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The New York Times' VR experimentation is making money

In a fascinating talk that led to an explosion of audience questions, Sam Dolnick talked through The New York Times’ recent exploration of virtual reality (VR) - and their strategy for future engagement today at FIPP London.

It all began when Sam Dolnick was mobile editor at The Times. It was a pretty broad job title, he said, allowing him to think a lot about how mobile has changed not only how news is delivered, but actually changed journalism itself. He wondered about the new forms of journalism needed to cater to this way of consuming. “We experimented with push alerts and geo-targeting, but what I really wanted was to find a way of creating the ‘Snowfall’ of journalism,” said Dolnick.

The solution came in the form of Google Cardboard. “I’d watched my first VR film, and felt that I’d witnessed something really profound and new,” Dolnick said. He took the idea of VR to The New York Times, and despite the fact that a lot of people thought it sounded like a distraction and a gimmick, he managed to keep the VR project alive. 

“We wanted to provide that first mainstream experience of VR,” he added, “so we asked Google to partner with us.” Google immediately said yes when The Times asked them to distribute one million headsets to our Sunday subscribers, alongside a film project.

The film in question, it was decided, would focus on one of the most important global topics of the day: the refugee crisis. They dispatched an esteemed filmmaker to create a film about living in a refugee camp from a child’s perspective, shot in three different locations. 

The next step at The Times, Dolnick went on, was to create their own app - NYTVR. They had their reservations about this, but the app was built it in just two months, and it now hosts branded films as content. “This is our monetisation plan with the NYTVR app in the longer run,” said Dolnick.

When Google Cardboard landed on subscribers’ doorsteps on Sunday, 8 November 2015, the team behind it were nervous about what would happen. They anxiously checked their phones, looking out for responses on social media. “And the results were extraordinary - there was this flood of positive responses, people were very excited,” Dolnick said. “Not only this, but we had people telling us that their kids had never been interested in news before, but now they couldn’t get enough.” As Google pointed out, overnight, The New York Times went from being a non-VR company to one of the world’s major VR players.

Since then, they’ve released about a dozen films, and each one is a storytelling experiment. “We’re now commissioning films that have no story whatsoever - they just take you somewhere.” Whether that’s African game parks, Canadian waterfalls, or a field with bison, this is known as “meditative VR” and it’s all about the experience.

Dolnick pointed out that they see VR as just one part of a move towards more visual content in general. They recently partnered with NASA to bring VR footage of Pluto, and it’s clear that this is something best experienced through VR. 

In spite of being an ongoing experiment, this was the most successful product launch in The New York Times’ history. With 600,000 downloads of the NYTVR app, 1.3 million video views and growing, people are spending more time with VR and coming back for repeat visits.  In other words: it’s far more than a gimmick. “We want each film to have a revelatory feel, so we work with the assumption that it’s going to be people’s first experience of VR,” Dolnick concluded.

Audience questions 

[How’s it funded?]

SD: We have sponsors and advertisers, eg. Hilton. NYTVR works as a distribution channel; for example we had a hip hop group make a rap music video in VR, which they asked us to distribute. That was a first for The New York Times - it’s all a big experiment.

[Is there a schedule for releasing videos?]

SD: Not yet. For now we’ve been using mobile push alerts, newsletters, social media, etc. to get our message out when we release something new - we’ve found that push alerts are the most powerful.

The tech changes every week - cameras are improving, costs are going down dramatically, so it’s difficult to predict where it’s going. We’re distributing another 300,000 Google Cardboards to our digital subscribers soon. I think this year and next, these headsets will become mainstream - eg. you now get a headset from Samsung for free when you buy a new phone. We want to be right at the front of providing the content for these headsets - we’re really hoping that VR becomes part of the newsroom rather than a side project.

[Any thoughts on product placement in your videos?]

SD: We treat this as journalism - it’s editorial muscle we’re building. So we hold it to the same standards as all our other New York Times journalism; product placement wouldn’t work for us.

[How is it monetised?]

SD: Right now we’re only treating ads as content - we don’t want 30 seconds of rolling ads before a VR experience. Some of our most-watched films are from advertisers, actually, e.g. GE’s is number three. This is a little disheartening for our news team! But it shows people are hungry for VR content.

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