New York Times Reality Through VR-Tinted Glasses

When the New York Times came out with virtuality content, some may have been skeptical. It can be unexpected for a giant in print journalism to come out with content on such a new platform, and lovers of investigative print journalism may have some fears. Mark Thompson, President and CEO of The New York Times came to SXSW to ease those fears. With NYT VR, the publication has dipped it’s toe into telling important stories in an immersive way. Thompson is incredibly excited for the possibilities for journalistic coverage and VR, especially where it can be incorporated as a multimedia element of a story.

“I think Snowfall pointed the way,” Thompson said. “There are some things that are best told in prose. We can use whatever the right medium is to tell the story and we can use it in combination.”

With NYT VR, The New York Times is experimenting in an attempt to prove that you can create something immersive about a really significant story. On day one of the launch the content received a outpouring of positive feedback. Thompson believes that the immediate positive response is further proof that VR is the future.

“We have to experiment,” said Thompson. “We want to have a partnership with our users which is about experimentation and trying new stuff. We want to be braver than our rivals.”

However, VR in the newsroom involves corporate partnerships that some fear will create inappropriate relationships between the media and companies.

There is that deep tradition in American newspapers of a strict separation between newsroom journalism and advertising sales. Every new medium presents new questions and some of those are ethical questions. The critical thing is full disclosure about what you’re doing.

Furthermore, a good, successful digital product has to be multidisciplinary. “It’s a fundamental cultural change and that’s now becoming the norm,” Thompson said. “We still know that you can’t have the same person reporting on Verizon and getting funding from Verizon, but there are other spaces where we work together.”

The New York Times plans to spend more on VR in 2016 than in 2015. Thompson hopes to continue to innovate with great storytelling and reporting on VR.

“There is plenty of more experimentation to do,” Thompson said. “We’ve been telling journalistic stories since the 1850’s. We want to be out there on the frontier.”

What will it take for VR to get big? It’s already well on it’s way.

“I think there’s going to be a consumer capture moment,” Thompson said. “The public will get intrigued, like with GoPro, about what you can do with this technology. They will start capturing their own experiences.”

Before long VR is going to be a part of daily life, but price points and content will be a factor.

“My suspicion is that there’s plenty of things we’re going to be able to do in journalism and it’s very exciting,” Thompson said. “Virtual reality puts you in the middle of the story. It has potential in hard news, international news — cameras will get lighter and there will be ever more possibilities.”

Thompson also predicts that VR will blow up in entertainment and sports. Thompson is looking to the 2016 Rio Olympics for innovative ideas in sports media coverage.

“The Olympics has traditionally been a moment for wheeling out exciting new ways of dealing with media,” Thompson said.

The New York Times worked in collaboration with Google and GE to create NYT VR.  Thompson saw a shift to immersive, experiential stories and content and wanted to move with that.

“If you want people to come back, if you want them to spend significant time with you, you need to integrate multimedia,” Thompson said. “Figure out better ways to utilize what you have in combination.”

Part of the charm of VR is that it’s a mashup of analog and digital. The Google cardboard virtual reality viewer is cheap and accessible, and the New York Times can bring VR content to all with that technology.

There is still a fear of a shifting newsroom and the future of the role of the reporter.

There’s already been a massive population shift. The makeup of the newsroom is very different than it was in the year 2000. We need great journalists and we need to start figuring out how to move away from having a combination of journalists of depth that can only do prose and media people that can’t do depth. We need journalists that can bring it all together.