Digital Publishing: Why the New York Times Continues to Invest in Virtual Reality

By: Rob Tornoe
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I apologize ahead of time for taking you down yet another road promising to lead to the future of journalism. The only difference with this road is it’s virtual.

As far back as 2014, I recall reading that the world of virtual reality storytelling was the next frontier for media companies to tackle. Back then, the Oculus Rift was just a prototype, and news organizations like the Des Moines Register were releasing their first forays into virtual reality storytelling.

Just two years later, virtual reality is a booming market, and is on track to blossom into a $150 billion industry within the next five years, according to estimates by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Five years ago, VR wasn’t anything—it was just two letters that didn’t mean anything,” Alex Chechelnitsky, the head of production at Koncept VR, said at an event in New York at the end of September. “Now it’s two letters that everybody wants. It’s the hottest product on the market.”

No media company has invested more in virtual reality storytelling than the New York Times, which entered the game back in November of 2015 by inserting a million Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets into the newspapers of its subscribers. As a result, more than 600,000 subscribers downloaded the company’s corresponding NYT VR app, where they were treated with a richly immersive story of three children driven from their homes by war and persecution.

The project, titled “Displaced,” is the type of story that editors often have a difficult time getting their audiences to relate to. By placing readers directly in the center of the real lives and experiences of three child refugees, the Times was able to reach readers on an emotional level and open up new way to point out the terrible effects of war.

“This new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own,” Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, wrote at the time.

Since then, the Times has only expanded and broadened their virtual reality projects, even as the paper has continued to see cuts in other areas of the newsroom. Over the summer, the Times made a splash with “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart,” a virtual reality project with the Lunar and Planetary Institute and the Universities Space Research Association that allowed readers to stand on icy mountains on the ex-planets surface and tough down in a billion-year-old frost-rimmed crater.

The Times also made a great case for the journalistic potential of virtual reality storytelling with Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Ben Solomon’s “The Fight for Falluja,” which placed readers on the frontline alongside Iraqi forces as they fought to retake the city from the control of ISIS.

“Falluja is one of those iconic names, but the film was the first time readers could really experience it as a place,” said Sam Dolnick, an associate editor at the Times who oversees the company’s virtual reality projects. “It’s boring, terrifying and confusing all at once, and brings home what war is like in a way I don’t think other footage could have.

The company’s ambition into virtual reality storytelling has only grown since then. At the beginning of November, the company launched The Daily 360, a project where Times journalists from around the world create a new virtual reality video every day.

Yes, you read the right. Every day.

“It started off as a dare,” said Dolnick. “We got excited about the storytelling opportunities offered by immersive video, and wondered, ‘How it can make you experience stories in a different way?’”

Dolnick wanted his virtual reality storytelling to become part of the daily habit of Times readers. But despite the Times hiring Jenna Pirog as the industry’s first virtual reality editor, Dolnick doesn’t have a huge staff at his disposal. So he partners up with different desks around the newsroom to accomplish different projects and leans heavy on the Times’ deep bench of international reporting.

“We’ve got journalists out in interesting places everyday with notepads and cameras,” Dolnick said. “So we said, ‘What if we outfitted them with a 360 camera?’”

Thanks to a partnership with Samsung, who provided a “boatload” of cameras to the newsroom, the result has been a wide array 360-degree videos as varied as the newspaper’s everyday reporting. In its first month alone, the site has featured videos following pirates along the Amazon River, captured the feel of Election Day inside the Times newsroom and even allowed readers to experience goat yoga in Oregon.

Some of the videos offer a blueprint for other newsrooms looking to wade into the uncertain waters of virtual reality storytelling. While the Times does devote lots of resources to ambitious 360-degree films, they’ve also been smart about balancing those ambitions with smaller, more personal projects that don’t require a huge amount of resources to complete.

For instance, Donlick worked with the Times  health desk to create a number of simple films he’s dubbed “meditative VR,” which basically take the relaxing mood of guided meditation and place them in inspiring locations readers can experience in 360 degrees.

“Basically, we went to some scenic places in California, like the coastline at sunset and the redwood forests, and filmed them in virtual reality 360,” Donlick said. “Then we had a meditation guide watch the films with one of those soothing voices and design a course.”

In the newsroom, the videos have been an editorial success, but they’ve also been a commercial success, opening up a new and growing revenue stream for the paper. Already the company has two sponsors, Chevron and Samsung, and the NYT VR app has quickly become one of the biggest distributors of virtual reality films outside of Facebook and Google, making it valuable real estate for brands looking for an audience.

T Brand Studio, the brand marketing unit at the Times, is also helping companies develop native advertising strategies utilizing the company’s developing expertise with 360-degree video. In November, they rolled out a new video for Chevron featuring a tour of Jack/St. Malo in the Gulf of Mexico, the company’s largest deepwater offshore platform.

“The field just moves so quickly,” Dolnick said. “Last year, there weren’t many people making these. Now there’s an industry around it. So we’re still experimenting, just like everyone else.”

 

Rob Tornoe

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

Published: January 18, 2017

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