Embracing immersive technologies is key to the future of news
Implementing new technologies into newsrooms is a notoriously difficult feat, as publications often shy away from taking risks with technologies that might not stick around for long. We asked a few questions to VR expert Robert Hernandez about the state of affairs for Virtual Reality and other new technologies trying to break into newsrooms.
About VR and new video formats for storytelling, how have these new technologies been faring lately? Are they making their way into newsrooms?
I would expand it to immersive journalism instead of strictly VR, it is a more encompassing term. Because there is 360 video, which technically isn’t VR, there is VR journalism which is true VR: at room-scale, interactive, you leave this reality. And there are 2 other things on people’s radars: MR, mixed reality, which is often confused with AR, augmented reality. But for a more encompassing term, we’ll use immersive journalism for immersive realities.
It is a fast moving technology, that is evolving at an incredible rate. A few of weeks ago, I was at the NAB show (National association of broadcasters) in Las Vegas, where 2 new immersive cameras were released: Facebook announced their prototype cameras called the x6 and x24. There is a lot of movement in this space and it’s evolving quickly. Lots of newsrooms have started to expand, explore and hire content creators in this space, although most of them are in 360 video, there are some that have put together Augmented Reality teams. It is clear that immersive technologies are more than a fad. A lot is happening there.
There is an element of concern though: would these projects and technology go mainstream right off the bat, how long will it take to get there? Or, what if it fizzles out? My argument is that it does not appear to be a fad, but it is not mainstream yet. When will it be mainstream? I don’t know. Sooner than we would think. But also, we need to embrace and be proactive with these disruptions, rather than be reactive as we have with the internet, with blogging, with social and with mobile. Our industry has greeted technologies with folded arms, and it has really hurt us. Instead of innovating and expanding, we’re late to the game. With this technology, many of us are pushing it forward and working this into our storytelling. It really enhances and improves journalism in a variety of different experiences.
Is there divide between legacy media and new media in embracing these technologies? Is it just a question of fitting them into a budget?
We are talking about an industry that still has doubts about mobile. The closest thing to being mobile first, is saying we are mobile-first, but not act like it.
The biggest challenge here is culture. And that goes to the top. There are editors that do understand innovation and experimentation, you see that at the Washington Post, they have experimented a lot. This goes further, with the owner understanding innovation and experimentation. This is an exception to the rule. Because there are other news organisations that have their head in the sand, and nothing can be done for them, except to wait for those leaders to retire or be replaced by someone who understands modern-day digital reality.
This being said, we are having limited budgets and limited resources, and newsrooms have to be cautious and thoughtful on what they expend these on. There are extremely affordable ways for news organisations or an individual to try and produce immersive pieces. Starting small is a good way to go. And if there is traction, then they can invest in more advanced cameras, and easily produce higher quality pieces.
But to go back to my first point, the biggest challenge is cultural. There is always fear and distrust of a new technology, we have seen that with every platform ever. I don’t know if it is in our DNA as journalists to push back on it, as opposed to embrace it, and really try and be proactive about it.
I do hope that immersive technologies are the one for which we do the opposite than we usually do.
To put it in context, this technology is very much rooted in journalism and not in fiction storytelling. Nonny de la Peña, known now as the godmother of VR, was an innovation fellow at USC Annenberg; she worked with a student, Palmer Luckey, who went on to create the Oculus Rift. Palmer Luckey, by the way, was a journalism student prior to joining USC. There is this culture of non-fiction storytelling around the “immersiveness” of this technology. So it would be a shame for us not to be proactive in this space.
How are your students at USC Annenberg reacting to immersive technology, is it an obvious part of storytelling for them? What can we expect of this next wave of journalists?
There are 2 things for the class: one is this particular piece of technology for journalism and storytelling and it’s obvious across the diversity of students taking my class, whether they are journalism, PR, game or cinema, they all see the opportunity. And are proactive in trying to shake the inertia and fear around it. The more important thing in what I teach is the culture of experimentation and innovation, even if VR or Oculus Rift go away, the concept and the potential of immersive storytelling is there, and the lessons that we learn will apply to the next thing. I did a class in 2014 about Google Glass, and people wondered afterwards if it was a waste of time. But the truth is, no it wasn’t. Google Glass allowed us to think about the form factor of a story that people can consume in a glimpse, it allowed us to think differently about push notifications, about design etc. The lessons that we learnt there apply to the next thing.
What I teach is essentially ‘How do we view emerging technology in context? How do we view, experiment and embrace it? And innovate with it”. Knowing that it might end and lead to something else, or it might stay and be the next disruption. Students are proactive in leaning in to try and to shape this, rather than wait for it to get defined by somebody else, which is what we do in the news industry. We wait for it to get mainstreamed and for someone to do a better job. This is what we try to change in my class, to be proactive.
My students are being hired by companies that see the opportunity and are leaning in, as opposed to pulling away: one got hired Nonny de la Peña’s Emblematic Group, another went from my classroom to the New York Times to work on 360 video. Students know what’s up.
