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Scenes From South By: The Blockbuster Newsweek Party That Wasn't

At least the drinks were free.

Mike Isaac

I figured that the Newsweek party would be a mob scene.

I thought about the events of the last few days: The founder of the digital currency, bitcoin, was allegedly unmasked in a cover story for Newsweek’s inaugural return to print. As Dorian Nakamoto, the publication’s prime suspect, denied any involvement with bitcoin, the press and the rest of the Internet began searching for holes in the story.

As I approached Newsweek’s big, bold coming-out party at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, on Friday evening, I thought it would be a fever-pitch moment. What I got was hardly what I expected.

The crowd outside the Vince Young Steakhouse — cleared out of regular customers for the evening — was small, perhaps 50 people waiting to get inside a party that was supposed to be packed.

A handful of attendees scuttled across the room to tables covered in Newsweek’s new issue, splayed out for all to browse. I shoved one in my backpack; perhaps years from now it will be the nerd’s version of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” A cluster of people near me thumbed through copies of the magazine, talking about how embarrassing it would be for Newsweek if the story were to be proven wrong.

But many others were just there for the free booze, and another South By party to check off the list.

Some had no idea about the controversy of the past week. I asked one pair of Austin locals — an executive consultant and his wife — what they thought of the new issue; the consultant praised the clean layout and design. I’m not sure he knew what bitcoin was.

I watched Jim Impoco, Newsweek’s editor in chief, work the subdued crowd in seemingly good spirits after three days of nonstop press attention. As we talked, he looked punch-drunk, the result of many, many interviews with publications wondering how Newsweek would handle the controversy around its bitcoin story. The magazine had come out in full support of writer Leah McGrath Goodman’s piece, but Goodman wasn’t at the party.

Like me, a handful of other journalists came expecting schadenfreude; the culmination of months of work coming to a calamitous head, at what was supposed to be a celebration.

But partygoers seemed nearly oblivious to the week’s drama — a mass of people scanning their phones for the next stop on the party circuit. Another group of PR people complained to me that they couldn’t get into the overbooked Vox Media party.

Perhaps I should have suspected as much. After all, I’m a journalist. For me, watching the bitcoin story play out was endlessly fascinating, because I care about the media industry. But most normal people aren’t wrapped up in the swings of publications — especially when it comes to topics as nerdy as bitcoin.

I wished Impoco best of luck in the ongoing saga and left shortly thereafter — on to the next party down the street.

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