassiri, who draws an annual salary of $137,763 plus $25,627 in other compensation, will be leaving her post after this year’s Murrow awards in October. She has worked for RTDNA since 1998 and took over its leadership post in 2009. Benz said that the board has whittled the applicant pool down to four finalists and plans to announce her successor at the conference.
While it might then seem something of a year of departures for RTDNA, Benz said the relationship with NAB isn’t over. RTDNA hosted a day of programming at NAB’s April conference, and Benz said it has been asked to expand that programming by an additional day at next year’s show. “I think they appreciate the journalistic brand that we bring to them and we appreciate the help that they give us,” he said.
Kraham said such programming and other training events continue to be crucial to RTDNA’s brand. “The overall impression that I get from a lot of people is that they see RTDNA’s value as being the training seminars that we have either in regional events or this national convention, so we certainly want to continue to work on programs that train and benefit the members.”
Benz said that as the board reconvenes at this year’s conference, he sees several key priorities in front of it. “My most important goal is to maintain the relevance of RTDNA to its membership,” he said, noting that he has heard members’ concerns that the organization has fallen out of touch.
The path to that goal will be maintaining the standards of strong, ethical journalism, Benz said, helping news directors and journalists to navigate an independent track amid the business pressures leveled on their newsrooms every day.
RTDNA will also continue to assert its voice and advocacy for First Amendment freedoms, he added, noting its last priority will be to broaden its relationships with other like-minded organizations.
“RTDNA needs to be a good partner with other journalistic organizations that are out there,” Benz said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think the pie is big enough anymore for all of these different organizations to survive on their own. What I’m advocating for is we find where we have synergies and shared interests.”
Cultivating such interests both outside and within RTDNA will be essential for its long-term health, Benz said. “We need to be in a growth path,” he said, “and that’s not the path we have been on the last 10 years.”
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