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Digital revolutionary: Benz named first pure-play digital Chairman of RTDNA

Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin Benz_RTDNA_September 2011_kevin
Benz takes over the RTDNA chairmanship from Mark Kraham.
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin Benz_RTDNA_September 2011_kevin2
Benz takes over the chairmanship from Mark Kraham.
Y'all might not know this, but Kevin Benz, our very own CultureMap Austin Editor-in-Chief, recently made history. 
 
Benz was confirmed Tuesday as the new Chairman of the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTNDA) at the Excellence in Journalism 2011 Conference held in New Orleans, La. He is officially the first strictly-digital media journalist to hold this position.
 
In the easiest interview of our career in terms of the number of chairs between our two desks, we were able to ask the travel-weary but always energetic Benz a few questions about his record-making accomplishment and the emerging status of electronic journalism.
 
CultureMap: Congratulations on your new position, Kevin. Tell our readers more about the impact and roles of RTDNA. 
 
Kevin Benz: Thanks! Most simply, RTDNA serves journalists and protects journalism, but Edward R. Murrow's famous speech probably defines us best. Back in 1958, as broadcast journalism was in its infancy, Murrow spoke to the Radio, Television News Directors Association (RTNDA, now RTDNA) and famously said, "This instrument [television] can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." Then he went on, "There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful." That was 1958. There are many who I think would agree that broadcast journalism is too often still wires and lights in a box. When Dancing with the Stars gets more TV news coverage than the death of al-Awlaki, I'm not sure they serve as a weapon against ignorance. 
 
We are now called the RTDNA for Radio, Television, Digital News Association. We help journalists in all media fight those battles and serve the community through education and advocacy; and with our offices in Washington, D.C., we protect the press freedoms promised in the first amendment. Sounds kinda boring probably, but it's very fulfilling work.
 
CM: What are your responsibilities and challenges as the newly elected Chairman?
 
KB: Well, it's not like journalists enjoy a particularly great reputation in the U.S. right now. I think we fall somewhere between defense lawyers and stock brokers in public support. (I hope I haven't offended any lawyers out there.) So our challenge is pretty daunting as we try to raise the respectability of journalism in the public's eyes. That means we must advocate for better news coverage. 

The Chairman really serves as the face of RTDNA and journalism in the U.S. in general, so I'll be asked to speak on issues affecting journalists all over the world. Occasionally, I will go to Washington in order to advocate on behalf of the press. The Chairman, with our Executive Director, also oversees the organization.

CM: What does it mean for the industry that a digital journalist such as yourself was elected? How is the media industry changing overall?

KB: It's pretty amazing actually. Just a couple years ago, I don't think anyone would have guessed that a digital journalist would come to lead this association. Online journalism has matured in a short amount of time. We are often the first place people go to get their news, and we are certainly the most nimble platform for distributing information. Twitter really changed the game for journalists. Information can be sent out in real-time, making the evening news and the newspaper more of an historical record.

We really want to make sure online journalists get the respect we deserve, and that means making sure we all follow the same principals of journalism: telling the truth, acting independently, providing context and minimizing the harm we can do. Too often, those calling themselves journalists online failed to follow those basic guidelines. I think that's changing, and in my role, I hope to prove it.

CM: How does this position change your role or influence as Editor-in-Chief at CultureMap Austin?

KB: I hope to help raise the prominence and respectability of online journalism overall. I left a 30-year career in television news (15 of which were in Austin) and came over to CultureMap, because I really believe there is a revolution going on in the media. Our community demands more of journalists than covering car wrecks, murders and fires; they want news that is relevant and important to their lives and includes coverage of the cultural aspects of our lives. CultureMap, as well as some other excellent online organizations, are in the process of reinventing what "news" means and how it's delivered. It's great to be on the cutting edge of the revolution!

CM: What can we expect from you next? 

KB: Well, I just got back from the RTDNA National Convention, so I'm only looking forward to getting back to work Monday morning and working with the best staff of online journalists in town. (Editor's note: He really said that. We didn't add that.) I love my job. And I'm having a great time. In a couple of weeks, I get the honor of handing out the National Edward R. Murrow Awards in New York. It's a great honor, but mostly I love living and working in Austin, one of the world's greatest cities.

CM: Thanks for talking to us, Kevin. See you on Monday!

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