If News Is So Important, Why Isn’t RTDNA?

The group is crucial to broadcasting, as news departments try to absorb new technology and fend off regulations that curb press freedoms. But right now, it has more than it can handle due to the dwindling industry support. Show you care by paying dues, buying a seat at the Murrow dinner and attending the annual conference.

If I ask a top broadcast manager what is most important to the future of the business, I am most likely to hear about local news. That’s the service, I am invariably told, that distinguishes broadcast TV from the mass of other media and that will carry the business forward, even if the networks decide someday to take their programming elsewhere.

It is also the service that adheres stations tightly to their markets and, not incidentally, generates about a third of their revenue. Have you noticed? Free-spending political advertisers just love news.

So, it’s puzzling that these same broadcasters are so remarkably stingy in their support of the organization whose sole mission is to improve the quality of TV news. I’m talking, of course, about the Radio Television Digital News Association.

A decade ago, broadcast managers used the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent recession to begin refusing news directors and other news pros money to pay RTDNA dues and to attend the national conference.

Maybe a little belt tightening was in order after those shocks, but the management support never really came back. The association has had to make do with less over the years.

Today, RTDNA’s operating budget is just half of what it was in the early 2000s.


After 9/11, RTDNA folded its annual conference in with the NAB show. The conference-within-a-conference approach worked fairly well. RTDNA received a substantial payment from NAB that replaced some of the revenue it used to get from its stand-alone show, but it wasn’t enough. And it felt like the RTDNA just kind of rattled around within the massive NAB show. It began to lose its identity.

In 2011, RTDNA took a new tack, joining with the Society of Professional Journalists to create a joint conference for journalists of every stripe and media. The first gathering in New Orleans worked, and, as our Diana Marszalek reported this week, the second in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in a couple of weeks is expected to be bigger and better. Attendance could hit 1,500. That’s not bad, but RTDNA in its halcyon days could pull that many all by itself and it was an A-list crowd.

It’s time for the broadcasting industry to renew its vows with RTDNA.

The RTDNA does a lot more than most broadcast managers and owners probably give it credit for. It represents broadcasting on legal and regulatory issues that have a big impact on the ability of news people to do their jobs and compete effectively against other media.

Congress is now considering onerous legislation to plug government leaks. It’s highly controversial, and we’ll be writing more about it next Tuesday. Representing the nation’s broadcast journalists, RTDNA needs to be a full player in trying to crater the measure. If you don’t think it’s your fight, you should get out of the news business now and run infomercials at 6 and 11.

The flip side of this issue is shield laws, which protect reporters from having to reveal sources or turn over notes to overzealous prosecutors or other government officials. RTDNA has been in the forefront of efforts to get such laws enacted at the state and federal levels.

To be in journalism is to fight for access to events, courtrooms and public records. Because they carry cameras rather than pens and pads, broadcast journalists have always had to fight a little harder. Again, it’s been RTDNA’s job to insure that TV cameras can follow the action or debate regardless of where it is happening.

Speaking of access, if broadcasters can’t figure out a way to get their cameras inside of stadiums and ballparks so they can capture game highlights, they can forget about competing effectively in local sports online or in mobile. Users will go where the highlights are. This should be high on the RTDNA to-do list.

Two weeks ago, we reported that laws and rules are now being written that will govern the use of drones for commercial purposes. If broadcasters aren’t fully engaged in the process, the safety and privacy regulations could be written in a way that will obviate or severely limit the use of drones for electronic newsgathering. That would be a terrible and potentially costly setback.

RTDNA also provides training, the kind that helps insure that there is a pool of competent news managers, producers, reporters and anchors that can efficiently assemble newscasts that both attract viewers and give them the information they need — be it news of a traffic tie-up or a tornado heading their way.

Without solid, ongoing training, TV stations are going to fall behind and increase the chances of things going horribly wrong on air. You can’t take back a libelous broadcast once it has aired.

RTDNA, I think, also affords broadcasters the best chance for keeping up with the extraordinary pace of change in digital media. New online and mobile services come and go, but a few like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook stick around to transform the mediascape. In trying to explain what’s going on, RTDNA at least speaks your language.

RTDNA does a lot, but it should do more and do it better. For one thing, its website needs an overhaul and freshening of content. For another, its conference needs a track or two specifically for TV news managers.

To do more will take more.

In addition to the conference, RTDNA’s big money-maker is the Murrow Awards dinner in New York each fall. From what I understand, since being spun out of the annual conference in 2002, it has been doing well. The networks, in particular, have been stepping up. But some of the station groups have not. If you run a group and haven’t bought a table yet, do (it’s $4,000). And then show up with your VP of news and top news directors. If they are not picking up an award, ask them how come.

