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News Execs Jump (Again) at NAB

When a big news story breaks during the annual National Association of Broadcasters gathering in Las Vegas, it sets off an electronic storm of BlackBerries, pagers and cellphones that sounds like jackpot time in a sea of casino slots. The countless chirps, cheeps, whirrs and beeps that erupted on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday morning signaled more clearly than any puff of grayish smoke that a new pope had been chosen at the Vatican.

In a harbinger of future challenges the broadcasting business faces, some television execs could be seen watching the TV coverage on their cellphones. The news directors on the scene—in town for the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention that coincides with the NAB event—quarterbacked coverage via cellphones and e-mail.

This wasn't the first time a major story coincided with the RTNDA convention. On Sept. 11, 2001, news execs were gathering in Nashville, Tenn., for the next day's start of their annual meeting. When the terrorist attacks hit, many of those attendees were stranded for days. (Afterwards, the RTNDA moved its shows to Las Vegas to coordinate with the massive NAB convention.) In 1999, the Columbine High School shootings occurred during the NAB show, although fewer news directors were in attendance.

This time, news directors say they were well-prepared, knowing the Vatican's conclave would be meeting last week. High-tech gadgets also made it easier to stay in touch. And stations, on pope-watch for weeks, already had local experts at the ready. “Our plans were in place,” says Kevin Roach, news director for WDTN Dayton, Ohio. “We let the networks do their jobs, and we do what we can to localize the story.”

Taricani Talks

Freed after 121 days of home confinement, WJAR Providence, R.I., investigative reporter Jim Taricani is campaigning for local broadcasters to get behind a federal shield law to protect journalists.

“We have judges and law- enforcement agencies forcing reporters to become de facto investigators, and it is not a good thing,” Taricani said last week at the RTNDA meeting.

A shield law might have helped Taricani. In December, he was sentenced to six months of house arrest following a contempt conviction for refusing to reveal a confidential source in a story about local political corruption. His talk in Las Vegas was the first time Taricani, who was released about two months early, had spoken publicly about the experience. While serving his sentence, he was forbidden to work or give interviews.

Taricani says he is back working at the station and already has a new investigative story under way.

Covering an Attack

A dirty bomb explodes near the Chicago Board of Trade during lunch hour. A tape editor for a local TV station is in the area and frantically calls in. The news director gets on the phone and scribbles down the information. But then what? Should the station put the tape editor on the air, talking over the phone, while a crew races to the scene?

The answer: Slow down. “We've been burned with misinformation,” says Ed Tobias, assistant managing editor for AP Broadcast. “We don't want to cause mass panic.”

As stations grapple with what they would do in the event of a terrorist attack, the RTNDA is trying to arm them with plans and information. The Chicago scenario was just one example presented to local-news executives at an RTNDA session. The group has held similar workshops in seven markets, and three more—in Boston, Denver and San Francisco—are planned for this summer.

But not every market gets a chance to role-play. The RTNDA suggests all stations craft emergency plans and train reporters and crews on safety and preparedness.

“We've never had experts lined up. We didn't think something like this could happen in Kansas City,” says Debbie Bush, news director at KSHB Kansas City, Mo.

As with any big story, stations precariously balance being right and being first. “Competition is key,” says Camille Edwards, news director for WMAQ Chicago. “But you never want to go on the air with false information.”

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