Can Virtual Reality Save Journalism?

May 2, 2016, 8:47 PM UTC
Inside Tokyo Game Show 2015
An attendee holds a Google Inc. Cardboard virtual reality headset at the Tokyo Game Show 2015 at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, Japan, on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. There will be record attendance at this year's show with 473 vendors, including more than half from abroad, as of Sept. 1, according to organizers. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi — Bloomberg via Getty Images

We’re in the midst of another “journalism is screwed” news cycle, spurred by layoffs and missed revenue targets at a number of promising digital media outfits. This weekend, articles about grueling traffic demands and high turnover at Business Insider only fueled the hand-wringing. The message: The media industry’s existing business models aren’t working, and the emerging ones have a long way to go.

That gloom and uncertainty creates an uncomfortable backdrop for the Digital Content NewFronts, a series of perky ad sales presentations happening in New York City this week. Nineteen digital media companies, from Vice Media and the New York Times to YouTube (GOOG) and CNN, will pitch their video content to big audiences of advertising execs. The message: We have digital all figured out, now give us your money.

According to the Times (”NYT”), which kicked off the NewFronts Monday morning, the future of journalism is virtual reality. The company, which will reportedly cut 70 jobs from its international arm this year, announced six new digital video series and touted its successful foray into 360-degree videos. The presentation’s titillating sizzle reel of clips would have felt at home at a NewFront for Vice Media (minus the gratuitous drug use) or CNN (minus the gratuitous chryons). It was also, to borrow a critique from outgoing Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, a touch self-satisfied, highlighting, nearly exclusively, articles and projects with “Prize Bait” stamped on them. (To be fair, an ad sales event is precisely the place to flaunt those prizes.)



The Times’ video content is impressive. But impressive doesn’t always stand out in an endless social media stream of autoplay cooking how-tos, skateboarding dogs, and live stunts. The way the Times stands out, according to its executives, is with virtual reality.

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In October, the Times delivered a million Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets to its subscribers. More than 600,000 of them downloaded the corresponding app, making it the company’s most successful app launch and “the leading mobile app for high quality VR content,” according to New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein. (The latest version has a two and a half star App Store rating.) This year, the company’s virtual reality videos will include coverage of the Olympic games in Rio, space exploration, a profile of a town in Iraq, and a series of meditative “single cut” calming nature scenes. The company’s VR team “operates like a startup inside the New York Times,” Silverstein said.

It’s hard not to be blown away by a demo that takes viewers into the surface of Pluto. But beyond prizes for the Times, how will these labor-intensive videos translate into salaries for the people creating them and the Times journalists reporting the news every day? For that, the Times is preparing to launch Story[X], an R&D lab that where journalists, technologists, creators, and yes, brands, will meld minds, resulting, in theory at least, in fruitful sponsorships. The Times has created six branded virtual reality films to date and plans to “meaningfully” increase that number this year. Some of the branded films were more popular than the editorial ones produced by the magazine, a presenter noted.

No NewFront is complete without a diss to boring, ineffective banner ads and empty phrases like “just getting started,” and the Times‘ event was no exception. In reality, print media has been “just getting started” with the transition to digital for about 20 years now. But in virtual reality, the Times has a big head start.

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