SXSW

SXSW Reporters' Notebook: Torchy's Tacos, Your Boss as Slackbot, Serious Surge Pricing

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Other than the festival itself, regional restaurant chain Torchy's Tacos was the biggest winner in President Obama's trip to Austin for the Day One of South by Southwest Interactive. Mr. Obama stopped at the local Torchy's on Friday to order three tacos with political names, as he recounted from a SXSW stage later: the Democrat (beef barbacoa with avocado), the Republican (jalapeno sausage) and the Independent (fried portobello mushrooms). -- Nat Ives

On the trade show floor, a long line of people waited for two masked typists to given them their first impressions.

It was somehow a promotion for Drupal, the content management system. Here's what I got. -- George Slefo

On Saturday, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, immortalized in "Spotlight" by Liev Schreiber, caught the attention of a somewhat sleepy late-morning crowd by revealing that the Post has employed a virtual manager called "Martybot," a Slack script that tells Post reporters when their deadlines are near and nags those who have watched theirs fly by. (The crowd moved quickly to take a photo of the Martybot when it was ported up on a big screen.) "This sounds like a new kind of hell," a Newsday reporter quipped in response to my tweet about the bot. "I hate this earth," another said. -- Jeremy Barr

A JWT communications exec's lawsuit alleging "racist and sexist slurs" by Chairman-CEO Gustavo Martinez was a throughline in conversations both on-stage and off. Arwa Mahdawi, chief strategy and innovation officer at Cummins & Partners and creator of the satirical website RentAMinority.com, said during a panel on racism and advertising that the plaintiff was doing what more people in the industry should. "I so much respect Erin Johnson for opening her mouth and calling out her boss," Ms. Mahdawi said. (Mr. Martinez and JWT parted ways a few days later.) -- N.I.

In contrast, of all the many media panels I attended, by far the lowest attendance was for "Diversity in News Reporting, Booking and Staffing," held on Sunday at the Hilton Austin. It also happened to be one of the most interesting sessions -- an honest, judgement-free conversation between senior leaders at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and PBS Newshour. While the sparsity of the ballroom was potentially telling, and indicative of a systemic issue in the industry, perhaps it just was too heavy a topic for a convention that was more focused on the exciting power of technology. -- J.B.

Attendees staying outside downtown again had to worry about getting around in general and Uber surcharges in particular. Uber says its surge pricing encourages more drivers to work when there's high demand, and more drivers were certainly in position during the festival. My first Uber driver in Austin was on his first day as an Uber driver, and he benefited from a 1.5x multiple on the fare from my La Quinta Inn to venue where the president was speaking. The surge charge fluctuated throughout the festival, often hovering below a relatively reasonable 2x, but skyrocketed to as much as 6.6x on Monday morning. (I called a taxi.) -- N.I.

In its 15th year at South by Southwest, The Fader expanded its annual Fader Fort concert venue and hangout zone into Interactive from the Music portion for the first time, with a version called The Arcade at Fader Fort. Instead of music, the Toyota-sponsored activation featured comedy from Eric André and the Lucas Brothers over two days, along with diversions such as indie video games from Death by Audio Arcade. But the Fort closed at 8 each night, sending attendees into the madness of Sixth Street. -- N.I.

Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore, an 8-time (he thinks) SXSW veteran, gave his thoughts on the 2016 edition on Monday, after breaking some news about a video partnership with Bravo. "It's always a great place to see what people are talking about," he said of the conference. This year, he said virtual reality (and, to a lesser extent, augmented reality) seemed to be top of mind, but that "there wasn't so much talk of mobile apps as the normal years." Overall, he said, "The experience has been great. … I think it's one of the most enjoyable tech conferences, because -- it's Austin, it's usually sunny, it's the start of kind of spring, and people are getting out of their home base." He then revealed plans for a hard-earned nap. -- J.B.

Virtual reality was indeed a theme onstage and off, with Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly calling it one of the 12 "inevitable tech forces that will shape our future" during a keynote on Monday. "I'm predicting that VR will become the most social of all the social media," he said. The tech was also a common marketing tactic for brands at South by Southwest. Budweiser offering a virtual tour of a brewery at the Budweiser Beer Garage, augmented when the Bud team put beechwood in visitors' left hands and beer in their right. McDonald's let attendees "paint" the inside of a virtual Happy Meal at McDonald's Loft. -- N.I.

When YouTube launched on Valentine's Day 11 years ago it was originally intended to be an online dating website, co-founder Steve Chen told a SXSW audience. "Just three guys on Valentine's Day with nothing to do," Mr. Chen said. The original game plan didn't work out, but that didn't stop him from selling YouTube to Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion. Mr. Chen has since shifted his attention toward his other passion: food. His latest project, Nom, is like Twitch but instead of watching games, people watch others cook. While many labeled Nom as SXSW's tech darling, that could be bad news for the startup. Previous SXSW companies that received a similar label include Foursquare, Highlight and Meerkat, which have seen their share of pivots. (Meerkat no longer provides live video streaming.) When a USA Today reporter asked Mr. Chen if he believes in the SXSW curse he responded, "Well how am I supposed to answer that?" -- G.S.

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