The Future of News: RTDNA

First-ever RTDNA digital chair Andrew Lundy and RTDNA president Andy LeBlanc talk optimistically on the shift toward digital, how it's changing journalism for the better, and why the recent name change is more than a simple letter swap; it's the start of a revolution.

First-ever RTDNA digital chair Andrew Lundy and RTDNA president Andy LeBlanc talk optimistically on the shift toward digital, how it's changing journalism for the better, and why the recent name change is more than a simple letter swap; it's the start of a revolution.

J-Source: What finally made you decide to change the name and make the acknowledgement of digital official?

Andy LeBlanc: There are a number of factors there, but if you look at historically, the organization was created in 1962 back when radio and television were the two things and digital wasn’t part of the picture yet. And so, that was really the origin – radio and television news directors – and that’s why it became the radio and television news directors association.

It was also the association name in the U.S. A couple of years ago, the U.S., our counterparts across the border, have had the same issues, if you will, or the same recognition of changes in the industry, as we have over the years. In 2009, they went with the name change. We were discussing it at the same time. It was really something that we had thought about for a number of years. Our organization, the way that our constitution is structured, requires a considerable amount of advance notice to the full membership. So, the process really wasn’t something that took place overnight, or on a whim, or in a few weeks. It’s a lengthy process where the executive decides, it goes to the board, and then after the board it goes to the membership. That came to fruition on June 24th. So really, it was a long process.

As to why, why do it – the name change, flipping the two letters around, was easier from a brand recognition perspective. RTNDA is certainly recognized for it’s leadership in terms of journalism, journalism ethics in the country. That maple leaf as part of the logo isn’t lost by switching two letters around from news directors to digital news. By doing that it makes us more inclusive. We’ve recognized the membership isn’t only news directors. It does make up a large single part of our membership, but we also have a number of educators, a number of students, and a number of practicing electronic journalists, or digital journalists, working online – even in television newsrooms.

J-Source: Now, I’m going to skip ahead of myself a little bit. You used the term digital journalist. Is your sense that people believe pretty soon everybody is going to be a digital journalist?

LeBlanc: I guess it really is a matter of what the word digital means to you. And, it’s a matter of perception. We use the acronym as RTDNA now, but the Association of Electronic Journalists is something that we use as a bit of a slogan and a touch to our logo. And, now of course, we have the term digital news association to fit in with radio and television. Digital to us means what we could consider to be online, but the term online on it’s own, I think, is maybe too restrictive.  The term online means, to me, go to the internet. Whereas I think there’s mobile and who knows what else is next in the digital realm. But now, interesting enough, the old analog industries of radio and television, yes, they are, they’re going digital. Radio is increasingly switching over to digital formats from analog. Television is, as you may know, at the end of this month is making the grand switch over to digital. Technically, we’re all digital now. Anyone who is a working journalist is essentially working with digital equipment.

Andrew Lundy: I might even go further and say that, at least right now where digital is, and it’s development, that there are certain characteristics to it that are distinct from conventional TV and radio. Certain skill sets, in some ways certain mind sets. Part of my job with Global News is to convert the traditional broadcast mindset that is very appointment based – it’s preparing your 6 o’clock show, it’s preparing you’re 11 o’clock – if you have a story that breaks at 1 o’clock you have five hours to get that story ready. Whereas in digital, that story breaks and it goes out at the moment you have it. So, there is a bit of a difference right now.

As well, I think the idea of news as being more of a conversation, as opposed to ‘we’re telling you what’s what’, is a bit of an evolution that’s happened as well, and continues to happen. But I echo Andy’s point as well, I think we’re all digital journalists. Essentially, people that work in TV and radio will want to and have to play in the digital media, whatever platform we’re on: tablets, iPhones, IPTV – we’re talking about converting into digitial television, but there’s also Netflix, and AppleTV and down the road … TVs that are made today have Ethernet cable connections to one day get your programming off the internet. It’s a really exciting, jumbled world right now and we’re all figuring it out.

J-Source: And, I’m sure we’ll come across different platforms that haven’t even been addressed, or invented, yet.

LeBlanc: And that’s the wonderful thing. You can imagine how the newspaper journalists would have thought of these radio guys when they came along: oh this is strange. We used to have a print deadline of once a day, or whatever it was, then radio came along and changed the world. Then television changed radio’s world, and so on. This is just an evolution.

Andrew made a very good point and we’ve all talked about it before: it’s not appointment based any more. Broadcast television is making the shift from that 6 o’clock newscast idea to now recognizing you may not just break your story at 6 o’clock. You may break it when it breaks, and that may be using whatever platform you have. We’re all in a 24-7 news cycle now, and it doesn’t really matter when any more. It’s not ‘join as at six for the latest’, it’s ‘join us right now.’

J-Source: It seems to me that over the past couple of years a lot of people have been focusing on ‘online is changing everything, oh it’s killing newspapers, it’s killing this’, but people are now finally starting to focus on what you can do now that maybe you couldn’t do before – positive things, really cool, and new and interesting things. What are some of things it does allow you to do – interesting things you’re experimenting with?

LeBlanc: There has been a huge change recently. Initially perhaps the industry was doing a bit of a ‘oh no, the industry is threatened by online’. But now I think we’re making a move from the threat to an opportunity, saying, ‘geez, you know what? We can do really great journalism using these tools, these new technologies.’ The idea of journalism isn’t changing, it’s just the tools that are changing. The ethics should remain the same, and we certainly have to look at the ethics and update them. But the technology is changing; journalism isn’t.

