Delta Be Damned, RTDNA Presses On With Live Conference
It’s never easy going first, but among news and media conferences, the Radio Television Digital News Association is going to take one for the team in September.
That’s when it will be the first industry group to mount an in-person conference in Denver, where RTDNA hopes to reinvent its event format with more hands-on learning and some desperately needed face-to-actual-face time with industry peers.
Dan Shelley, RTDNA’s executive director, says the group is ready — complete with all the risk mitigation measures necessary — for attendees to take their first tentative steps back into the world of in-person industry events.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Shelley discusses those mitigation efforts, along with the legislation RTDNA is pushing for to protect journalists facing unabating threats and how broader representation, especially in the industry’s management ranks, remains a crucial priority.
An edited transcript.
RTDNA will be the canary in the coal mine for live events when it convenes in Denver on Sept. 23-24. With the COVID Delta variant surging, how are you feeling about pulling off a live conference?
We are feeling very confident that we can do it safely. Obviously, we are monitoring closely on a daily basis, if not even more frequently, the latest guidance from the CDC, the Colorado Department of Public Environment and Health and the Denver Health Department. We are encouraged somewhat in that as of the day we are doing this interview, Colorado appears on the CDC maps somewhat of an oasis among a red sea of hotspot states out in the Rocky Mountains region. Denver has extraordinarily high vaccination rates, and we are also planning some pretty comprehensive mitigation efforts to make sure that all attendees are safe.
Can you tell me about those mitigation efforts?
For example, they are as simple as colored lanyards. We will have the ability for attendees, speakers and exhibitors to choose either a red, yellow or green lanyard.
The green lanyard means “I am fully vaccinated, comfortable interacting with others, so feel free to approach me.”
A yellow lanyard means “I am fully vaccinated but a bit cautious, therefore I would like to limit interactions a little bit.”
And a red lanyard will mean “I am here because I am confident that it is safe to be here, but I would rather limit the amount of personal interaction I have with other people.”
First and foremost, we are empowering attendees to set their own comfort level. The second thing is we will be requiring masks in the conference hotel, in other venues where events are occurring. This is just a super-cautious, extra layer of protection. We will have plenty of hand sanitizer at the hotel and all of the venues where we have some control over planning of the events, and we are constantly evaluating the meeting space and prepared to do the best job we can at spacing things out so that attendees can feel safer.
[Editor’s note: Since this interview, the organization has issued the following statement: “RTDNA has been closely monitoring developments with COVID-19 and the Delta variant. While cases in Denver remain relatively low and vaccination rates in the metro area are high, our goal is to make RTDNA21 as safe as possible. To that end, we have made one change to our safety protocols: We will be requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination from all attendees at RTDNA21. We believe this is the best way to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 as breakthrough cases remain rare.”]
Is there a contingency plan in terms of virtualization if things get worse with Delta?
As of this moment, we are not planning any virtual component to the conference. That is strategic because our members have been telling us throughout the pandemic, pre-Delta variant, of course, that they are ready for in-person gatherings. They are ready to get together with colleagues and like-minded individuals who share some of the same struggles, some of the same opportunities and successes throughout this terrible time.
This year also marks a decoupling from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) with your conference. Is that adding to the challenging that you are facing with the event?
It does add some logistical challenges because with double the staff, we had double the number of people on the ground. But we have intentionally planned a more intimate, smaller conference knowing that we would not be partnered with SPJ again this year, knowing that there might be some lingering challenges from coronavirus, though no one foresaw the Delta variant. We are going to have a lot of interactive training. Our session sizes will be smaller by design. This is not your father’s RTDNA conference.
The pandemic doesn’t seem to be remotely loosening its grip on the news cycle. Do you have any advice for outlets that are grappling with fatigue and their own exhaustion in covering COVID?
Do your best to remember why you are in this business: to create a more informed and educated community. The role of a journalist is to be the person who communicates the most accurate available from the most trusted sources available. That is a solemn obligation.
Yes, there is fatigue. A lot of journalists have been overworked. There have been some journalists who have burned out and come back. Some have left the business altogether. But by and large, the journalism community has stepped up beyond my wildest expectations.
We want the experience in Denver to be an experience where they are able to learn how to be better leaders during these challenging times and also find time for a little restoration and self-care so that they can return to their newsrooms with a fresh set of eyes and a fresh approach.
There has been a torrent of exceptional work in pandemic coverage, but who do you see as most laudable in getting it right across the television landscape?
Local journalists all across the country have done an outstanding job serving their communities not just with regard to the pandemic, but with regard to the social unrest in the George Floyd racial reawakening and the 2020 election. In 2020, we had three major crises going on, any one of which would have been staggering to journalists who didn’t have strength and resilience. We had the pandemic and the complete reinvention of the television news business, in particular reporting and working remotely. We had all of the protests that occurred following the death of George Floyd and we had a very contentious election.
Journalist safety has been a major focus for your group. Have we seen enough being done at the level of news organizations to meet the threat that reporters continue to face?
To a great degree, yes. Companies that operate local television newsrooms across the country have done an outstanding job of hiring security guards, providing extra security, extra equipment, sending teams out into the field instead of just a multimedia journalist into areas that might even potentially be dangerous.
Beyond that, much more needs to be done not by the industry, but it is time for the government to step in and help. For example, Congressman [Eric] Swalwell of California [D-Calif.] [and] Senators [Bob] Menendez [D-N.J.] and [Richard] Blumenthal [ D-Conn.] have introduced the Journalist Protection Act.
