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The New York Times on how its virtual reality product is consumed and produced

Earlier this year, Sam Dolnick, associate editor at the New York Times, gave a fascinating talk at FIPP London about the baby-steps the publisher was taking into the realms of virtual reality. Here, in this exclusive interview for FIPP, Dolnick talks specifically about the logistics behind the NYT’s VR product, and why VR might just be the future of news publishing.

Where is virtual reality now and how important is it going to be? (0:04)

VR is at its earliest stages, we’re at the bay steps here. But, some of the biggest companies in the world – Google, Facebook, Samsung – are betting billions that it’s going to be a really big deal, that it’s here to last, that it’s not just a fad. We’ve been making films since November and we’ve seen a tremendous appetite. The first VR film that you see is, it’s kind of this revelatory experience, it feels brand new, it’s exciting. People want to see more of it. So we think that this really is going to catch on.

And we’ve already seen signs of that. Our App, NYTVR, our Virtual Reality app, has been downloaded more than 600,000 times and we’ve got more than a million views. People are watching these films and are coming back to watch them. So, it’s early by all means, but we think that this is going to last. 

How is VR viewed and how is it produced? (0:55)

So we have a new app. We’ve got of course the New York Times app where you can read the New York Times report. We’ve got a new app called NYTVR, which is a place where you can go and view all of our films. And it’s kind of a gallery of virtual reality films. You can either watch them just with a phone like this, moving it around. But we think that it’s better with a headset. The Google Cardboard headset is the simplest one, you can buy iy on Amazon or Google for $15 - $20. And then you slide the phone right in, and then you’re watching the film. So from the audience’s perspective that’s what you do: you download the app, you put the phone in a cardboard headset, and you’re off to the races.

From the newsrooms perspective we now, it’s a new question for us that I think more and more of the industry’s going to be grappling with, that when news breaks, when a story happens we ask ourselves ok is this a story that’s best told in video, or in virtual reality? And that’s a new kind of question that we’re still figuring out how to answer. But if the answer is virtual reality then we’ve got a VR rig and we’re constantly experimenting with new kinds of cameras and new rigs – we’ve got a few different options. But then we send one of our directors out with a rig, and they shoot a VR film, and we’ve got editors who turn it into what you watch in your headset. 

So you think VR could be used for reporting news? (2:20)

I think it’s really powerful for news. Again, we’re at such an early stage that I think all of us as an industry are still really figuring out what it’s best for, but the news experience I think is going to be an important one. The next time that there are riots in an American city – as you’ve seen a number of times over the past year – to think that we’ll be able to bring our audience to the scene, in virtual reality, in near real time, to allow people to actually be there. Instead of just reading the account the morning afterwards of what happened on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, you’ll be able to actually see it and feel it. And we think that that’s going to be a profound new way of engaging with the news and connecting with what’s happening in the world. 

Finally, what impact will it have on advertising? (3:03)

It’s early to say but we think that this is a real opportunity for advertisers to produce content. Not just ads, but actual films that people want to watch. In video we’ve seen now a generation of pre-roll ads before the film and I think most people view it as largely annoying. In VR what we’re seen is brands, successful brands, have built VR experiences on their own that tell their own experiences and are extraordinary pieces of content in their own right. So that you’ve got people watching a GE-branded VR film and then saying to their friend, hey you’ve got to watch this. That rarely happens in commercials, but VR is a medium where it does and we think that’s going to be really attractive to advertisers.

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