| posted by

‘We didn’t want it to be dismissed as a stunt’ – The New York Times's associate editor Sam Dolnick talks the publisher’s first push into virtual reality

Over the past year, both brands and publishers have begun to tinker with virtual reality (VR) in an effort to be seen as first-movers in their respective industries. Brands including Gatorade and Mountain Dew have released gimmicky marketing stunts using the new technology, while publishers like Discovery have leveraged VR to show off “immersive” content.

Late last year, the New York Times made its first big push into VR with a documentary film called ‘The Displaced’ that told the story of the refugee crisis through the eyes of three children in Syria, Ukraine and Sudan. To make sure its readers actually watched the film, the Times sent more than one million Google Cardboard VR headsets to subscribers.

Speaking at an iCrossing panel called ‘Augmented & Virtual Reality: The Next Great Storytelling Tool,’ associate editor of the New York Times Sam Dolnick talked about what the publisher learned from its first foray into the space and what can be expected in the year ahead.  

When the Times first decided it wanted to create a VR film, Dolnick said it was important to figure out how to best use the new storytelling medium in a way that would provide something of value for readers.

“We didn’t want it to be dismissed as a stunt,” he said. “We wanted people to take it seriously. We were certainly taking it seriously, so we wanted to tell an important story.”

He said some of their early thinking involved creating a VR film that would explain the roots of the refugee crisis, but explained that they instead decided to focus on the emotional aspect of it since the medium can be a powerful storytelling tool.

”We found that this medium was really powerful for placing people there and putting them in the refugee camps, but it wasn’t good for context or explaining what’s causing this refugee crisis,” he said, adding that the Times paired the film with a story in its magazine that got into the history, roots, and politics of the crisis. 

Since releasing ‘The Displaced,’ the Times has come out with a number of other virtual reality films, including one that documented the candlelight vigils that took place following the Paris attacks in November. Another, called ‘Take Flight,’ debuted with the Times’s Hollywood issue of its magazine and featured celebrities floating around in space.

Dolnick said sending the Google Cardboards to subscribers when ‘The Displaced’ came out was worth the extra effort. He told the attendees that the next several films that came out after ‘The Displaced’ were “still 70 percent Cardboard viewed.”

For the year ahead, Dolnick said he thinks the Times is still in its introductory phase for VR and likely will be for at least another year.

“I think this year we’re going to see lots and lots of public experiments. The more it becomes normalized, the more people will be trying it,” he said.

Even with all the hype around VR, he said it’s still the early days for VR and that what we’re seeing now will soon look like a relic of the past.

“That first project we did is going to seem really, really dated very soon. The goofy Cardboards will be an icon of this funny moment, the same way that giant cell phones are signifiers of a decade ago.”

Featured by The Drum