After a relatively quiet few years, the organization is hoping to raise its visibility with its new executive director, an experienced broadcast news veteran who can speak out on the First Amendment and other issues affecting electronic journalists and perhaps restore the annual conference to its former stature.
With a veteran newsman now in the top job, the Radio Television Digital News Association is poised to once again effectively be a public voice for electronic journalists.
Mike Cavender — who has 25 years experience in electronic journalism, and nearly as many on the RTDNA board — officially became the association’s executive director in December.
“During the last 20 some years, I’ve held every position there is to hold at RTDNA, including chairman and board member and treasurer,” Cavender says.
“I think they just finally decided I’ve been around so long they should finally start paying me.”
Cavender, who splits his time between Atlanta and Washington, has run news operations at CBS affiliates in Washington, Atlanta. Tampa and Nashville. He also has worked overseas training journalists in former Eastern Block countries.
He replaces Jane Nassiri, a career administrator who left the organization last year after holding several RTDNA positions over 13 years.
Cavender becomes the face of RTDNA at a pivotal time for the organization, which has weathered 10 tough years that whittled away at the group’s finances and influence. He is the first journalist to head the organization since Barbara Cochran stepped down in 2009 after 13 years.
“In the month since Mike started we have seen very significant uptick in our executive director’s profile in the media and on Capitol Hill,” says Kevin Benz, RTDNA board chairman.
“We feel as though the hard and very painful work of rightsizing the organization is over,” Benz says. “We think that we are now setting the foundation of returning RTDNA to that relevance and importance that we carried years ago.”
RTDNA has faced a host of serious challenges starting with 9/11, which forced the cancellation of the group’s annual convention, scheduled to begin Sept. 12.
For the next 10 years, the group held its conference as part of the much larger annual NAB Show, which largely overshadowed the RTDNA event.
Membership and money waned as the news business retracted with the bad economy. Today, the group, housed in Washington’s National Press Building, employs just four full-time employees.
The departure of Cochran, a well-known industry insider, also played a role. Cochran oversaw the organization and its education arm, the Radio Television Digital News Foundation, and she acted as the spokesperson for electronic journalism. But when she left, the board decided to split her job between two administrators, Nassiri and Kathleen Graham.
Benz praises both women’s work, but acknowledges that they could not be the voice of the industry. “We felt that some of our profile dropped because they are not known in the journalism community.”
With Cavender’s hiring, the responsibility of overseeing both RTDNA and its foundation has returned to the executive director.
But Cavender’s $120,000 annual base salary is more commensurate with Nassiri’s earnings than Cochran’s, which totaled $286,000 in 2008.
“It would make no sense to pay anyone $200,000 a year for an organization that has only four staff members and is cutting back,” Benz says.
Cavender, who calls being hired “an honor,” says he sees the salary as “appropriate at this time.”
Cavender says he is still trying to figure out the role of RTDNA and his role within it. “I want to listen,” he says. “I think that the industry has undergone, and continues to undergo, so much change, both in broadcast and digital news, that those of us who are working in the business have been asked to wear new hats and do more jobs.
“What I want to make sure is that we are positioned to still be, as we have for years been, the go-to organization for electronic journalists. And that’s not going to be defined by me. I want that to be defined by members and supporters.”
Some things are certain, however.
Advocating for journalists’ First Amendment rights is still the group’s No. 1 priority.
Providing networking and training, especially for journalists affected by the industry’s transformation, through events like the annual convention is another mission, Cavender says.
In 2011, the group’s annual convention came out from under the wing of the NAB and merged with the annual gathering of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The so-called Excellence in Journalism conference in New Orleans drew more attendees then the RTDNA and SPJ 2010 conferences combined, Benz says.
The 2012 event is scheduled for Sept. 20-22 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
RTDNA continues to run a day of programming at the annual NAB convention as well.
Widening the scope of the group’s reach to digital journalists is also underway. “Let’s face it, even in the best of times, journalism, whether you’re in broadcast or print or now digital, has always been a profession where maybe there’s not a lot of security,” Cavender says.
“I think people in our business have always sort of looked for professional associations and people of like minds to get together,” he adds.
Cochran says she believes Cavender is the right man to pull it all off. “I think the fact that he has such an extensive background in broadcasting and for such a long career means that he really understands what the members need and will be a strong spokesman for the organization,” she says.
Though RTDNA, like other industry organizations, is still adapting to the new normal, Cavender is unfazed by what lays ahead.
“In the last couple of years, we have had to make some adjustments and we did so without sacrificing members’ services and not changing anything our members enjoyed from RTDNA,” Cavender says.
“We work with a smaller, but no less dedicated staff,” he says. “We get it all done.”