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Sour Grapes, Part Deux: SXSW Shows New Media Its True Colors

“OMG, somebody call the Waaaambulance!” went a comment on last week’s column about South by Southwest.

I had prepared myself for reader snark following my “it’s all about me” piece regarding SXSW’s denial of my complimentary press credential request for the Interactive portion of the annual media conference in Austin, Texas. I was pleasantly surprised: only three comments — and the “waaaambulance” one actually cracked me up.

The other two were offended by the facetious reference in my last line to “carpetbagging Yankees” (Hey, as a native Texan, I want you to know that some of my best friends are Yankees. At least I didn’t say “damn Yankees”; I didn’t need the people who wrote the hit Broadway musical on my case too). Nonetheless, they generally agreed with everything else in the column. I guess I should have left it at “carpetbaggers” — my apologies.

Derek Jeter has yet to weigh in on my pejorative use of “Yankee.”

What truly surprised me, however, was the strength of a single tweet about the column, and how the social media echo chamber reverberated my rant all through the Twitterverse and all the way down to Austin, Texas and SXSW’s event director, Hugh Forrest. He phoned me a few hours after the column was published on TechNewsWorld, and although I would characterize the chat as amiable, as you might expect he took exception to what I wrote.

I can’t repeat the conversation as it was off-the-record. Suffice to say, he did wonder why I hadn’t tried to get in touch with him via phone. I told him that the email SXSW Interactive press liaison Tammy Lynn Gilmore sent to those of us who didn’t get credentials made it sound like there would be no discussions or changes of mind. I did send Tammy an email explaining that I was writing a column about all this, asking could I please get a few questions answered?

No response doesn’t mean no column, you know. I had to ask, though, how Hugh had heard about my piece. The Twitterverse, of course.

Score one more point in social media’s favor with regard to making a difference somewhere down the line — even if it was for as trivial a reason as Your Humble Narrator not getting to hang with the cool kids in Austin. And thanks to Twitter, I found out that I was in pretty good company as far as being shut out of one of the premiere technology conferences in the nation.

Call me stubborn or singularly self-centered, but nothing I’ve heard has changed my mind about how badly SXSW is handling this particular issue or how its rapid growth is endangering the festival. Apparently, nothing I’ve written or said has changed SXSW’s mind either; ECT is still not invited.

SXSW Misery Loves Company

The tweet that launched a phone call to me also prompted some coverage in Dave Moyer’s WordCast blog:

You would think that the conference would be a haven for bloggers, podcasters, vloggers, and new media professionals everywhere. An event central to digital media would seem a welcoming environment to such journalists and entertainers. This year, however, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Moyer listed himself, Cali Lewis of GeekBrief TV and Jim Louderback of Revision3 as others who had been denied press credentials — along with yours truly. Moyer included an especially juicy rage-quote from me concerning the fact that SXSW didn’t have any room for me as a comped reporter, but would make room if I ponied up US$475. Pure greed, I said.

Earlier this week, I finally spoke on the phone with Tammy Lynn Gilmore, who denied that this was all about greed. SXSW has costs associated with putting on the festival, and those costs have risen along with attendance and popularity. I said I would be providing triple the coverage, since as a freelancer I wasn’t just writing for ECT News, but also a Seattle TV station and a regional cable network, along with their respective Web sites. When I said that, Ms. Gilmore said I would need a letter of assignment from my broadcast clients, in addition to the one I had already sent from ECT News. She promised to try as hard as she could to see what she could do about a comp credential.

A couple of hours later, I got this email from Ms. Gilmore:

Renay,I’ve been working on this at every angle since our chat and doubly since receiving your letter of assignment. We’ve also been working feverishly for the past several weeks to be sure that all the complimentary press credentials we’ve allotted so far will actually be redeemed by the people they were issued to.

I would love to have your coverage be a part of our event this year but, unfortunately, I am only allotted a certain number of comp and discount codes for the press due to budgetary and space restrictions. I don’t have any comps left to distribute, and all the ones already distributed have been redeemed. As I said on the phone, I do have a few unredeemed $395 rate discounts left. I can also be sure that your badge gets the press designation on it if you choose to redeem the discounted badge.

I’ll send you that $395 discount coupon now, hoping that you’ll be able to use it. Thanks for the chance to work it out, and I hope we get to see you after all at SXSW Interactive 2010.

At this rate, if I keep hounding SXSW and keep writing columns, maybe the “discount” will come all the way down to something affordable, like $29.95. As it stands, the cost for this reporter to attend SXSW and provide the event free coverage to ECT’s audience and my other clients would be $395.

