Collision’s Audacious Return to Toronto

It’s been three years since Web Summit’s sister tech conference, Collision was physically held at Toronto’s Enercare Centre. This year the tech confab returned big time, with a sold-out audience of 35,000+ and more than a fair share of forward-thinking founders, entrepreneurs, VCs, and established tech giants and luminaries to fill the nearly four days of programming across multiple, individually themed stages.

I was pleased to be back in Toronto, where I committed to presiding over two on-stage sessions. The first showcased “Impact Startups” selected by conference organizers for their adherence to some of the UN’s 17 Sustainability and Development Goals (SDGs). My role was to keep the startup founders’ strict two-minute elevator pitches flowing — for three hours — which worked out to roughly 17 presentations/hour, including interstitials!

The second was a bit more in the weeds: “Play-to-Earn: Creative Ways to Make Money.” It bowed on the Content-Makers Stage with an SRO audience of 1000+. I guess monetizing the metaverse and getting paid as an influencer hold considerable allure for a good swath of Collision attendees.

Impact Startups and Gaming Monetization at Collision

Returning to this massive tech conference, I was struck by the number of startups that were tackling seminal societal issues — from climate change to women’s health to food insecurity to remote learning. Most of the fledgling companies I MC’d on the Impact Startup stage were anything but vaporware. Many were well along in their missions, some even profitable — doing well BY doing good. And few could argue about the passion and commitment these founders brought to their fledgling companies. Here’s a 9-minute overview:

If you’ve attended Collision or Web Summit in Lisbon, you’ll know that the marquee speakers hold court on Centre Stage. They typically range from heads of state to tech CEOs to A-list entertainment and sports celebrities to plain old influencers and thought-leaders. Some of the bold-faced names featured at this year’s Collision included Substack’s Chris Best, actress Lupita Nyong’o, Gary Kasparov, Eric Schmidt, Toronto Mayor John Tory, DoorDash’s Andrew Fang, Tinder’s Renate Nyborg, Jimmy Wales, Jeff Katzenberg, Carmelo Anthony, Sprinklr’s Ragy Thomas, TIFF’s Cameron Bailey, Anthony Scaramucci, Olympian Jayna Hefford, IndieGoGo’s Beck Center, Brian Tyler Cohen, CoinDesk’s Christie Harkin, and many other big-branded companies and speakers.

Of course, this media-obsessed PR person took note of the scores of top tier journalists moderating, reporting, and/or speaking on stage. They included Wired’s Gideon Litchfield and Steve Levy, Recode’s Peter Kafka, The FT’s Gillian Tett, Vox Media’s Swati Sharma, CNET’s Connie Guglielmo, The Verge’s Nilay Patel, former NBC-TV host Ann Curry, Insider’s Nich Carlson, Forbes’s Diane Brady and Steve Bertoni, Thomson Reuters’ Steve Hasker and Simon Robinson, ABC News’s Kimberly Godwin, The Intercept’s Betsy Reed, Inc’s Diana Ransom, The Cut’s Lindsay Peoples, WashPost’s Sally Buzbee, USA Today’s Nicole Carroll, Axios’s Aja Whitaker-Moore, Kia Kokalitcheva and Lucinda Shen, The Root’s Vanessa De Luca, HBR’s Amy Bernstein, Politico’s Matt Kaminski and Ryan Heath, Pro Publica’s Stephen Engelberg, “60 Minutes” EP Bill Owens, McClatchy’s Tony Hunter, Bloomberg’s Angela Moon and Katie Roof, The MarkUp’s Nabiha Syed, Fortune’s Anne Sraders, USA Today’s Rob Pegoraro, Puck’s Jon Kelly, WSJ’s Steven Rosenbush, MIT Technology Review’s Jennifer Strong, and the list goes on and on and on.

As impressed as the number of fourth estate influencers, they pale in comparison to the volume of venerable VC firms looking for potential portfolio companies. But, alas, I won’t go there for fear of turning this post into a TL;DR.

