Lessons from NYT VR Program Manager Jessica Northrop

Hayim Pinson
Sep 6, 2016 · 6 min read
The NYT Cardboard (image property of The Verge)

I saw Jessica present at the New York Virtual Reality Meetup a few months ago. She told us how deeply invested The New York Times is in Virtual Reality, using 360° video to report on stories ranging from the Iraqi struggle to retake Fallujah from ISIS in The Fight For Fallujah, to Pluto in Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart.

Last November Google Launched NYT VR with the distribution of one million Google Cardboards to it’s print readers alongside the NYT VR App, because of the immense traction it got, they sent out another 300,000 Cardboards to select digital subscribers. Totaling 900,000 downloads of the app (an incredible adoption rate for those less familiar).

Jessica tells us how the Times decided to join the VR revolution, the process that takes place before a VR story is published and why advertisers are getting excited for Virtual Reality.

Jessica Northrop

Beyond the Headset: Why did the New York Times decide to start producing Virtual Reality content?

Jessica Northrop (JN): It was actually Sam Dolnick, associate editor of the Times who happened to see a VR piece that really spoke to him. He connected us with Jake Silverstein editor of the NYT magazine and that’s sort of how the idea was born.

Of course, then advertising went and sold it. So within three months we had to create content, we created an App but on the whole, the Times really got behind it because we are really in a movement right now of exploring new ways of journalism, and really want to take readers to places that they can never go.

In addition to bringing content to readers to our magazine and online initiatives, this is a perfect way to do that. It was to be in the forefront of the new industry and using kind of our tech, combining our technical and our journalism expertise in a really fun and new way. So it was kind of a no brainer that the Times should get involved.

How were you on-boarded to the project?

JN: Originally, my boss was actually running the VR initiative and he indicated that it was something that he wanted me to take over so I started doing it part time at the end of last year shortly after our initial launch. Then I went to SXSW (South by Southwest) for the Times where we had a big VR presence. We had panels, we were demoing our content, we had lots of parties and in my experience in SXSW, VR was just everywhere. Not just for the Times, there were so many different companies like Google and Samsung. I came back from that trip saying, ‘that’s it, I’m obsessed with VR. I need to be doing this full time.” And I wanted to get more involved in the program. Thankfully, the team was receptive to that and so I’ve being on full time since then.

What has been your most successful story up to this point and why do you think so?

JN: There’s a combination of factors. Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart has been one of the best films made. And it’s for a couple of reasons. One is a topic that kinds of transcends demographics. Space is cool to a lot of people and that’s a frontier that few people in the world have access to so it’s broadly compelling. We also launched that film in advance at Tribeca Film Festival.

But what’s interesting and very pleasing about these stories is they have longevity. They don’t just attract users when they are first launched within the App in the first few weeks and then die out. We see them continuously gaining views and getting popularity on social for a long period of time. So if we actually look back to some of the contents that we originally launched back in November, they’re in our top 5 viewed films of all time just because they’ve been in there for so long. So it’s certainly a combination of promotion, social buzz and the subject matter itself.

You can watch Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart Here

What has the reception been from the advertisers and the people that sponsor the content?

JN: Amazingly positive. The content that has come from our advertisers directly. Some we work with in the studios and they will help create random content for our sponsor or the advertiser will create it themselves and send it over to us. And we’ve being incredibly impressed with the quality of what they say and the subject matter of it. Our advertisers are really true partners in this initiative and whether they make the content themselves or we make it with them, the quality is there which is great to see. It’s not like there’s a big disparity between the quality of the editorial content and the brand content. They go hand in hand very nicely. So we’ve being impressed with the advertiser’s response and what they can produce for us.

How people received their morning papers

What do advertisers recognize in the experience that traditional advertisements can’t communicate?

JN: Any advertiser who cares about newness and freshness and being at the forefront of something special and exciting.

That’s the value of the art and they want to be there. And especially since the Times is leading the charge as one of the pioneers on the journalistic side of the VR fence, they are very happy to align their advertising with that type of momentum.

So is it just because it’s new and flashy or is there something, is there more depth to that?

JN: I would say I knew that there’s definitely more depth to it because the content that we create is certainly not [shallow]. It’s in a lot of ways evergreen. Some of it is timely but the messages are strong, the production value is very high. It’s journalistic integrity along with it so I think that’s what makes it sustainable.

What have been your biggest challenges in launching it?

JN: Of course, in my opinion resources and building up a large enough team to tackle all the initiatives that we want to tackle. Finding the people who can produce the VR content, finding people who can build apps for the VR content and just really getting our team in place to be able to implement all of the ambition that the Times has for VR right now.

Who are the content creators?

JN: So from the newsroom, from the magazine and from Op Docs, the individuals who actually produce the films are certainly working with very new technologies and cameras that are coming out. Because we are the Times, we are pretty involved with a lot of people that make the equipment and want us to use it. And whether they just loan it to us to test, we’re lucky that we can get our hands on some of the nicest stuff because people want the Times to be using their equipment.

Are the journalists building the stories in 360, are they well versed in VR? Or are they being handed cameras and learning on their own?

JN: I think there’s a bit of both. I think that the people that make most of our films are VR experts and they’ve being doing it for a while. But as we are trying to expand what the Times is able to do, we’re involving more photojournalists in our network and having them try things and experience the cameras, and see what we can do because we certainly want to spread the knowledge throughout the company.

Want to learn more about advertising and VR? read our interview with Ariel Shimoni.

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Beyond the Headset

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Hayim Pinson

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Spreading the VR gospel by talking to those who know it best

Beyond the Headset

A place to learn from those deep in the VR/AR metaverse

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