Online Journalists: Dime a Dozen?

My managing editor at ECT said this was all worthy of a follow-up column, despite my fears that I’d be staggering dangerously into the Waaambulance’s path. But she’s hot about this, and frankly I am too, and my anger isn’t just about being denied by SXSW. It’s about what’s happened to a very valuable festival, and how it treats online journalists.

I asked Hugh Forrest for an on-the-record response to questions I had about having to pay $395 to cover the event (for free), about Tammy telling me that other media outlets with similar audiences covering similar topics had already been approved (how do you really know they’re all that similar?), and any fears he had that SXSW was simply getting too big.

His response:

You applied for press credentials on February 9, which is very late in the process (we started accepting press credential requests in the fall). When we are trying to decide between two outlets of relatively equal coverage, we tend to grant the press request to the outlet that applied earlier. Because space at the event is ultimately limited (only so many seats at the Austin Convention Center and only so many hotel rooms in Austin), we adhere to a strict budget on how many press credentials we issue. When you applied on February 9, most of that budget has already been allocated.

Yes, press people who are not granted credentials are given the option to register at the lowest rate — these registration fees help us pay for the additional infrastructure needed to accommodate additional bodies. Yes, it was a lot easier to obtain press credentials several years ago because the event was not nearly as big as it is now. Such is one of the unfortunate challenges of growth. For 2011, I would recommend submitting your press credential request in September when the process opens.

Thanks for the heads-up about early registration. But again, there was no such “first come, first served” warning this year. Also, what does “two outlets of relatively equal coverage” mean? Last year, ABC, CBS and NBC all got to cover the event; I’m guessing Hugh wasn’t about to tell two of those three that they weren’t getting credentials because the remaining network got its registration form in first.

Let’s just focus on those online outlets with “tech” in their names: Tech Watch, Techcrunch, Techfluff.tv, Techipedia.com, Techmeme, Technologizer, TechRadar.com, TechReview and TechZulu all got to go last year. Any guesses that any “two outlets of relatively equal coverage” in that bunch would be covering some of the same panels and keynote speeches?

SXSW’s Bottom Line

I wanted to go to SXSW for financially selfish reasons — the more stories I filed from the Austin Convention Center, the more money I’d have made. But I also wanted to go because news is broken there. The world said hello to Twitter at SXSW — the same Twitter that vaulted my initial rant into cyberspace — and if you’re a tech news geek, you want to follow your nose to the action.

Simply put, SXSW has to find a way to make all online media outlets happy. The conference is, after all, about a segment of technology that we all cover on a daily basis. I appreciate the pressures that Hugh and Tammy are under in trying to appease all outlets, and the Austin Convention Center, although cavernous, does have its limits. Still, it’s SXSW’s job to figure out a way to make it work for everybody — not just the A-list media outlets and a flock of early birds.

Staggered days for attendees? Separate Interactive from the Music/Film portions of the festival? Find more hotel ballrooms/meeting spaces in Austin? You can’t just end up streaming everything; reporters need to be on hand for one-on-one interviews with speakers and panelists.

It’s got to happen, because I picture an event that might be bursting at the seams this year, and will have more than a few people griping from outside the convention center walls. Those gripes tend to go viral, as I’ve seen over the past week — and that audience is the one that helped make SXSW a very popular conference.

It would be sad to see the festival morph into something bad for Austin, the media and the industry. If the overriding theme of SXSW Interactive 2010 is “too big for its own good,” you’ll know I’m right.

This should do it for SXSW griping. You’ll have to excuse me now; my Waaaambulance ride is here.


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.

2 Comments

  • Thanks Renay, for voicing the concern of many in the online media community. Since those of us from California are neutral about the whole "Yankee" and "Southener" stigma, I will say with objectivity that Renay’s perspective is a valid one. If there were evolving requirements for media since the September enrollment period started, the organizers of SXSW should have posted (get this) a "press release for the press!" It should be a simple matter to group the e-mail addresses of people who register online and send everyone messages as circumstances evolve.

    I just signed on with ThinkBigWorkSmall.com as an independent correspondent and although it was too late for this year’s event, I’m thankful to know that I might have to look forward to this September. Yes, I already put it on my calendar. Because I also recently moved from the San Francisco area to Fort Worth, it would be a fantastic opportunity for me to drive south to cover this event for the subscribers of TBWS and the many Real Estate industry professionals that are now craving information on how to utilize technology and social media as ways to better serve their clients. I hope that SXWS will use the challenges of this year’s event to provide a better process for the media next year. Of course, the Metroplex (DFW) could be an option to manage larger attendance …

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