The annual Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) conference used to be the get-together for news professionals. For a decreasing number, it continues to be. Bob Sullivan, VP of content at Scripps, brought 16 of his news management colleagues along for the gathering in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., late last month. In addition to the “Excellence in Journalism”-themed panels, Scripps held a full day of workshops for its news directors, touching on technology and investigative reporting, and simply reminding news directors that it’s more vital than ever—in this era of a million digital distractions—to concentrate on the content.
Costs ran anywhere from $800 to $1500 a head, including airfare, budgeted to the stations. For Sullivan, it is money well spent— and money Scripps will spend again next year. “It’s the one time of year where the news directors can stop and focus, recharge and reset,” he says. “It’s a significant commitment to staff development and training.”
If attendance numbers are any indication, Sullivan is among the minority who feel that way. A dozen years ago, the RTDNA’s standalone show attracted some 1,500 attendees. The networks hosted affiliate news director meetings, tackling red-meat topics such as election coverage. Several station groups would hold internal news management sessions as well.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001, which forced cancellation of the show scheduled to start on Sept. 12. “That was a killer for the organization financially,” says Rick Gevers, president of talent agency Rick Gevers Associates, who has attended every show since 1979.
RTDNA later hosted its event alongside the massive National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. More recently, RTDNA partnered with the Society of Professional Journalists.
Slashed travel budgets and widespread consolidation in local TV continue to drain attendance. This year’s RTDNA-SPJ show featured 1,055 attendees, slightly less than last year’s in New Orleans. But multiple attendees suggested the star power seemed higher in Fort Lauderdale. “It definitely felt bigger this year,” says Sullivan.
Groups with decent representation in Florida last month included Hearst Television, Young Broadcasting and George Lilly’s SJL Broadcasting.
Following Young’s recent financial straits, nine of the group’s 10 news directors and the group VP of digital were at RTDNA. “We look at it as great training for what’s going on in the industry,” says Bob Peterson, Young VP of station operations. “We want to keep their knowledge base current as things change.”
Mike Cavender, RTDNA executive director, said the recent show’s energy offered “shades of days gone by.” CBS-affiliated news directors gathered for an address from Jeff Fager, CBS News chairman. In its heyday, those meetings would feature 150 news directors, say veteran attendees; perhaps two dozen were in the room this year.
Sullivan says he and his Scripps mates will be in Anaheim, Calif., next August for the 2013 event. Chances are, he’ll again be surprised more groups don’t make the effort. “Each company makes their own decisions about staff development,” Sullivan says. “I think [the show] is a good investment.”
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