On November 5, 2015, the future of journalism arrived on the doorsteps of a million New York Times subscribers. Slipped inside their Sunday papers, they discovered a Google Cardboard VR viewer with instructions to download an app: NYT VR. With it, they could access “Displaced,” a powerful 11-minute virtual-reality film that showed the human toll of the refugee crisis through the eyes of three children affected by it. For many, it was an introduction to virtual reality, and the massive buzz that it generated would lead Wired to call that day “VR’s big mainstream moment.”
Since November, the NYT VR app has been downloaded 500,000 times, its films have been streamed 1.5 million times, and the path to the future of virtual reality — and VR storytelling — has taken a huge leap forward. So, how did a 164-year-old newspaper help spark the VR revolution? We spoke with New York Times associate editor Sam Dolnick about the publication’s adoption of VR, how “Displaced” came together, and what the future of VR journalism will look like.
How Virtual Reality Came to the Times
“Virtual Reality is one of those things where you remember your first experience,” says Dolnick. “It’s a revelatory thing.” The editor came across that first experience while researching possible next steps for the Times‘ evolution. That search eventually led him to an app from virtual-reality storytelling company Vrse. He was thunderstruck. “It was pretty clear right away that this was profoundly cool and could be a really powerful way to tell stories,” says Dolnick. After meeting with Vrse (whom NYT VR would collaborate with on “Displaced”), he excitedly brought headsets back to the paper to find a cheerleader. It didn’t take long. “I showed Jake Silverstein, the New York Times Magazine editor, the film, and 30 seconds later he said, ‘This is it. I’m in. Let’s go.'”
The Paper Picks Its First VR Story
The big decision to dive into virtual reality was made, but another big decision remained. “We knew we wanted to do something, but we didn’t know how we would do it,” says Dolnick. “We didn’t know what story we would tell.” But they did know what they wanted to accomplish: produce something that wasn’t a gimmick, and would be taken as seriously as anything else you’d find reported in the New York Times. That, eventually, led to the answer of what story to tell. “We did what the Times does. We went after the biggest story in the world and told it in the most ambitious way possible.” That story was “Displaced,” a look at the human faces of the refugee crisis, with the ambition to tell it in a way it had never been told — or more appropriately, shown — before.
In an age of 24-hour news cycles, there’s a risk of audiences growing immune to world events. “In this modern age, it’s like a firehose of information. You can become inured to even the biggest crises,” says Dolnick. Documenting the refugee crisis with virtual reality promised the chance to change that. “What’s so powerful about this media is that it can wake you up in a way,” the editor says. “It’s seeing a little Syrian girl in virtual reality, feeling like you’re making eye contact with her, and it makes you realize ‘Oh my God, this refugee crisis is about children and humans and families.’ Of course you know that already, but there’s something about this form that makes you realize it in a fresh and visceral way in your bones.” Achieving that in their storytelling was one thing. It was another to make sure people could actually see “Displaced.”
Virtual Reality Gets Its ‘Mainstream Moment’
For the New York Times, “Displaced” represented not just the opportunity to introduce readers to VR journalism, but also to VR, period. “One of the central problems of virtual reality is that you need all of this equipment for it to work, and nobody has it,” says Dolnick. That’s why the Timesdecided to give Google Cardboard VR viewers to one million of its subscribers. Dolnick admits he wasn’t sure if it would be a success, largely because of all the steps required — putting together the viewer, downloading the app, and figuring it all out. “We were very worried that people wouldn’t bother, or wouldn’t be interested,” he reveals. Those worries were unmerited, however. The launch was a huge success — not just for the paper, but for virtual reality in general. “I think it broke through and people understood, ‘Oh, these are films. Oh, you watch it with a headset. Oh, the headset doesn’t have to be $1,000,” says Dolnick. “I do think that it spread the word about virtual reality far beyond just our subscriber base.”
Where Does VR Journalism Go From Here?
“I think that VR has already shown, just in these first few months, that it’s a valuable way to tell stories for the Times. So I think, and I expect, and I hope, that it will continue to be a piece of our storytelling arsenal,” says Dolnick, But while NYT VR is undoubtedly pioneering the future of VR storytelling, and has produced several more films — about everything from the Mexican/US Border to Donald Trump rallies — the editor is quick to admit that they’re still very much learning on the job. “We’re figuring it out in real time. It’s a new editorial question that we’re grappling with: What makes for a good virtual-reality story? We’ve got a bunch of theories, but we feel like this is so early, everything’s an experiment.”
But the process of learning from their own and others’ work is all part of the thrill. “It’s an incredibly exciting thing to get to be there for the birth of a new medium. There are no rules; there are no best practices; there are no experts. Everybody is making this up as they go along.”