Lundy: That’s absolutely true. One of the things that’s been one of the challenges of my job is to make sure that the principles of journalism that have been tried and tested for the better part of the century don’t get blown away by the technology. The idea of fact-checking: when you tweet something or when it’s on Facebook libel law still apply when — that’s absolutely true.

I’ll go back a little bit to the exciting, the challenge, the threat. The vast majority of the biggest or the most accessible news and information sites are still linked to the established media brands, whether it’s the New York Times, or, or BBC. It’s not bloggers, it’s not even the Huffington Post, which really just aggregates existing content, it is old media, conventional media growing up and evolving with the technology. I think there’s still a huge role to play for both traditional media, like Global News, or any of the ones in Canada, to be that established brand where you know you’re getting the truth, where you know you’re getting journalists who are going to ask the right questions, or bring you the right pictures, the right sound, to tell a story. A lot of the quote-on-quote old media have really risen to the challenge and have driven the digital evolution. When I look at the best websites and platforms most of them are the traditional media [brand] and that really comforts me. Good journalism regardless of technology will win out.

That said, some of the exciting things – it’s including the audience, including the users, whether it’s in the process, or in user-generated content, or it’s commenting, or it’s crowd-sourcing, it’s not longer that monologue that we have the final word. We still have the role to play, whether it’s fact-checking, asking the questions, having the background knowledge, but involving the audience, leveraging their own strengths, their comments, is really important. It’s one of the strengths of digital: it gives people that control. They have a say and they can interact. I know that’s a very over-used word, but it’s very apt when it comes to digital. No longer is it this one-way conversation. It’s an evolution for all people that they have to listen and read comments and take those comments to heart and respond to them. But that keeps the story alive and in many ways it had advanced stories for us in ways that, 20 years ago, I could not imagine it doing.

For example, the Arab Spring story as it involved earlier this year was covered I think in the best way possible by a guy named Andy Carvin who works for NPR out of Washington. Andy did not leave his desk in Washington and covered the Arab Spring in a more comprehensive way than most media organizations that had boots on the ground. He was leveraging the power of Twitter. He had a circle of followers that were really very good, very reliable people on the ground. He was crowd sourcing for people who were putting up facts that needed to be checked and putting up answers very quickly and, again, involving the audience: what is happening out there? You tell me. I’ll curate your tweets. It was amazing. Twenty years ago if the Arab Spring had happened we would have had to parachute people, TV, radio, newspaper journalists in to try and get the satellite uplink and if that wasn’t available, well, that doesn’t happen today. It’s no longer able to be hidden and I think it’s a huge boost for journalism.

LeBlanc: The Arab Spring is a good example, the Vancouver riots are a good example, the London riots are a good example, where the new media, or what we used to call new media, but digital media is really complementary to existing, or traditional, media. I’m not sure whether it can become a complete replacement. It would be preferable to have reporters on the ground, on location, but where you can’t be, you need to crowd source and so on. It’s still preferable to have journalists on the ground, but this makes one more tool.

J-Source: Going off of this, my sense is that people are starting to get really optimistic, and as you both just said, about the way that online can work in conjunction with TV and radio. What’s your general sense of this? Has the mood shifted to optimistic?

LeBlanc: At one point digital was perceived to be the enemy, and now people are recognizing that it can be a very collaborative tool and a very helpful one. There are number of processes you have to go through before you get to an acceptance of change, and I think the industry has had to truly go through that evolution and I think it’s arriving there.

Lundy: I would agree. Speaking for my own company, there’s a real enthusiasm. The possibility that they see now, extending from appointment-based television, or even the 24/7 news channel, and bringing that into a new realm, and a new audience. In general, the digital audience does skew younger, it does skew slightly more affluent and educated and certainly more at the forefront of technological change. It’s a way to open up a door that may not have been opened before.

J-Source: OK with all these new ideas going on, all these new developments, you just created the role of digital news chair. What do you see as the role going forward, and what sort of role will it play within the organization, and how it will be shaped. What would you like to do in the role?

Lundy: Sure, I’ll start with the role and what I’m doing right now. Really, just getting my feet wet. It’s very new to me, not digital, but this role. Part of it is introducing the RTDNA more into the social media space than it once was, getting the membership more involved in digital media, educating them on what the implications are for things like Twitter as a news service, or a distribution platform. It’s speaking more on behalf of the RTDNA at its gatherings, and hopefully introducing a little bit more from a digital point of view at the gatherings – so offering things like in-service seminars. Revamp the website.

It’s putting the RTDNA’s name out there. It’s not just a traditional old media organization. It’s vibrant and active and looking as much forward as anything. Answering questions and being part of the narrative and shaping that as we go forward. We’re also helping lead the way in the way that media’s involving.

LeBlanc: And I’ll add to that. I’m very thrilled that Andrew Lundy has joined our organization as digital chair. The thing he brings to the table is a fresh look that many of our members probably already have and share with him, but it’s a good way to bring it to the forefront and really share it with the rest of the industry. Part of the move to the name change and flipping those two letters around is to become inclusive of everyone and the number of practicing journalists out there who maybe didn’t fit the mold of the organization given the way it was previously defined. This new name really changes that at a very significant time for our organization. This is our 50th anniversary year. We’re going to celebrate our 50th anniversary next June at the national conference in Toronto. It’s a big time. It’s a good time for us to be celebrating the next step in our evolution.