The New York Times began its virtual reality journey after a staffer experienced VR for the first time. “You remember your first VR video,” said Sam Dolnick, Associate Editor for the New York Times, in an off-site SXSW session today on VR.
After Dolnick watched that video, he went to Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The rest is history. Since then, they’ve gone all-in on VR, producing content, developing an app, and even distributing Google Cardboard devices to subscribers.
Sending out those Cardboard viewers was important. In the early days, “it felt like we were making TV when no one had a TV. The magazine mailed you the TV,” said Graham Roberts, Senior Graphics Editor at the New York Times.
Their content can also be accessed via mobile device but more than half of their views are coming from Cardboard, leading this panel to believe that most people who received them in mail kept them. They’ve also kept accessing the content, with the highest viewership days (so far) being on Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time when people were likely sharing content with family members.
The Cardboard devices themselves are also branded with the GE logo, an early sponsor of their VR work. Interestingly, the New York Times VR app features brand content alongside its own in the experience. That sort of distribution model is how the publisher sees things moving not just within the VR space but also beyond.
Another notable development from the New York Times is that they’ve created a position specifically devoted to VR. Their VR Editor, Jenna Pirog, was also a participant on the panel. She’s overseeing their work in the space and fielding VR story pitches from every desk at the Times. With VR being so early in its development, a big part of her job is also in testing different approaches. The Times recently incorporated positional audio in their app, meaning a viewer may hear something in one ear that will prompt a look in that direction. It’s a way to help direct the viewer to a particular part of the storytelling experience. While it’s a new technique in VR storytelling now, within the next year or so, it will likely become incredibly common, Pirog said.
That sort of experimentation is part of the fun and part of the challenge of being active in the space now, something I can relate to at the PGA TOUR in the initial VR work we’re doing.
Of course, the work I’m doing centers more on entertainment. The work the New York Times is doing is serious journalism that can have a big impact on the world. After the Paris attacks last year, they produced a VR piece showcasing what it was like the day after. VR allows producers to create a sense of being there, which, in some circumstances can come through stronger than words, stronger than pictures or traditional video. “It’s more akin to being like a journalist in the field,” Silverstein said. “A reporter always has to leave something out. The promise of VR is nothing gets left out.”
With all of this potential in VR, it’s also “important to remember that VR can’t do everything,” Dolnick said. You still need the background and the context on stories that the written word or traditional video can deliver upon. “VR is one more tool in the arsenal. It won’t replace journalism or filmmaking.”