SXSW 2016 and the focus on reality

How media brands are trying to adapt to an ever-changing landscape

South by Southwest Interactive Festival is a quirky mix of jean-casual-laidback yet oddly excited people – upwards of 30,000 nerds – who descend on Austin, Texas every March and turn a quaint college town into a tech-obsessed frenzy.  It’s easy to get swept up in the swirl of the event, the keynotes by people like President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama (a deviation from high profile social media types), the panels, the parties and the idea that you may be among the first to discover the next big thing.

This year for me, the next big thing was all about reality. Here’s why:

New York Times Faces Reality

Mark Thompson, president and CEO of The New York Times, was interviewed by one of his journalists and talked openly about the future of the Grey Lady which, up until now, featured “all the news that’s fit to print.”

His challenge: How do you turn a legacy print outlet into a multimedia company? Or how do you reinvent a page one experience for the smartphone? He confessed he experiences a good deal of resistance from audiences both internal (writers) and external (readers and investors). He likens their reaction to the angry response the paper faced when it added colour photos in the ‘90s. Seems quaint by comparison.

Thompson believes new journalism is a mashup of writing, social, video, VR, mobile, infographics and data visualization. His goal is to maintain the Times’ industry leadership by being more experimental and integrating virtual reality, augmented reality and multimedia into its stories.

But what about the written word, the reporter plaintively asks? Thompson says there’s a place for great writing and, in his opinion, its strength is adding depth, tone and context. But, the stories themselves should be presented in the best combination of prose and multimedia, whatever that may be.

Which could explain why the Times is planning new virtual reality stories every month in 2016. And it’s looking into how it might cover breaking news stories live in VR.

Overall Thompson is optimistic about where the business is heading. He says his newsroom had 1,300 staff members in 2008, about the same number as today. The difference is that along with writers, it has people who work in mobile, digital, video and audience engagement. And, while the overlap between church and state is getting greyer, he believes full disclosure is critical and journalists should try to have the same impact on advertising as advertising wants to have on them.

The Reality of TV

Alec Shankman is senior vice-president at Abrams Artists Agency in Los Angeles and his job is to try to make deals between networks and YouTube stars. And, while you’d think there would be many opportunities, getting the two sides together is harder than it sounds.

Shankman believes it’s due to the difference in business models: legacy versus startup. This creates a lot of friction from both parties because neither can agree on the value the other brings to the table. And it doesn’t give either side a lot of room for negotiation.

At its core, you find issues of trust and respect or lack of it. Influencers come with their own loyal audiences; studios believe they own the audience. Hollywood is looking for TV credits – something it understands – and overlooks the importance of YouTube success. There are also gaps in budget expectations – large versus small; production processes – complex versus simple; creative control; exclusivity; brand integration; intellectual property; talent compensation; distribution; backend monetization; licensing; merchandising. The list goes on.

However, Shankman feels the biggest challenge is that reality TV is scripted and people accept that as the “reality.” In digital, authenticity is key and Hollywood can’t get its head around that. I wonder if this might be an opportunity for digital print outlets to form alliances with influencers because their visual storytelling processes are simpler and more nimble.

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Okay, I’ll admit it. I lined up for an hour just to try on Samsung’s VR goggles and experience the thrills of a virtual roller coaster. Headgear on and strapped into seats that shook me back and forth, I don’t think I screamed – at least I hope I didn’t. But it felt real. Virtual reality is getting a lot of attention these days and it’s moving beyond the niche gaming and porn experiences. Now there’s talk about live VR and it’s easy to imagine the possibilities: sitting courtside at a Raptors game, standing behind home plate at Rogers Centre or being on stage with the host of the Academy Awards.

Splash, a new app that was launched at SXSW, lets people livestream 360 degree video and while that’s technically not VR, it’s getting close.

There’s also talk of augmented reality, which hasn’t captured as much attention yet, but will have a big effect on our daily lives. According to Thompson from The New York Times, AR will be a bigger opportunity for print media than VR because it enables them to produce an overlay of stories onto the world. Maybe you’re standing at TKTS in New York, trying to decide on a play. You point your phone at a poster and it displays reviews or a feature story from the Times.

Hopefully, it won’t be completely reciprocal to the point where we’re emitting mounds of personal data, as described in the dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story. Makes you wonder: will your personal story be turned off or on and what will it say about you?

Did you attend SXSW? What was real for you?

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications and teaches digital strategy at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. You can find him on Twitter @martinwaxman

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