Journalists and SXSW: Why they should go, and what to do there

February 23rd, 2011

It’s a time of shrinking newsroom budgets, and often one of the first things to go is the travel budget, especially for conferences. That’s a shame, because conferences are fantastic for fostering innovation in newsrooms. A journalist returning from a good conference should have a half dozen ideas to try, plus new contacts to help make them happen.

If your organization can only afford to send someone to one conference all year, I strongly suggest the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, which begins in a few weeks in Austin, Texas. It’s not your typical journalism conference, but I think that’s part of what makes it so great. Not to knock on other journalism conferences, but in this day and age, I think journalists need to see first-hand how the rest of the tech world innovates.

What journalists will get out of it

  • Networking. The conference is filled with people working on the bleeding-edge of the tech world. If you’ve ever been to a journalism conference, you know that some of the best things you learned and best connections you made happened between panels, during that 20-minute snack break. At SXSW, the halls of the Austin Convention Center are filled with the 20-something CEOs, designers and programmers at mobile, gaming and social media companies — and much more. You’re as likely to bump into Twitter cofounder Ev Williams as you are Jeff Jarvis. Add an incredible list of side parties (and official parties) to the networking opportunities: You can go to a party thrown by Mashable one night and hardcore Android enthusiasts the next. I’ve found that the tech crowd loves journalism, and they’re excited to share their products and ideas with media types.
  • Great panels, mixed with some OK ones. Not every panel is going to be a hit, but there are so many to choose from that if you land in a stinker, you can get up and wander into another one. Some of the best panels I have attended were discovered that way. Before you go, make a game plan of what panels you absolutely want to attend, but be ready to tear up your plan as necessary. I think it’s good to break away from journalism panels and just look for ones that sound interesting, though if you want a good list of journalism-related panels, Poynter put one together.
  • Optimism! I’ve been to a few media conventions in the past few years, and the general mood felt pretty dour. The industry has been beaten down, and it shows. At SXSW Interactive, you won’t see that. Instead, you’ll see enthusiasm for the future and innovations that excite everyone. What journalists need to remember is that a lot of these innovations could be and should be used in newsrooms to not only make our jobs more interesting and make us more valuable employees, but help our organizations’ bottom lines.

So, you want to go this year?

It’s going to cost you. The tickets for the Interactive portion of the festival started at $450 for early registrants, but it has gone up to $750 now. If you’re starting this late, good luck finding a bed to sleep in, too. The hotels are booked within 10 miles or so of the festival, and even hotels on the shuttle route are booked, so include the price of a rental car and just pray you can find parking.

I think if your organization can still swing the higher costs, and you don’t mind trying to figure out the hotel/parking situation, it’s still worth going this year. Otherwise, start planning for the 2012 festival. Book your hotel and purchase those tickets in September. Better yet, submit a panel idea in the summer (it’s great exposure, and panelists get free SXSW badges).

If you do attend, be sure to look me up. I’ll likely be checking out a crazy panel or heading to the TechCrunch party, but I’ll definitely stop, say hi — and share ideas.

- By Robert Quigley

Gowalla CEO Josh Williams, at the Statesman Texas Social Media Awards during SXSW in 2010
Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman photo

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