Every news director and assistant news director that isn’t already a member of the association should join — today. It’s only $199 a year. If two managers from every news-producing station signed up, RTDNA could book $300,000.

Broadcast chieftains could make the biggest difference by resolving to support the annual conference again. If the news directors come back in big numbers, so will the exhibitors and sponsors.

I am happy to see that Young, Hearst and Scripps are convening their news managers in conjunction with the Fort Lauderdale conference. More groups need to do that. It’s good to get everybody together to plan, set policy and strategy and share notes. Why not do it in a place where, for a few dollars more, everybody can learn a little something more about what’s happening in their biz?

Here’s the other names I would like to see on the list of groups holding staff meetings at RTDNA in 2013: Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, Tribune, Sinclair, Gannett, Belo, Univision, Raycom, Cox, Local TV, LIN Media, Media General, Post-Newsweek, Gray Television, Meredith, Nexstar, Telemundo, Sunbeam, Allbritton, Entravision, Journal, Fisher, Hubbard and Granite.

And that’s just for starters.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (10)

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diane breen says:

September 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

hear, hear. As usual, Harry hits the nail on the head. We preach “local, local, local” to distinguish broadcasters from cable, satellite, the internet, but do not pay it its due.

Matthew Castonguay says:

September 7, 2012 at 5:16 pm

NEWS! As in news PRODUCT, silly. Not news as in “journalism”, journalistic profession. That’s what’s important!

Cecilia Quintero says:

September 7, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Bravo! RTDNA is an excellent organization that works tirelessly for electronic journalism, protecting our rights and supporting good, ethical journalism. It continues to stay on top of what goes on inside the Beltway, while keeping a close pulse on our changing industry, and working to provide training to deal with those changes. I’ve attended the conferences for the last 13 years, and always come home having learned something new, and renewed contact with those I worked with over the years, and now former students succeeding in the field. I constantly use RTDNA resources to help teach the next generation of electronic journalists for a field I’m passionate about.

Kevin Keeshan says:

September 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Bravo Harry – great stuff. I would like to note, however, that RTDNA is providing a Newsroom Managers track at our upcoming convention, and also providing some half day and full day workshops prior to the convention designed specifically for news directors and newsroom managers. You can check out all the tracks at

Gregg Palermo says:

September 7, 2012 at 6:59 pm

‘Tis no mystery to me why RTNDA is no longer central to mass media. Broadcasters once ruled the country, with their license to print money and their monopoly on distribution, with people waiting anxiously until 6 or 6:30 or 11:00 to get their news. Nowadays people get their news over a cable or satellite or 24/7 from the internet. Local TV no longer rules, so RTNDA is just reminder of days gone by, never to return.

    Scott Asher says:

    September 7, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Which is why RTDNA has emerged as a new organization dedicated to electronic journalism whether broadcast or digital. We are indeed providing training for news directors and managers and we provide some of the best training in social and digital news gathering and dissemination. This is not your grandfather’s former RTNDA. Further, the issues we address affect all journalists regardless of platform. We are all working with the same tools now.

eric lin says:

September 8, 2012 at 12:22 am

Problem is that RTNDA does not really help the business…News or otherwise. NAB and TVB do quite a bit for Stations and Nets. TVB’s latest report on News Viewing was more beneficial to the cause than anything done RTNDA, which feels more like a fraternity than anything else. RTNDA needs to reinvent itself.

kendra campbell says:

September 8, 2012 at 9:35 am

RTNDA has lost financial support for the same reasons local newscasts have declined in quality and ratings. There is very little “journalism” going on. It’s mostly crime, mayhem, car wrecks, and weather hype – inside a commercial glut.

alicia farmer says:

September 9, 2012 at 10:54 am

Harry – “News” is not important. News filler is what is important – that stuff in between 10 – 12 minutes of mind numbing commercials in every half hour program. New Directors manage the staff and supervise making the donuts. You don’t need RTNDA for that.

Jaclyn Hansen says:

September 10, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Harry, I hate to say it, but station owners don’t care too much about protecting sources, because TV news doesn’t break much news. Doing so takes staff, commitment and it might upset the local staus quo. What’s the upside for a huge group owner? Prestige? Stations could learn from newspapers’ suicide attempts. But like papers believed, there’s too much to be made doing badly than doing well. News managers are always encouraged to act like businessmen or women. How about turning that around. Send the GM to journalism school, or someplace where they mighy learn what the hell the news business should be about.

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