The day of catching my breath is upon me, the day between SXSW Interactive and SXSW Music (I'm not real interested in Film). I'm due at the airport in a couple of hours to pick up a friend, but I have a little time to ruminate on what's happened here so far. (Food has happened, but that'll be the next post, I suspect.)
The main thing I've been doing since the conference started is attending the Interactive conference, particularly the track called The Future of Journalism. Last year, these tracks weren't as well-defined, which in a way is good, since you could dip into stuff you didn't know much about and learn, and some of what I learned related to publishing and writing. Some of the rest was pretty ridiculous, like the endless discussion that eventually came to the conclusion that people visiting websites liked well-written, informative content, and privileged it above tripe. No shit, Sherlock.
This year started badly. I saw that all of the journalism stuff was at the Sheraton, and my lizard brain walked the block and a half to the Sheraton Crest. Which, as most Austinites know, isn't there any more. It's a Radisson, I think. No, the Sheraton was 14 blocks away, and I didn't know about the shuttle buses or the Chevys you could just hail, so I walked in a very warm sunlight all the way, arriving late at a panel called "Tell & Sell Your Story," which was like a freshman English workshop on how to sell a book. An agent! A proposal! Borrrrring. Not to mention instilling false hope in the kids who packed the room out to hear one Stephanie Klein talk breathlessly about her successful memoir about going to fat camp.
After the lunch-break, at 3:30, NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen gave a speech called "Bloggers vs. Journalists: It's a Psychological Thing" which had its moments, even if he did erect a gigantic straw-man of Olde Skoole Luddite Editors, vs. Sleek Young Serious Bloggers. He then spent some time tearing that down, and wound up by making some interesting remarks about how the synergy between "real news" and the opinionated stuff bloggers -- some of whom work for that same Olde Skoole media -- can produce exciting reading. Not quite the waste of time the earlier panel was, but too much time spent with the straw persons.
Finally, that day, there was a panel called "The Great Paywall Experiment: Evolving Digital Subscription Models" which interested me because if some way can be made to monetize all this stuff, maybe those of us who toil in the fields might wind up getting paid before we all starve to death. Alas, this was mostly hot air, and I'm not sure, but I think I walked out.
Sunday, I finally tracked down something useful and interesting, a presentation called "The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism," although there was a steep learning-curve because it was assumed that everyone in the room already knew about Longform.org, run by co-presenter Max Linsky, and The Atavist, a very interesting-looking site the other presnter, Evan Ratliff, has started, not to mention Instapaper, Readability, the Twitter hashtag #longreads, and the Amazon Singles Store for Kindle. I was at a distinct disadvantage, since a number of these tools are handiest for the iPad, and I don't own one (France doesn't seem too hot on them: I'd only seen one before I hit the New York subway a week and a half ago, and I've never played with one), nor do I own a Kindle, which isn't available in France at all. Still, if you click around those links you'll see that longform journalism is alive, if not yet profitable, and I was altogether cheered, enough to hand Mr. Ratliff my card so he'd remember me when I contact him with a piece the Atavist might like. He gave me a "who are you, old man" look which might have been a "are you still alive" look, but he's young enough and successful enough that I can understand, if not approve of, such behavior; I was pretty much an arrogant young asshole myself, after all. And although it lacks bells and whistles, which weren't available when it was written, it's still a good piece.
The day ended up with a discussion of bespoke news apps, by which time I was fairly lusting after an iPad and feeling old and left out for lack of one, although to be honest I'm not certain what I'd do with one and I'm damn sure not spending $600 on one. The takeaway from that was that publishing apps are neat, but nobody's figured out one that is killer, nor has anyone made any money from them. Which is good, because I'm working with some people in London who are trying to do all of that and it should cheer them that they're just a tiny bit ahead of the crowd.
I ended up Monday with a panel discussing "Will News Apps Re-Invent Journalism?" which, given the panel the day before, seemed like an already-decided "no," but during the course of which I realized that I'd been chasing the wrong question all weekend. The problem I face is that, of all the journalism in the world, the kind I practice -- cultural reportage and criticism -- is considered the most expendable. It's not news, it doesn't lend itself to Twitterific utility, and, just like it was 32 years ago in the newsroom of the Austin American-Statesman, it's still considered less important than Real News, even if it does draw people to your publication. I'm not about to concede the field to those folks, but the truth is that the leading web and tablet publications, such as Miller-McCune don't have room for it, the "culture" button on M-M's website notwithstanding. As I discovered personally, it was the first thing jettisoned in the panic over declining revenues, and it will, I suspect, be the last thing to come back. Which leads me back to my hope that I don't starve to death before some way is found to make what I do pay at least the kind of living wage it did ten years ago. It's worth noting, however, that one of the participants, Aaron Pilgher of the New York Times, noted that "The iPad should be a totally different reading experience, and [none of us have] taken advantage of that." So even the elite aren't there yet.
I also had a moment to stop by the trade show, which is about four times as big as it was last year, and, for some reason, not as noisy. And yes, every table that had a "drop your business card here and maybe win an iPad" got a card from me. Free, since that's the price people seem to want me to work for, seems to be a fair price for one. If it proves useful, I might buy my second one someday. But, although you'd never know it from the geekoisie around Austin this past weekend, it seems like a luxury so far.
9 months ago