Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Future Is Virtual: Why the New York Times Continues to Invest in Virtual Reality

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Future Is Virtual: Why the New York Times Continues to Invest in Virtual Reality

Article excerpt

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. …

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