Panels, Festivals & Attractions at SXSW

Photo Credit: Adisa Sobers

By Pandora’s Box Staff

PB started planning to go to South By Southwest (SXSW) last semester after deciding we wanted to attend a conference that would not only help us have a better understanding about the changing journalism field but also serve as a networking opportunity.

Needless to say, planning to attend SXSW was simultaneously the most rewarding yet stressful experience for us. From frantically trying to get the hotel the correct credit card information the same day we were set to check in, to a delayed plane that made us miss our connecting flight and then having to wait in uncertainty on standby to potentially get on a plane leaving at 9:45 or 10:45. So getting to SXSW was a hassle but when we finally walked through the Austin Convention Center all we could think was “wow we actually made it.”

Below is a summary of all the panels that we attend as well as all the sightseeing we were able to do in between panels.  

Featured Sessions: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the New Left

Getting a chance to see and hear Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) was undoubtedly one of the highlights of SXSW. If anything, we were lucky to get into the same room as her since the line had wrapped around the convention center with some people having to go to overflow rooms, rooms with a screen showing a livestream of the event.  

Speaking to the packed rooms and various livestreams, AOC talked with The Intercept’s Senior Politics Editor, Briahna Gray, about topics like the racial and class divide, the Green New Deal and her work to call out politicians who take money from lobbyists.

When asked about what she has learned since she was nominated U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, the congresswoman commented that she was fascinated with how subtle lobbyists operate in order to bribe politicians into voting for a deal that would benefit them.  

“In the last two months, it’s been really fascinating to see, you know, we have this idea that D.C. is dominated by dark money, and that lobbyists are hiding in people’s closets or whatever, like, ‘Boo! Vote for oil!,”said Ocasio-Cortez. “Whatever it is, but it doesn’t work like that. So it’s been very fascinating to see how subtle these very powerful influences make their way.”

She ended the panel with a piece of advice, telling everyone if they want change in who represents them they need to go out and vote for politicians who will stand for them rather than sitting back and believing their vote doesn’t matter.

What’s Next For News

On March 9 Sara Fischer, Axios media reporter, hosted a panel called What’s Next For News at the JW Marriott. The panel was wide-ranging, but focused on the future of the digital media landscape. The speakers included Executive Vice President of the New York Times, Meredith Levien, Executive Vice President of CNN, Andrew Morse, and Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, Ben Smith.

The panelists spoke about their company’s different approaches to tackling the challenges that the ever-evolving digital media landscape presents. They talked about some of the the strategies that their companies are using to generate income, and about some of the different methods that they are using to distribute the news.

Meredith Levien made it a point to mention that one of their biggest goals is to reach their audience in new, creative ways.

“How do we decide where the Times should build a product beyond core news, I would say we look for where are people already coming to us for some kind of journalism, or experience, or some combination of those things,” she said. “Where do we have brand credibility, and permission to be, and also what do people have daily habits around? The big strategy of the New York Times is to continue to be a daily habit, whatever the medium is.”

She added that the success of “The Daily,” the Times’ daily news podcast, and their crossword app, which she made a point to mention was the fourth most used news-related app each day, surpassed even their expectations.

“In full disclosure, I would say we’ve done better than even we imagined a year or two ago.”

Another takeaway from the panel was a discussion about the constant search for new ways to generate money and monetize the news in order to keep journalists employed. The speakers said a major obstacle currently facing the media landscape is how to accurately measure user engagement. Unlike Nielsen ratings in television, digital media has no universal standard to gather such data.

Andrew Morse hoped a universal standard to measure engagement could be developed because today’s media landscape puts a major emphasis on accurately tracking that sort of information.

“In a world where data and analytics matter so much, in a world where we all want to measure audiences, in a world where brands want to measure audiences, why don’t we just say it’s not working,” he questioned. “Why don’t we say it’s all a construct, that is no longer relevant, and let’s come up with a system where we can actually measure our audiences, and get actual insights to advertisers, or whoever we want to, so we know exactly how their using it.”

Morse added that doing so was important for many reasons but mostly it was a matter of being able to pay reporters to gather and report the news because today’s state of affairs requires in-depth journalism.

“It’s an interesting time in journalism because people are actually thanking us for the work we’re doing,” he said.

Near the end of the discussion Pedro Bermejo, PB’s Managing Editor, asked the panel a question regarding their comments on diversity. He noted that earlier in the discussion they talked about how each of the companies are trying to increase diversity in their newsrooms, but that he only saw four white people talking on stage, and wondered when there might be a push for diversity in executive roles.

The question appeared to catch the panel by surprise. Morse responded to the question by saying, “you’re right, we have to do a better job of that.”

How the Media Covers Suicide

Deaths of prominent individuals such as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are covered extensively by the media. This generates a public discussion about mental health for a short period of time.  

A panel of experts dove into the question of the role and responsibilities in covering tragedies of public figures. The panel at the event included Lindsay Holmes, Wellness Editor at Huffington post, Dave Itzkoff, Culture Reporter at New York Times, Dan Reidenberg, Executive Director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, and Zelda Williams.

Williams, daughter of Robin Williams who died in 2014, commented on a family’s right to privacy. She said the media often contacts her for interviews to comment on a stranger’s suicide because she had the experience of a grieving family. She noted this as insensitive to her trauma.

