What 12 journalists learned about community engagement and human interaction at SXSW

I spent time on both sides of the digital divide during my five days in Austin for South by Southwest Interactive, the annual apotheosis of all things technological.

Most of the time I was hyper-connected, checking the schedule with the SXSW iPhone app, texting people to try to meet up, e-mailing progress updates to my editor, and broadcasting panels via live blogs and Twitter.

But at night I lay my head in an Airstream trailer parked in someone’s back yard in East Austin, a world away from the throngs of geeks and pedicabs downtown. (Just doing my part to “keep Austin weird,” as they say.)

One morning as I tried to catch a bus downtown, I found myself walking with an Austin resident along 7th Street in a fruitless search for the bus stop. Construction crews had torn up the road, and with it any sign of where the bus would pick us up. Google Maps was no help. When we tried to hail two buses, the drivers waved us down the road, shouting through the windows that we weren’t in the right place.

A mile away, several thousand people were at the tech equivalent of a tent revival. And here we were, desperate for any sign from above that would tell us how we could get on the westbound #4.

During our frustrating hour together, the man asked if he could borrow my cell phone. “Does that have long-distance service on it?” he asked, reminding me that there was a time when calling someone far away was noteworthy. He called his sister and asked why she hadn’t mailed him his ATM card.

I got on my phone to ask the Twitterati how to reach the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and a short time later I got an answer. But still, no bus. Our only choice was to keep walking; we finally found a little spot of roadway that had been marked off from the construction. There we finally hopped on.

As I was sitting there, I e-mailed customer service to get the contact information for the executive director, and I sent her a message the next day. She got back to me quickly and promised to look into the problem there. And she said someone would talk to those drivers so they would be more helpful next time.

Progress, however slight. And not through some divine piece of circuitry, but rather a combination of the human and the technological.

I asked many of the journalists I saw in Austin to tell me what struck them about the conference. Many of them spoke of the interplay between online and offline interaction. Here are their thoughts, edited for clarity and space.

David Carr, New York Times media columnist

I noticed this year that it is often the case that many media organizations are beginning to look more like a federation of individual brands — reporters who blog, Twitter, and video — than the historical employer/employee relationship. Even some traditional media organizations seem more like a collection of individual voices under one banner than a single branded megaphone.

The other thing I noticed is that the term “curation” as it relates to media has officially jumped the shark, and I am striving, sometimes unsuccessfully, to banish it from my conversation.

Andrew Haeg, Co-Founder and Editor, Public Insight Network at American Public Media

It became increasingly clear to me at SXSW that journalistic “engagement” is quickly evolving beyond comments at the end of stories or promoting pieces via Twitter and Facebook. I was struck by the amount of discussion around collaboration, conversational journalism and how to engage your audience in a meaningful way.

As part of a team that’s been working for eight years on changing newsrooms’ relationship to the audience, I sensed a new and unusual level of openness to sharing resources and genuinely listening to their audiences, from even the most traditional and fortress-like news organizations.

Liz Heron, New York Times Social Media Editor

One of the biggest takeaways was that it pays to cultivate social media communities long before they become newsworthy. Clay Shirky nailed it when he said that one reason NPR’s Andy Carvin has stood out in tweeting news from the Middle East is that he was already following the right people in the region. (Incidentally, I got to meet many of those exact people in real life at another session on social media fueling change in the Middle East. Another takeaway from SXSW is the importance of getting off of Twitter and meeting face-to-face).

In her keynote, entertainer Felicia Day made a similar, slightly cheeky point that was geared more toward business but applicable to the news: “Your [social media] campaign is not a booty call, it’s a long-term relationship.”

At the same time, another theme that emerged at SXSW was that we are a crowd of early adopters, and we can’t assume our audience is as immersed in social media as we are. I’ll be pondering more ways to effectively incorporate news that comes to us via social media in ways that feel accessible for all Times readers.

Dorrine Mendoza, Online Content Producer, North County Times

The increasingly empowered consumer demands a “humanized” business. How will news organizations respond?

Gary Vaynerchuk, author of “The Thank You Economy,” said Monday that the small-town baker who throws in the 13th bagel for free is prepared for 2012 because small town rules are back in demand. Customers who feel genuinely appreciated are more likely to be loyal.

What if newsrooms applied this standard? How are readers/website visitors (customers) thanked for their attention? Am I prejudiced against the person who consumes content for free, believing he is worth less than a subscriber? Do I engage my readers, or do I treat them as an afterthought, or worse, do I consider them another duty?

Anthony De Rosa, Reuters Product Manager and Reuters.com contributor

My main takeaway was being able to have real face time — which we rarely do anymore because of the multitude of digital ways to connect — with people we want to work with to create interesting and useful things. I am less interested in SXSW as a place for people to bloviate and “thought lead” on topics; I view it more as an action-oriented event.