New tech tools come and go, we play with them, they shape us, they influence the next design interface, they shape the next stories, they influence how we can report. That is the constant digital culture that I want to instil in my students. And I want to transfer that to my students in the classroom who become journalists that change the culture in the newsroom.
All students, in the VR class or the disruption class, have experimentation and digital literacy in their DNA, so to speak, and our goal if for them to lead by example, to show that they are top-notch journalists, with credibility and accuracy at the forefront of their minds, with the flexibility to use of these different tools to do their job in journalism, the reporting, the storytelling, the distribution, the engagement. This isn’t foreign to them. We hope that by producing this many quality students, just by their sheer number, they start to influence the newsroom. Often they do: they get asked to teach other journalists how to use Snapchat for journalism, or how to use social video.
How does embracing new technologies affect business models for publications in your opinion?
There are a couple challenges there. Revenue is always going to be a challenge, but there are news organisations that are making money off VR, by getting sponsors to pay for the technology and the development, the New York Times does this for example. There are ways to make money around VR or immersive journalism. Time, Inc also, they got VR from Star Wars and published it in People magazine.
Some news organisations manage to find advertisers and sponsors wanting to be innovative and progressive. It takes a counter-part on the business, advertising or financial side who also sees, and values, an innovative opportunity.
We haven’t had that in our industry trying to figure out monetising social, or mobile. We have innovated on the editorial side, but it is still somewhat lacking on the advertising side. It can change though, the wall dividing the editorial teams from the business teams in news organisations needs to come down, so they can influence and inspire each other without altering the product, which is journalism.
The other element is a bit more subtle and frought: some people have raised issue with Nonny de la Peña at a past event, accusing her of manipulating emotions with VR and commenting on how unethical that was. The irony of these people is not realising that when you write a powerful lead, a compelling headline, capture an incredible photo, capture and record audio or a compelling video, you are “manipulating emotions”. And as a journalist, you are doing that to get your story to resonate and connect with the audience, whether it is through happiness or outrage. Good storytelling will “manipulate emotions”, but accuracy for me is where the ethical element comes in. Nonny de la Peña is innovative, accurate and a good storyteller. When the photo of the body of child refugee Aylan Kurdi being held in someone’s arms circulated, would we call that manipulating emotions? Technically, my emotions were being manipulated. But was that journalism? Absolutely, it was effective journalism.
What are the most noteworthy immersive projects you have seen recently?
It seems like every week there is a new immersive project that pushes the medium forward, but my current favourite is a groundbreaking piece by Emblematic Group and PBS’ FRONTLINE. They have a piece called After Solitary, which uses photogrammetry and volumetric video capture technologies to tell the story of someone who spent years in solitary confinement.
Watch the piece, but keep in mind that is not an artist rendering or a photograph… this is a new type of imagery that takes immersive storytelling to a new level.
What tips would you give on what is needed to implement immersive storytelling within a newsroom?
I come from newsrooms, so I know how hard it is to use new technologies, let alone get support. My advice for news organisations and the individual storyteller who wants to explore this space is to simply start small.
Now a lot of people think it costs thousands and thousands of dollars to start, but that’s not true. There are powerful and affordable cameras by Insta360 that clip onto your smart phone (under $200) that can capture 360 photos, 3k videos and can even live stream in 360 on Facebook and Periscope. Pair this camera with a platform like ThingLink and you have a solid toolkit to produce simple, yet effective immersive experiences.
The thing to keep in mind is that best practices for immersive story subjects are still being defined, so experimentation — which includes failures — is key to your personal growth, as well as the medium’s growth. We have to try things to see what is an effective use of this technology. That also means you do not have to publish all of your experimentations. Some things are not worth publishing, but they still teach some elements of what should or should not be done with this medium.
It’s still somewhat early days, and you can help define this medium. That’s quite exciting.
About Robert Hernandez
Robert Hernandez is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice at USC Annenberg, a self described “hackademic” that specializes in “MacGyvering” digital journalism through emerging technologies. He has worked for seattletimes.com, SFGate.com, eXaminer.com, La Prensa Gráfica, among others. He has served on boards that have included Chicas Poderosas, InquireFirst, the Online News Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is the recipient of SPJ’s 2015 Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award.
Joshua Benton—Nieman Journalism Lab
“News should be quick to understand, easy to scan and simple to share. Today’s VR news meets none of these requirements.” (The Media Online, 7 March 2017)
“Even if virtual reality journalism is not exploding in terms of hits right now, it pays to be a part of it. VR news is going…well, somewhere.” (The Media Online, 7 March 2017)
“We’re trying to create the intersection between journalism, experimentalism and immersion,” Bigelow said when asked how she would characterize this VR piece. “How can I, in this case, get enough people to feel the danger so they’ll be encouraged to do something?” (Los Angeles Times, 28 April 2017)