It was introduced in late July again and RTDNA and many other press [organizations] are actively pushing for passage. That legislation would make it a federal crime for anyone to assault [someone] — with enhanced penalties for causing bodily harm — in the course of doing their constitutionally-protected duty to seek and report the truth on behalf of the public. It would allow federal prosecutors to step in and prosecute those who physically attack journalists and interfere with their work if local prosecutors decline to do so.
All over the country, we are seeing attacks on journalists continue. Sometimes it is over the masking debate, the vaccination debate. Sometimes it is political. In July, a TV crew in San Antonio was fired upon while covering an arson, and there are other less severe attacks occurring on journalists on almost a daily basis all over the country.
How do you hazard the chances of that legislation going forward? Is it an extremely uphill battle given the current climate?
It certainly is going to be a challenge. There is no question about that. Many in Congress have a different view about the role of journalists in society than the mainstream view of what a journalist is supposed to be doing. Unfortunately, there is too much polarization and this chasm that has existed for the last five years or so is showing no signs of healing.
At this point, where do you see the greatest challenges to the profession?
Representation continues to be a big challenge for the industry, though it is one I am proud to say the industry is making strides on and that will be a major focus of our conference in Denver. Also, doing a better job of transparency and explaining to the public how we reported these stories, why we reported these stories. More journalists at the local level need to do a better job of not just producing the sausage, but showing how it is made.
How and where do you see examples of that kind of transparency in action right now?
You can look at virtually any local newscast produced by one of the larger companies across the country and see examples of outstanding investigative reporting. Tegna, for example, has Verify, which can be in-depth reporting of an investigative nature or simply trying to debunk myths and answer viewer questions about a rumor they heard. It has become a next generation Snopes, if you will.
They are not the only ones. All of the major players in local television news — Scripps, Hearst, Sinclair, Nexstar, Gray — each has its own kind or variation which seeks to serve their local community by trying to do the best possible job at getting at the truth and demystifying complicated issues.
For the trust problem, are there further steps that you would recommend for news groups to be following?
I would say the transparency issue is No. 2. No. 2 is more outreach to local communities. Make sure your news director and your anchors and reporters are getting out in the field not just to cover the news, but to hear people out about what their questions are, what their frustrations are, what their doubts are about the credibility of the local newscasts.
Take time to make those one-on-one connections. It is old fashioned, but it works. The general manager, the news director should speak at as many Rotary Club meetings, Kiwanis Club meetings and Elks Lodge meetings as possible.
This is where the digital part of broadcast news comes in particularly handy. You only have so much time on air, do the best you can being transparent and describing not just the story, but how you went about covering the story and what your thought process was behind the story. But you can elaborate on that on your website to help viewers understand why you decided to cover the story, what the angle of the story is and why that angle presented itself to you.
A lot of people come to know that the journalists who are serving them in their communities are also members of their communities. That is important to point out. Local journalists are members of the community in which they serve and that is critical.
How would you gauge the state of the relationship between news organizations and major social platforms at this point? Has it devolved?
From a business point of view, it has devolved significantly. I remember just a few years ago when social media platforms would pay journalism companies in some cases significant amounts of money for their content on their social platforms. Those kinds of deals are fewer and further between. I also think social media is a beautiful tool, a way to connect with a segment of the audience that companies need to make sure that there are future viewers of their newscasts. Social media can be a great way to do that.
To circle back to representation, the news industry seems to be taking diversity, inclusion and equity far more seriously and substantively than ever before. Where does it need to be focusing those efforts right now?
The industry has made great strides, particularly in the last year and a half, and it took a cataclysmic moment like the racial reawakening following the George Floyd murder to really prompt a lot of station groups to kick into higher gear. But these efforts have been going on to some degree to diversify newsrooms for many years.
In the annual research that we conducted in partnership with Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, the TV news level of representation among local newsrooms has been slightly below the general population numbers in terms of people of color represented on air. Now they are almost at parity in most cases, and I expect when we do the research for 2021 that we will see even greater strides being made.
We saw a lot of companies making even greater efforts to diversify their management ranks in addition to their on-air ranks. There is a tremendous need in local TV stations across the country for more general managers, news directors, executive producers and producers of color and other types of diverse backgrounds because newsrooms must truly represent the communities they serve, full stop.
Consolidation continues apace among TV station groups. Are you hearing anything about fallout affecting news operations, i.e., layoffs?
I was surprised pleasantly at how resilient the local news business was during the pandemic. There were some companies that did temporary pay cuts, temporary furloughs, a small number of layoffs, but by and large employment in newsrooms has held steady throughout these tough times of the past year and a half.
Anything else on your mind that you are prioritizing looking ahead?
The Journalist Protection Act is a big priority of ours. Another is the Press Act, which is a federal shield law that would protect reporters when using confidential sources. We are keeping a close eye in the house judiciary committee, but elsewhere in Congress on potential federal legislation to codify Attorney General Merrick Garland’s recent DOJ policy essentially prohibiting the DOJ from targeting journalists as part of leak investigations.
We are also pushing for the Right to Report Police Act, which has been written, but not yet introduced into Congress, that would make it unambiguously clear under federal statute that all citizens, including journalists, have a right to record lawfully the activities of police subject to reasonable time manner and place location restrictions.
Beyond that, representation, resilience. Our conference in Denver is going to be a more intimate gathering, a different kind of hands-on training. There is going to be a lot of interactivity between the facilitators and the attendees. And we want to give back to the community of Denver for being so kind as to host us as the guinea pig among journalism conferences, the first full in-person journalism conference post pandemic.
So we will be doing things to provide some help and assistance to people who need it in Denver. We are trying to hit all those cylinders as we approach the conference.