The panel acknowledged there is always a competition among media organizations to be the first to publish a news story regarding a prominent figure’s suicide. This can be very dangerous because of the word choice and the topic’s sensitivity.

The panel also said that although the public has a right to know, it is the obligation of a reporter to give readers context so they understand what they are reading. Misconceptions cannot be created because each victim went through something specific.

Itzkoff, the reporter who wrote about William’s suicide, said he hoped he covered the story in a responsible way that satisfied the need-to-know of the readers.

The panel added that one thing to do is to reduce the stigma behind suicide because it affects everybody and not just one person. Reidenberg said that we, as a society, have to start addressing the issue in every community and not just caucasians.

E-Sports Venues: Coming to a City Near You

At SXSW, the fast-growing world of e-sports was highlighted with a multitude of sessions displaying the present and future plans of the industry.

Brian Mirakian, Director of Populous Activate, and Jonathan Oudthone, President of ESports Venues LLC, were on-hand to discuss their ideas to create an e-sports ecosystem and bringing it all in one stadium. Both of the brands represented at the session are dedicated in ensuring the venues being designed are sustainable for fans and teams while providing increased commerce to inhabited neighborhoods.   

Populous Activate uses the power of design to link fans, brands and properties. They were recently named in Fast Company’s 2018 Most Innovative Companies list as the #1 Most Innovative Company in Live Event Design.

Esports Venues LLC focuses on the design and development of e-sports dedicated infrastructure.

A highlight from the discussion was Esports Stadium Arlington, the largest e-sports specific venue in North America. The stadium was built in an underutilized section of the city’s convention center. It features fan seating, merchandise areas, analyst press boxes, player stages, and much more.

The venue was specifically built to host e-sports tournaments featuring prominent teams known worldwide. The areas around the venue are structured to create amazing experiences for fans in attendance.

The stages in the stadium could be configured for all game types: 6v6, 3v3, etc.

Brian and Jonathan both noted their goals in expanding this kind of infrastructure to different cities in North America. They mentioned New York City and Las Vegas as potential landing spots for future e-sports ecosystems.

Pop-Up Shops Steal The Show AT SXSW

The annual South By Southwest interactive-media, film, and music conference wrapped up over the weekend, and featured several pop-up shops in the area surrounding the Austin Convention Center that appealed to a wide variety of attendees. Some of the most notable installations included Sony’s interactive exhibit, the media company Vice’s roller rink, and a Game of Thrones themed medieval fair hosted by the Red Cross.

Many of the pop-up shops featured free refreshments, as well as panels hosted by the companies. Festival goers were also gifted all sorts of free merchandise, including tote bags, hats, and t-shirts.

The Sony exhibit was housed at WOW Studio and focused mainly on the technology company’s involvement in developing artificial intelligence (AI). There were robotic dogs that were a lot more responsive than previous iterations of robotic pets, and several small robots that developed their own language to communicate with one another. One notable detail was that only the robots understood the language they developed. An employee of the exhibit stated that none of the programmers or developers had any idea how to translate the robot language, and that they develop a new language at each new conference that they are displayed at.

Janet Garza, employee at the exhibit, said a lot of the people who took a tour around the exhibit were impressed by how advanced the AI was.

“People come in here and are blown away with the robots and the puppies,” she said. “They can’t believe what we have going on in here.  

At a parking lot adjacent to the Austin Convention Center, Vice set up a roller skating rink and called Skateland. Apart from the rink, people could also check out company’s famous Viceland bus. Attendees were allowed to borrow a pair of skates to hit the rink, and were periodically treated to a breakdancing show by some of the pop-up shop’s employees.

The American Red Cross and HBO partnered to create a blood drive that doubled as an immersive experience. The non-profit organization collected blood from attendees that were willing and able to donate. Donation was not necessary to check out the rest of the exhibit, however. The installation was essentially a small-scale medieval fair with a Game of Thrones theme. It featured a replica of the iron throne, recreations of some of the show’s most memorable scene sets, as well as several of the actors from the actual show.

Other notable pop-up shops included the Daily Show’s Presidential Twitter Library, the Dell Interactive Experience, dating app Bumble’s Hive Lounge, an Uber Eats installation, and many more.

Sightseeing Around Austin

Austin may have just one eighth the population of New York City, but the city has nearly as many tourist attractions. Throughout the city there are numerous sightseeing marvels for tourists and residents alike to enjoy.

During the trip, PB had the opportunity to check out some of their hottest landmarks.

Located just half a mile away from the convention festivities is their Capitol Building. Situated in the center of a giant park, the four-story building allows visitors to venture into its many rooms including the senate and house floors.

Located at the southern edge of the city is Congress Bridge. This is Austin’s most popular attraction as each night more than 1.5 million bats fly out over the bridge to search for food. It’s the largest bat colony in the world and is really a sight to see.

Tucked away in the northeast corner of the city on the University of Texas campus is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. It’s one of 13 presidential libraries in the country and features more than 45 million pages of historical documents on its 14-acre grounds.

The Austin Convention Center itself is an incredible landmark. It housed many SXSW events and holds numerous events throughout the year. The entire complex takes up nearly one million square feet and is roughly half the size of New York’s Javits Center.

Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible, we can honestly say that our stay in Austin and attending SXSW is an experience we all won’t soon forget.

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