Immersive experience-based devices like the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard headsets are getting a lot of buzz. Should newspapers embrace these technologies as a way to explore deeper storytelling and (hopefully) attract more readers, or are they just a passing fad?
Marie Solis, 21, senior, Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)
Solis is an English major with a correlate in Hispanic studies. She is the outgoing editor-in-chief of Vassar’s weekly paper, The Miscellany News. She has previously written for The Poughkeepsie Journal, Chronogram and The New York Observer.
In an age where reporters are constantly being told print journalism is dying, it’s tempting to pursue every new technology as a platform for storytelling. As products like Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard enter the market, virtual reality (VR) holds the promise of engaging readers with news in a way that demands their attention.
While words have the potential to create intense emotional responses, few articles will incite such visceral reactions. VR directly implicates the viewer, instantaneously mobilizing empathy and a sense of responsibility. Ideally, immersive journalism would mean a world of news consumers who do more than just consume—these virtual experiences would incite viewers to become active participants in politics, activism and human rights. As such, this medium could serve as an effective supplement to hard-hitting stories.
However, the possibility VR has to create a world that feels hyper-real may have the opposite effect. Though it allows you to physically inhabit a space and watch news unfold first-hand, there is a barrier created by the animation required to create these virtual spheres. The video-game feel of immersive journalism may instead serve to trivialize news.
Further, VR leaves little room for a writer to exercise the storytelling techniques fundamental to journalism. And, logistically speaking, creating just one of these VR experiences requires many people spending many months on a single project. The availability of this medium is equally concerning: The high price point of these VR products means only a certain class of people will have access to them.
Though the marriage of VR and journalism may have its appeal, it doesn’t seem viable on a massive level. While I hesitate to call it a passing fad, I struggle to see how it might impact journalism in a meaningful way.
John D. Montgomery, 48, editor and publisher, The Hutchinson (Kan.) News
Montgomery has been editor and publisher of The Hutchinson News for eight years. He also is vice president of parent company Harris Enterprises. He is a journalism and MBA graduate from the University of Kansas.
New technologies come along, and not all of them serve a lasting purpose in journalism nor become widely used by our audiences. We embraced QR codes, for example, to enrich the reader’s experience by connecting video or more content to a print story via a mobile device. But that turned out to be more of a fad.
On a basic level right now, we can create virtual reality videos for our websites. For example, we might take our audience along for the ride on a new roller coaster at the local theme park. On a more serious and advanced level, we might show the reader in virtual reality the possible devastating consequences of driving while drunk or while texting.
More sophisticated digital simulation, however—such as the Des Moines Register’s “Harvest of Change,” which leveraged the resources of Gannett Digital—is out of reach of most independent newspapers at this time. Newspapers should embrace any technologies that gain traction with consumers. But from a resource standpoint, creating virtual reality for the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard doesn’t seem practical for most of us, at least just yet.
Besides affordability for newsrooms, another question is, will reporters take to it? What’s most important is having a desire and talent for creative reporting and great storytelling, using all the tools at our disposal. Before the digital revolution, we depended on words, writing style and “art,” which was limited to still photography. Reporters now have more ways to tell a story. They are challenged to think about when to use them. And as much as anything, the effect of virtual reality on journalism might be to challenge traditional print journalists, raising the bar for great writers to use words to make the reader feel as if they are there in the story.