OPINION

A Sour-Grapes Special: SXSW Snubs ECT and Me

Austin, Texas, is the home of the annual South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), which in 23 years has grown from a music-only celebration featuring a few Sixth Street bars, a handful of bands and lots of Shiner Bock beer, into a two-week, multi-media extravaganza featuring hundreds of Next New Thing musicians, filmmakers and technology movers/shakers — and lots of Shiner Bock beer.

I was living and working in Austin in 1988, the festival’s second year, and remember having a great time sweating up a storm while dancing to some great live music at Antone’s, the legendary blues bar near the University of Texas campus on Guadalupe Street. In the years since, I’ve paid more and more bucks to sample SXSW in various stages of its growth, and as a native Texan I was impressed by the brand-name participants and media attention it attracted. I didn’t mind shelling out the dollars; I thought I was helping to put my home state and one of my favorite cities on the cultural map.

In the mid-’90s, SXSW branched out to include discussions on film and technology (called “Interactive” by the festival). Those categories have swelled with their own popularity, so much so that Austin convention officials have come to rely on the tourism/hotel/restaurant dollars that pump up city coffers every March. But something must have happened in all those years, and with all that growth, to SXSW; it seems to have become a bureaucracy that’s forgotten how to treat the media that helped make it a unique Lone Star State attraction. I fear it’s getting too big, and I’ve become a victim of that growth.

Access Denied

I applied for complimentary media credentials on behalf of ECT News to cover the Interactive portion of the festival. Some great panel discussions are lined up, and while they covered a wide range of interests — everything from how science fiction influences the Internet to “digitally rebranding the GOP” — many of the scheduled talks revolved around mobile trends: location-based services, new user interfaces, social media on-the-go. Keynote speeches include Twitter CEO Evan Williams, social network expert danah boyd, and Spotify’s Daniel Ek.

Sounds like geek heaven, right? Most of what I wanted to cover was going to impact the audiences for ECT, so my goal was to deliver useful, actionable information for CTOs and CIOs who are wondering about social media’s place in their businesses.

Yet this week I was told I was being denied those credentials. A list of reasons was given, not all of them necessarily pertaining to my situation, I was told, although the email I received from Tammy Lynn Gilmore, SXSW Interactive press liaison, gave me plenty of ammunition for being suspicious about the real motivation.

The first reason: A letter of assignment was required, especially if you are a freelancer (like yours truly). No problem there: I submitted a letter from ECT News Network Publisher Ric Kern.

Second reason: SXSW received an “overwhelming” number of requests for credentials, and suddenly organizers had to be very selective. Credentialing started in September, and that meant a lot of people might have applied ahead of me, I was told. (I sent my application in six weeks before the deadline). I don’t doubt that there is enormous interest. A list of last year’s media participants on the festival’s Web site is a lengthy litany of big media and small blogs. But considering that I was going to be providing coverage for both ECT News and two Seattle broadcast outlets — triple the free publicity, in other words — I still thought I had a edge. Also, there was no warning in the registration materials of a “first come, first served” philosophy.

Third reason: Corporations and non-press groups were asking for complimentary credentials, and SXSW is determining who gets those on a case-by-case basis — which still means some non-reporter types were getting reporter access. If that’s the case (by-case basis), then shouldn’t corporations and non-press groups be the first to be denied? After all, they’re not providing free publicity in the form of coverage.

Fourth reason is the cover-all-basis reason: SXSW simply may have reached the limit on the number of credentials it can grant one media outlet for the kind of coverage I described. OK, can you tell us the limit? Did you know the limit before you opened the registration process? Were backpack journalists like myself — working for more than one outlet — given any extra weight in all of this?

Here’s the kicker, and it’s the one that got my Texas blood boiling: “We would still love for you to attend and participate in SXSW Interactive if you wish to do so. If that’s the case, please reply to this email stating that you would like to be issued one attendee badge for SXSW Interactive for the discounted rate of (US)$475.”

I see. So you DO have room for me, my laptop, my Flipcam and my digital voice recorder — if I cough up nearly $500. Is this really about “the overwhelming number of requests,” or just about the money?Gilmore said she’d love to talk about this with each and every one of us being denied, but because her volume of email is at an all-time high, only emails agreeing to take advantage of the discounted badge would be answered. All other communications will be put off until after the festival.

A Bit Bloated, Are We?

I realize that this column carries with it the aroma of grapes that have gone bad, and I’m girding myself for the nasty comments that will no doubt ensue. This does indeed sound like the cool kids are throwing a party in the Texas Hill Country and I didn’t get invited. But in case you’re wondering how all this got past our managing editor, let me assure you that she was the one who suggested I write about this. You may jump on my case for not having my registration materials sent back in early September, but I think there are some legitimate criticisms of SXSW for not planning for this kind of media interest and response. (Did they see their own list regarding 2009 media attendees?) SXSW may devolve into just another Comdex or E3 (before it shut its doors) or the Consumer Electronics Show before the recession hit: too big and unwieldy to do any good.

We’re not just talking about traditional media outlets here; SXSW should know better than anyone that the entire blogosphere wants to be in Austin, not just to hear the discussions and engage in them but also to network their asses off. The idea of any media writing free stories about your event being denied a press pass — or having to pay to play — doesn’t just go against the original concepts of SXSW that I remember back from the late ’80s, but it also smacks of pure greed.

From this Texan’s point of view, it’s just the kind of thing carpetbagging Yankees would do, you know?


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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