Social media may be taking over large parts of our lives, but it cannot replace what SXSW provides: the human element of real-life interaction, which cannot be replicated over Foursquare, Twitter, GroupMe or Basecamp. (The app that will allow me to continue these relationships is Hashable, which makes it quick and easy for me to have a record of us meeting and follow up with them later.)

Just as the conference has grown to an unprecedented size, the amount of information and data, particularly around news, has grown tremendously. While many hate the term “curate,” the idea behind it is more necessary than ever. An algorithm can help, but can’t completely replace the human editor.

Perhaps we just stop saying “curate” and call it what it really is: editing flows of information. Not just information from individual writers at an organization, but all the information being produced at any given moment. A number of tools are emerging to help these editors, like Storyful. I found theses tools to be the most compelling journalism topics discussed.

Melissa Bell, BlogPost writer, Washington Post

I was intrigued by the move away from Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of one “authentic” identity online. We don’t want to share everything to everyone all at once. Group text messaging was the biggest example of this. There is a rising demand for tools to communicate with select groups of people — to divide our social streams.

This idea also came up in two keynote speeches. 4chan founder Christopher Poole and actress Felicia Day said online anonymity enables people to experiment with words, thoughts and projects without a fear of failing. Poole called this a “fluid” identity, allowing for different parts of yourself to have their own space online. This made me reconsider the value of attaching real names to comments on our site

Kate Gardiner, social media consultant

Group texting seems to be the hot new technology. (SMS, how retro!) I was amazed to discover how practical it was for organizing a large group of people from all over the country. The obvious use case for me is editorial teams in the field covering a particular story, but I’m sure that’s only the first one.

Joanna Geary, Community Editor, The Times

I was very interested in the Hacks/Hackers panel that discussed taking story reporting beyond the traditional article format. Fundamental changes to the traditional newsroom processes have been a long time coming, but I’m delighted to see that things are starting to happen. I was fascinated by the work that SBNation has done creating story streams and their experience with implementing a completely new editorial system into a newsroom.

One of my favourite panels was led by Aza Raskin and focused on health. It opened my eyes to how little we create feedback loops for our readers to help them navigate and consume the news that they want. His panel gave me a lot of principles to take back into the newsroom and use to help improve our community.

Seth Gitner, Assistant Professor of Newspaper and Online Journalism, Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications

I attended SXSW with several student entrepreneurs; I’ll admit I had wondered until this point what entrepreneurship had to do with communications and journalism, but after experiencing SXSW I see things in a new light.

My entire career in Web journalism, I had been trying to think innovatively on how to tell stories; I see now that my thinking was entrepreneurial. There were a lot of sessions on how to be a successful entrepreneur, how to take your ideas and make them come to life.

Journalists at SXSW should have been at these sessions. If you’re a journalist and you attended only journalism events, I don’t think you were getting the most out of SXSW. Journalists need to look at other avenues for ideas, take what they learn and apply those ideas to journalism and storytelling. By doing this, we will move our storytelling forward.

Chrys Wu, User Engagement Strategist, Matchstrike LLC

This is a good place to practice entrepreneurship skills. A lot of people had their hustle on — and it went beyond the usual “my name is, I work at, I work on” banter. The Accelerator pitches were fascinating, but it was also interesting to be a part of hallway and party conversations and to listen in on phone calls. Convincing people that you and what you do are attention-worthy is an art more journalists are going to need in the future.

Talking to people yields the best inside information. It was true before the Internet. It’s still true now.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/niketa.patel Niketa Patel

    Missed the deadline for this piece so here are my thoughts about going to SXSW for the first time:

    My main takeaway from SXSW derived from The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism: http://schedule.sxsw.com/events/event_IAP8098 conversation. It was so great to hear to that groups/services such as http://longreads.com/ (@longreads), Instapaper and Readability are geared towards honoring and preserving longform in the wake of technology, personalization and 140 characters.

    David Carr & Anthony DeRosa’s panel about being so busy to be able to accomplish anything was an honest if not hilarious discussion.

    Breakout app/functionality: I was personally impressed by Groupme. I was quickly able to set up a few groups and effectively communicate with several people at the same time. Seems like Groupme and Beluga are aimed at allowing smaller buckets of people to communicate which seems to signal a shift from the mass communication offerings that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter provide.

    Overall, I was just so jazzed to meet so many journalists and technologists in person for the first time. I came away with a few interesting ideas for future partnerships.

    @Niketa – ABC News

  • http://www.facebook.com/mijohn Michelle Johnson

    As a first-timer at SXSW I would have to agree that my main take-away was face time.

    Met a fantastic group of young entrepreneurs who conceived and launched a service for creating “instant online identity/press kits” (http://gokit.me/). They came together and had a prototype up and running in about 48 hours.

    Despite the fact that we (African Americans attending SXSW) were connected via Beluga, our face-to-face discussions were much more interesting because they went beyond quick updates about which party to go to next, which is what takes up a good chunk of the social media stream.

    Also agree that if you only attended the journalism track you lost out. My one regret is that I didn’t work more in from the other tracks.