This year, something was very different at SXSW. There was an undercurrent, almost like an undertow, where people seemed to be pulled into a different world – the world of Trump, politics and what was happening in Washington. There was a raw nerve out there, almost a hunger to talk about it and get involved. The attending national media outlets also sensed it and jumped right smack into the center of it. Several media outlets, like CNN, rented out bars, premiered new programming and had reporters and producers out in full force. On stages, on panels, at parties. From CNN’s Jake Tapper and social media gurus to John Avlon of the Daily Beast. They all had something to say and everyone was listening.
Someone at the New York Times made a brilliant decision. The “traditional Grey Lady” became untraditional and rented a hip restaurant near the convention center. They held their own full day of controversial sessions and “owned” the conversation. Kudos to its editorial, PR and marketing staff.
On a rainy, cold Saturday, hundreds of untraditional people of all ages and hair colors stood in the pouring rain, listening to thought-provoking discussions on the future of journalism. Reporters from the Times, as well as the Washington Post, online political media outlets and Dan Rather, got into spirited, smart conversations between themselves and the audience. Topics addressed real news versus “fake news,” what it’s like to report on the Trump administration and whether newspapers are really dead. They are clearly NOT. (The Times bragged about how their social media and subscription services are way up!)
When it came time for audience questions, I screwed up the nerve, took the traveling microphone and spoke to Dean Baquet, the Times’ Executive Editor. “I got so angry when the White House banned CNN from one of its news briefings. Shouldn’t you all protest together and walk out? And don’t you get angry when someone questions the integrity of you and your reporters?” I was quite surprised by his answer. He said his reporters would never leave a news conference if someone else got kicked out “because we’re as competitive as we’ve ever been.” And he said, “This is the greatest, most exciting era for journalists in my lifetime. When someone questions us, we get stronger. This is where we prove who we are and the importance of the press.”
I shook my head and smiled, empowered by his answers. For the first time in a while, I felt positive. And as I looked around, others seemed to feel the same way. And then I spotted the team of Times PR, marketing and financial folks, agreeing. They were owning the conversation and the audience.
Another popular media session was the Q&A between Re/code’s Kara Swisher and three of President Obama’s top guys who started their own media company, “Crooked Media”. She asked them GREAT questions about Trump and his new policies, questions you wanted to ask but didn’t have the nerve or anyone to ask it to. And they answered every single one, with humor, honesty and a bit of frustration. It was riveting. The audience ate it up, whether you agreed with them or not. By the end of the session, the grand ballroom was packed and it was almost SRO.
I’m glad I saw this change at SXSW. You often wonder if people, particularly millennials, are so obsessed by the latest, shiniest new tech toy that they don’t pay attention to the political landscape. But they are and that’s a big relief. And smartly, the media stepped up and took advantage of this opportunity, to push their brands and speak their version of the “truth.”