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Inside USA Today's innovative storytelling strategy

These Covid-19 projects include a gamified experience called “Flattening the curve: An AR guide to social distancing”.

Raymond Soto, director of emerging tech at USA Today takes The Drum through the publisher’s experiment with augmented reality in 2020 as it sought to boost its audience and engagement growth.

To help its journalists with their stories reach the best audience, USA Today’s emerging technology team, led by Soto, works with them to translate the narrative into an interactive experience that resonates.

Soto explains there are experiences the Gannett-owned publication has developed and created that are part of a larger initiative, for instance its Women of the Century project, where the publisher highlighted three women who were instrumental in the women’s suffrage movement.

Presented in an AR graphic novel format, the initiative added a different dimension to coverage of the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. The three speeches highlighted were each illustrated and narrated by a different set of collaborators.

USA Today also used photogrammetry to bring real objects into AR users’ space by capturing comprehensive 360 videos from all sides of the subject to render suffrage monuments found in New York and Tennessee. Users can walk around and inspect the statues in their own space while consuming information about them.

“There are also experiences we create that are to inform and educate our audiences outside those initiatives but still relevant which include our Covid-19 projects,” Soto says.

“Our successes in AR have provided us the opportunity to better understand how we innovate in a meaningful way that provides value to our audiences. We are excited to continue this journey to take what we have learned from a user experience perspective and apply them to new tech-forward experiments.”

These Covid-19 projects include a gamified experience called “Flattening the curve: An AR guide to social distancing” which includes a series of behavior choices related to social distancing and scoring the responses to teach users safe social distancing practices.

Another project, which USA Today worked on with outside expert sources, the team also produced an experience called “No mask? Here’s how far your germs can travel” which illustrates how breath travels in actual space and how far droplets carrying the coronavirus can travel to help users gain a better understanding of the physics behind how the virus can disperse.

The emerging tech team also worked with the publication’s social media team to an Instagram filter featuring mask designs users could try on virtually and share to help them enjoy masking up and reinforce an important best practice in the fight against the pandemic.

The publisher claims thousands of its Instagram users have tried the filter and shared photos or videos of themselves wearing a mask.

“We have a diverse, tech-savvy, user base that seeks new forms of content storytelling that is more relevant, personalized and accessible. AR is one of our many product offerings to elevate our overall content experience, technology and medium that is quickly evolving,” explains Soto.

“Our mission is to leverage our data science and insights together with our product and technology capabilities to deliver stories that are meaningful to our subscribers wherever they are.”

The usage of AR is not limited to special projects and coverage on the pandemic. The publisher is also looking to apply the tech to tell local stories in specific states. For example, in Ohio, to mark the 50-year anniversary of the Kent State shootings, USA Today used an AR timeline to bring that history to a new generation of users using archival records and local sources.

“What we have learned developing AR interactive stories has uniquely positioned USA Today to deliver experiences that can meet our audience’s expectations,” says Soto.

“It is vital to continue our journey of innovation in which AR serves as a foundation to explore new technologies like 5G, AI, and even the evolution of audio beyond the podcast. The future will be more interactive and spatial, and USA Today is excited to explore the convergence of technology and media.”

The Drum previously spoke to publishers The Wall Street Journal on how it is accelerating its plans around transformation in storytelling and CNN on the future of media.

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