I split my time in the vast Enercare Center between hosting duties, interviewing select attendees for this publication, and catching a few of the sessions. I gravitated to the Centre Stage, but checked out the PandaConf (ad/marketing), and FourthEstate (media/journalism) stages. Compelling conversations could be found on any of the other stages that also included Crypto, ContentMaker, SportsTrade, Startup, Venture, AutoTech & TaskRobot, planet:tech, HealthConf, and Remote, for starters.

I made a point to attend these three sessions on the Fourth Estate stage:

“Prepping the Filter Bubble to Find Truth” with Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff probing Vox Media’s editor-in-chief Swati Sharma and The AP’s executive editor Julie Pace. Notable quotable from Ms. Pace in response to Mr. Isikoff’s observation of how our polarized media are and are not covering the January 6th hearings:

“Our approach has been two-fold: We try to not get obsessed with that question of ‘is it breaking through?’…I want to make sure that we’re creating that historical record. The other piece is that we are trying to come up with multiple ways and in as many forms to get in front of people. Finally, we are focused on the facts and not kind of larding our copy up with some…I mean these are moments when adjectives are not necessarily our friends. We don’t want to be a barrier to people who may not be inclined to know what’s happening in these hearings.”

Notable quotable from Swati Sharma:

“At Vox, we don’t have a payall and we believe our purpose is to serve the people. We’re trying ot make our coverage as approachable as possible, i.e., with language that’s very easy to follow. There is that group of people who just want to understand this without having to subscribe to a newspaper or listen to NPR. This is our audience.”

As for Mr. Isikoff, he quickly delved into the “existential threat” to democracy America is facing. “We have a fire alarm that needs to be covered obsessively, intesively and it has to be our primary focus.” He suggested that many news orgs may be reluctant to fully cover this threat out of fear of “carrying political water for one side.”

Also, this:

Here’s a link to The AP’s blog post on the session.

Sharma, Pace, and Isikoff (l. to r.)

In “Newsroom Innovation: What’s the Future of Storytelling,” Michelle Manafy of Digital Content Next (a former client when it was called the Online Publisher’s Association), served as moderator to USA Today editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll and Axios executive editor Aja Whitaker-Moore.

Carroll, Whitaker-Moore, Manafy (l. to r.)

Notably, Ms. Whitaker-Moore underscored the importance of local news and cited some statistics about Axios’s investment therein — stats of which I was not aware:

To put a cap on my visit to the FourthEstate stage, I enjoyed appreciated Tech Policy Press’s Justin Hendrix moderate Politico’s editor-in-chief Matt Kaminski and The Intercept’s EIC Betsy Reed in a session titled “How to Fix Toxic Discourse and Misinformation.” Notable quotables from Betsy Reed:

“One of the things we’ve learned in the past few years is that while it’s necessary for journalism to serve as a fact-checking function of those in power…it’s not sufficient. Because we have seen the rise of politicians who are simply impervious. They don’t care. They’re lying on purpose. And their followers …including other media institutions…will justify the lies. Simply correcting isn’t enough.”

As much as I admire The Intercept’s founder/funder Pierre Omidyar — we’re both Tufts alums — I’ll always find this investigative news outlet suspect after it handed over its platform to one Glenn Greenwald…but I digress.

Mr. Kaminski had this to say:

“At Politico...we’re only 15 years old, but we do think of ourselves as very old-fashioned in our approach to journalism….what emerged in 2015/2016 was that this world, this conference, tech, was also a major player in our world. The platforms were reshaping our world and reshaping our politics. We had to think about covering them not unlike we cover Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy and other powerful institutions…”

Reed, Kaminski, Hendrix (l. to r.)

I’ll have more to share about the conference in a separate post, including my chat with Vox Media’s head of Innovation and Insights Edwin Wong and the video of the session with the enterprising entrepreneurs who’ve built new revenue models not only for for themselves, but also the members of their communities in the metaverse.

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