RTNDA “summit” produces healthy discussion

RTNDA logoThe Radio and Television News Directors Association quietly demonstrated much-needed leadership this week by bringing together broadcast news executives and journalists for a “background only” session to discuss the serious challenges facing the news business. It wasn’t a meeting of CEOs or business types; it was news people talking about what they can do to help themselves and each other in the wake of relentless expense reductions and layoffs.

With the war museum of the McCormick Foundation in Wheaton Illinois as a backdrop and the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s famous “wires and lights in a boxRTNDA speech as inspiration, attendees spoke of challenges and brainstormed ideas to overcome them.

First Division Museum at Cantigny

The off-the-record nature of the event prohibits me from identifying conference participants or attributing quotes to anyone at this time. The RTNDA hasn’t fully decided how the information will be disseminated, but watch for something from them perhaps this fall. The idea is to create a plan exploring general principles that need to be preserved. That plan will go to the RTNDA board and then to general membership.

Everyone, I’m sure, came away with their own thoughts, for we tend to “hear” only what we’re capable of hearing, based on our own background and experience. For me, the gathering was a fascinating demonstration of the deep longing to hang onto the past, while reluctantly acknowledging that such clinging may not be possible. The clash of the old and the new was visibly present in the room, although the new was represented more by pain of the old than a physical presence. This clearing of the air I view as significant and healthy.

This “summit” was in many ways a visible demonstration of a modern, colonialist (I’m smart…you need me) institution trying to stay relevant in an increasingly participatory, postmodern culture. That was evident in attempts to maintain the status quo, while admitting that the quo may have lost its status.

After several scripted sessions, we broke into groups to tackle specific issues and make recommendations.

We admitted we have an audience problem and that we may have actually fed that problem. There is nothing new about our news programs, and many employees don’t even watch. Yet, we continue to do the same thing, and this we agreed makes no sense. We agreed that we need to go where people are today and not try and make them come to us. There was a sense that we’ve gotten away from “real” journalism and are morphing into a utility that may not be relevant to the people in our communities. At the same time, there was an acknowledgement that there is a great deal of really good work being done in the industry, especially during times of crisis or breaking news. We need to research the people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA), because we’re just not smart about how people are consuming media these days.

While conceding that our product has strengths, we agreed that it needs experimentation on-the-air and that the repurposing of that for other media forms is self-destructive. We talked about presenting news in a raw form during working hours (Continuous News) and how well that serves the audience at work. As such, we felt that formats other than the “finished product” concept of a newscast might better serve the information needs of the community. We asked if personalities will drive the news presentation of tomorrow and discussed the role of “citizen contributors” to the professional news organization.

We agreed that news departments must get involved in the business side of television stations, and I found this to be the most refreshing discussion of the entire summit. We’re smart people and while it’s necessary that sales not dictate what happens on-air, there was a strong sense that we may be able to make valuable contributions on the sales side as well as the content side of our business. At several points, there was discussion about lowering the wall of separation between news and sales while maintaining the integrity of newscasts, although no one knew exactly how this could be done. We’re comfortable with news-as-a-profit-center, but we feel helpless that station sales people seem to be having difficulty selling it.

One of the recommendations that bears repeating is that we need to prepare for the day when we don’t have a network affiliation any more.

In discussing our future approach to journalism, there was much talk about definitions and that perhaps we need a new definition of “news” itself. The terms “objective,” “fairness” and “balance” all need clear definitions. The team assigned to this area felt that anything not “objective” should be clearly labeled as such, but that “analysis” and “opinion” have their place. We need to get out of the pack mentality that seems to be driven by a “punditocracy” and begin to think for ourselves.

There was a great deal of discussion about the need for training and an acknowledgement that our industry has historically been very bad at this. I heard the term “culture change” many times and that everyone — from employees to executives — needs an immediate education in how other forms of media work. This is something the RTNDA will take an active role in implementing, I’m sure.

Like everybody else in media, the associations that represent them are struggling. The RTNDA is dealing with a shrinking membership and declines in convention attendance and magazine advertising, so they are as eager to figure this stuff out as the next guy. Look for a name change for them in the near future, as they come to grips with the reality that an organization named “Radio and Television News Directors Association” might be too narrow to represent the paradigm changes before us.

My hat’s off to the RTNDA and the McCormick Foundation for arranging this event. That we are in the midst of a new “Gutenberg moment” is becoming more evident every day, and it was truly encouraging to hear those directly involved in the broadcast news business honestly talk about it and what to do about it.

Murrow would’ve been proud.

(First published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 newsletter)

(UPDATE: Deborah Potter has posted her thoughts)


  1. […] UPDATE (June 6): One of the participants, AR&D’s Terry Heaton, has just posted his observations here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Considering the audience […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.