Spring 2008 Edition
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Heather Dahl

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By Nadene Steinhoff

When Heather Dahl ’95 campaigned to be one of Willamette’s first female student body presidents, she didn’t think twice about gender. She ran on issues, and when her campaign promises took longer than her junior year to fulfill, she ran again — and won — so she and Willamette President Jerry Hudson could hammer out the final details on a guaranteed tuition plan.

Her campaign was good practice for the real thing. After the launch of a spectacularly successful, free-wheeling radio talk show in Seattle, Wash., Dahl moved to the other Washington, where she became one of the city’s youngest managing editors at Capitol News Connection, whose Public Radio International broadcasts are picked up in 221 markets.

After a few years of jostling with media giants like CNN and NBC for front row seats at State of the Union addresses and the inauguration, Dahl ran for the Executive Committee of the House and Senate Radio-Television Correspondents Association — as an unknown. The committee acts as a liaison between Congress and broadcast news organizations, setting rules for press coverage of Capitol Hill. The big players enjoy reserved spots at news events and space for bureau staff in the Congressional press room, or the “gallery,” and Dahl wanted to make sure the smaller fish in the pond — like her independent news organization — got fair representation. “There are a lot of politics that go into the configuration of chairs in a room,” she says.

As part of her campaign for the post, she delivered 800 home-baked cookies to news organizations around Washington, winning over hardcore news veterans. One reporter quipped that he hadn’t seen a street politician like her for years. Dahl was elected for a leadership post, not once but twice — and handily. As of December 2007, she’s serving as chair, a job once held by luminaries like Charlie Gibson, Cokie Roberts and David Brinkley. Along the way, she pulled down a plum job offer from Fox News.

As a journalist, Dahl has had a front row seat for briefings on Sept. 11, the Iraq War and this year’s presidential primaries. As chair of the correspondents association, she’ll not only be watching the news, but helping decide how news is produced in an era when technology is quickly overturning every long-established rule. The Scene asked Dahl for her thoughts about the future of media.

Heather Dahl

When Heather Dahl ’95 found she was seated next to President Bush at last year’s Radio-Television Correspondents Association Dinner, she told him, ‘When I was growing up, my mother always told me to be careful with my table manners because you never know when you’ll be having dinner with the president.” The president immediately turned over his name card and wrote her mom a note: ‘Your daughter has excellent table manners.” As current chair of the House and Senate Radio-Television Galleries, Dahl will plan the 2009 annual White House dinner — the first dinner for the new president — where politicians spoof themselves and each other.

Check out YouTube to catch last year’s rap performance by Karl Rove Senate Radio-Television Galleries Dahl Wins Alumni Award: blog.willamette.edu/news/archives/ 2005/09/willamette_anno_4.php

Q. How has news production changed since you began your career?

A. When I started in news more than 10 years ago, we covered our stories using bulky equipment, and phones were a hard-won advantage. During the 1996 Clinton-Dole presidential campaign, we fought over who got to check out the two phones in the newsroom. If you weren’t the lucky producer that day, your only option was to stuff your pockets with rolls of quarters and fight competitors for the pay phone. Radio reporters covering President Clinton’s impeachment trial used wax pencils and razors to cut tape for stories, and cell phones were luxury items.

Now reporters carry small hand-held cameras that transmit live pictures, digital editing has replaced tape splicing, and the battle for the cell phone is over. Many reporters are left with the archaic knowledge of the location of the pay phone in every major Washington hotel.

Q. Have technological advances changed how people access news?

A. Journalists used to enjoy a captive audience. People sat through ad after ad during the six o’clock news and waited for the evening paper to arrive, but those days are gone. News consumers — especially the 18- to 24-year-old Millennials — are abandoning newspapers and TV news for the “Third Screen” — the Internet, cell phones and PDAs [personal data assistants]. They demand more and more control over what they watch, read and listen to, and they want their news — on specific topics that interest them — delivered in bite-sized bits as it happens rather than in a news show that gives them what producers believe they need to know. Not only that, but Millennials are teaching older generations how to consume news.

Q. How are these changes affecting oversight of political coverage in the nation’s capitol?

A. The implications for us are staggering. Press gallery committees used to oversee just radio, and then TV, in the 1950s. Congressional regulations for Capitol Hill coverage, established decades ago, don’t yet address emerging technology. For example, current rules limit where reporters can shoot footage and prohibit most cameras from roaming live, but with wireless technology, one-person operations can shoot live from just about anywhere in the Capitol. Crews no longer need hours of setup, and cameras are so small that sometimes lawmakers — including some who don’t even type — might not immediately understand they are being recorded.

Q. What issues will be at the top of your list as chair of the Senate Press Gallery Committee?

A. We will need to address questions like whether bloggers should be given the same access to Capitol Hill as the traditional press corps and whether reporters with small cameras should be allowed more access than traditional broadcast organizations.

Q. What are the larger challenges for the media industry?

A.Everyone is producing all kinds of media, and the more level playing field allows both professionals and amateurs to provide all types of information, regardless of objectivity or quality. And the news is continuous. When blogs provide a steady stream of news as it occurs, what happens to reflection and analysis? Does 24-7 coverage trivialize news? There are concerns that the industry may be facing a massive contraction as specialized jobs disappear, but when a print reporter becomes a still camera operator, videographer and blogger, what happens to the quality of reporting?

Advancing technology is challenging us, not only to learn more skills, but to adjust to new consumer demands. As journalists, we can no longer ignore the convergence of media in our storytelling. This shift is forcing media outlets to invest in new technology and skills and ideas — to distribute content to multiple media platforms, develop content that is tailored to specific audience segments, and think about how coverage can be interactive. We must not only deliver stories that take advantage of the myriad of new electronic forms, but we must find ways to tell the stories in a way that maintains quality of content. Finally, we must find creative ways to stamp our voice and style on the final product. How quickly and effectively news organizations respond to this paradigm shift will determine the long-term health of the industry.