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You’re Cooler Than You Think

-first posted at RTDNA.org on April 14, 2010

Over the last year of these chairman’s blogs, you’ve probably become used to my rambling style of writing.  So it will come as no surprise to you as I begin my last blog as chairman, coming to you from the floor of the RTDNA convention in Las Vegas, that I begin at my daughter’s middle school back in 2001.  Her assignment back then was to come to class to talk about what her parents do for a living.  This wasn’t one of those “have your father/mother come to class and make a talk” days.  For this, the kids had to do research and present it themselves.  Talking with her for the assignment, I was feeling pretty confident that no classmate would be able to top her tales of my journalism adventure in what had to be the best job of any parent in the group.  I would soon find out to the contrary.

Picking up Lauren after school, I asked her how the presentation went.  She said it was “fine.”  Hoping for get a glimpse of the awe with which her peers must have viewed my job, I decided to get right to the point.  “I’ll bet no one has a cooler job than mine, right?”  Her eleven-year-old brain didn’t pick up on the answer I was seeking, so she cheerily replied, “Yeah, Brighton’s father does.”  I was stunned. How could that be?  After a moment, I was able to sputter out another question.  “What does he do?”  Lauren replied, “He owns Shakespeare’s.”  Now, Shakespeare’s is Columbia’s legendary pizza parlor and there’s no doubt I’m a fan of its food.  But had all my exploits and excitement as a TV journalist really been bested by a pizza maker?

This humbling event has stuck with me these past nine years, reminding me when I get too cocky that there is plenty our viewers (and their children) find more central in their lives than journalism.   But as I walk the halls here in Las Vegas, listening to the sessions and talking to the attendees, I’ve decided to take my—our—coolness back.

You see, the convention is oozing coolness this year.  Part of it comes from the technology (something I’ve always liked, of course).  It seems the software and hardware tools we’re seeking to transition into a one-man-band/mobile/handheld newsgathering future have really matured since last year.  That technology is giving us this James Bondian air when we pull out our small devices and start covering stories.  Looking back on what first drew me into the broadcast side of journalism, I’ve always credited the technology. In the late 1970s, TV stations had much of the cutting edge technology out there.  We lost that edge in the PC revolution of the 80s and 90s, but we’re regaining a part of it now with the push to make handheld newsgathering devices as powerful as possible.  I know that’s already sparking new interest from the technology set in joining our ranks.  Partnerships between journalists and computer scientists like those at convention presenter Reynolds Journalism Institute are putting that cool back into news technology as a career destination that matters.

But I would be missing the more important part of the coolness trend if I just focused on technology.  There’s a palpable air of optimism and excitement here this year.  People are smiling.  I can’t say the same was true the last few years.  Everyone I’ve talked to is looking at the bright side, trying to find the new opportunities to win, and encouraged in the prospect of increased relevance through the use of the new technology that’s showing here.

Now, if you’re not in Las Vegas now, you might not be convinced that this pending coolness I’m describing is real.  I know the last couple of years have been tough.  We all have our heads down trying to keep up with more and more demanding jobs.  So let me make the case for our newfound value even if you’ve not been able to attend the convention.  And I’ll base my argument on what I’ve witnessed in my year as chairman.

First, you’re excited about what you do.  That’s a core component of being cool.  My travels as chairman have taken me to Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and other places to stage small gatherings to train journalists.  Every single person there was giving up weekend or evening time to learn something new, get better at something old, and meet with peers who have the same interests they do.  That excitement is contagious and I know it reaches the audience.  Here at the convention, we’re adding more seats to rooms so people can get in to learn these skills.  No one can mope through their jobs and still look cool doing them.  The excitement factor is definitely a plus here.

Beyond that, you’re connected with each other.  The same devices you’re counting on to improve your product are connecting you to online information to gain new skills.  RTDNA.org went mobile in the past year, and that site has been a way for news managers to literally have us in their pockets at all times.  But more than that, you’re connecting with each other.  Social media are great reporting and publishing tools for our newsrooms, but their often even better tools for us to connect with one another.  If you haven’t already done it, set up a Twitter client like TweetDeck to keep an active monitor on those you follow and on the subjects that interest you.  Make sure you get connected to some young journalists who’ve embraced that technology.  And once you do, you’re going to watch a flurry of activity—smart journalism discussions really—when hot topics pop up.

As you ponder these more serious reasons, don’t forget another important one—we’re still celebrities.  I know that sounds shallow, but the millennial generation has redefined the word “celebrity” and created a new level of celebrity worship.  The most visible figures of our industry have stepped up to help RTDNA over and over again during my year as chairman, with names like Brian Williams, Russ Mitchell, Cokie Roberts, and more appearing to help us improve journalism.  These faces are the faces the public adores, responds to, and keeps track of.  In your cities (unless you work in Hollywood), your on-air people are the biggest celebrities.  That fame isn’t just on the air, it translates to the web and mobile devices, too, if the talent takes part fully.  And I don’t see that changing anytime soon as young people grow more and more obsessed with celebrity.

These examples and more convince me we’re rebounding to a level of hip we have not seen in a very long time.  Sure, we’ll have competition for coolness from those doing similar work to what we do—bloggers, citizen journalists, and those thrusting themselves into the new media mix.  But we’re got experience in the spotlight and know how to take a passing interest and turn it into a lifetime interest.  We know cool.

So, looking back on losing out to the pizza guy, seeing that momentary low, I find a parallel in the depths to which our enthusiasm may have dropped last year.  It was my lot to end up taking the helm of RTDNA at a time when spirits were quite low in our industry.  But I always describe myself as an optimist, and I approached the last year’s challenges as nothing more than a better chance to make a difference than my predecessors had enjoyed.  Through the work we’ve done, be it local training, web content, First Amendment fights, a new convention, or even a new name, we’ve been optimists who see it all making a difference.  Thank you for reading what I’ve had to write in these weekly musings, for staying supportive of RTDNA through all the changes, and for sharing your ideas for how to make it better.

Take it from me—each and every one of you is cool.

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