What talking to artists taught me about immersive journalism

Laura Hertzfeld
Jun 3 · 8 min read

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso

French street artist JR’s latest installation at SFMOMA — — is a living portrait of the city. Photo: Laura Hertzfeld

I have always found merit and power in creative curation. The way headlines are written, which films get the green light, and how stories are presented can be as powerful as the stories themselves. I came into my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford hoping to explore my own creative side and learn how seeing myself as a creator and not only a curator might better inform my work. It turns out, learning from artists can help inform all of our work.

I found in speaking to artists that there are several lessons to take and use in journalism. First, embrace limitations rather than working within the seemingly unlimited space of the internet. Second, be more open about the way we understand analytics and audience interaction. And lastly, bring emotion and wonder back into our work.

I’d rather really affect 10 people deeply, make them see the world in a different way, than entertain 10,000. A lot of people don’t want to go there, but when those 10 people go there… then I’ve communicated something deep. That means a lot to me ― more than having 1,000 people standing on their feet.

― Morleigh Steinberg, photographer, choreographer, curator at Arcane Space

Facade of Time dance project by Arcane Space. Venice, CA February 2019. Photo: Instagram/Jess_Chappe

In September I’d just transitioned off an ambitious project — growing to a global community of 1,600-plus immersive storytellers. I arrived on campus energized by my role funding projects like the Pulitzer Prize-winning experience at USA Today and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s WebVR-powered . I was excited to continue exploring the possibilities offered by virtual reality and augmented reality to expand how we explain the world.

But I also relished the opportunity to take a step back from the day-to-day and spend some time figuring out how we got here and where we’re going. I’ve been working in online news since 2003, when I started as a full coverage editor at Yahoo! News. Stanford was the perfect place to take a bird’s-eye view of the web then and now and figure out where we went wrong, what we did right, and how we can do better as technology continues to shift and change. How did we go from a utopian view of what’s possible — an ethos very much still alive in Silicon Valley and part of the opportunity I see in VR and AR now — to a place that has too often shown us the worst of humanity?

And what ends up happening is that these crowds will form around the person with the phone….They are standing together and creating these sort of impromptu communities around these experiences. And to me that’s like the ultimate subversion of the of the technology, a technology that’s really intended to keep you on your ass on the couch.

― Nancy Baker Cahill, artist

Margin of Error, Augmented Reality drawing by Nancy Baker Cahill. Location: Salton Sea State Recreation Visitor Center (for Desert X) Photo: Daniel Wheeler via NancyBakerCahill.com

When I first started experiencing news stories in VR and AR, I immediately saw the possibility these technologies hold to bring us closer to the subjects we are covering and bring in a more engaged audience. It also highlighted the dangers of putting people directly into stories and the ethical concerns of how easy manipulation can be in virtual environments. In approaching my fellowship, I started thinking — “Who are the people putting themselves out there the most and experimenting in ways we can’t always afford to as journalists?”

Conceptual artists are coming at complex topics from what most consider to be a fairly radical approach and still achieving impact. I spoke with artists working in three specific areas: one creating projects in the public space (Refik Anadol), choreographers (Morleigh Steinberg, Jonah Bokaer), and those working specifically in immersive technology (Nancy Baker Cahill, Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma). These conversations yielded interesting and surprising results, all of which can help us as journalists rethink our approach to complex stories, without sacrificing content quality or ethics. They opened up my understanding of the art world and I found some clear takeaways that will help us as journalists tell better stories.

I just looked at the building and I just was so sad. It’s silent. So I was just like all right, what will happen if the building has like a layer of information, a skin.

And then turn this into a kind of a living entity that can dream and feel and remember and ultimately, a cognitive idea.

― Refik Anadol, data artist

  1. Embrace limitations

Traditionally, journalists have always worked in a world of limitations — column inches, broadcast schedules, ad layouts. The internet changed all of those parameters. With the advent of increased internet speed and accessibility, suddenly the barriers were lifted and stories could be told in an hour-long podcast or a 10,000-word story. We expect the audience to just keep scrolling. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should. While taking up more space for issues that require it can be a good thing, this lack of boundaries has caused a design problem that loses readers and decreases impact.

Self-imposed limits are hardly a new idea. Projects like Smith Magazine’s and TED Talks time limitations have been wildly successful in creating digestible but substantive content that forces the creators to think inside an extremely well-defined box. One of my favorite early internet projects was Miranda July’s , which gave website visitors a directive like “tell someone you love them” — the results were astounding. The project was later acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Give people an assignment and they tend to complete it.

Artists achieve the ultimate trompe l’oeil. They make us believe the world is their oyster while actually working under extreme limitations that are part of what allows that creativity to take shape.

“The space really is very determining in terms of what we can or can’t do,” says choreographer , who was the Mohr Visiting Artist at Stanford this past winter. “So it tends to be kind of a creative process that way … certainly with dancers. Restrictions, parameters can be super helpful.”

2. Allow room for all kinds of interaction and experimentation

News organizations as a whole get wrapped up in what “counts” — does someone who reads through the dozens of groundbreaking stories in the count as much as someone who simply likes one of the organization’s ?

News organizations are always working to determine which interactions are meaningful and how we can capitalize on them, experimenting with new models to make news profitable. Artists see value in both the person who sees something for five seconds and the person who spends an hour with a piece.

“I’m not opposed to technology at all,” says photographer, choreographer, and gallery owner Morleigh Steinberg. “But there’s a lot more to filter through. You’re just looking at things that are candy. You think, well, ‘Why am I spending so much time communicating with people like that?’ But if you get people that are like that, then you might find the five that would be interested in investigating [an issue] differently.”

We also need to experiment — it may not be clear how people will interact with a project until it’s out in the world. Artist Nancy Baker Cahill explains that she was surprised how people have interacted with her work and experienced it in ways she couldn’t have predicted. “I didn’t expect the wild diversity and range in interpretations. When you invite someone into a conversation that allows them to be creative, too, it is truly astonishing what they come up with — and that to me is humbling and inspiring.”

“I do create a very open space for interpretation. But I think it being very visually accessible and visually enticing is a good place to work from.”

― Jonah Bokaer, choreographer

Cahill’s encourages people to share her artwork and place it in their own space using AR. This opens up not only new ways of interacting with content but also questions about legality and usage. Artists are testing these waters in new ways and we need to be paying attention to see what may work for journalistic storytelling — and what may be too risky.

3. Spark thoughtfulness and wonder

Sparking emotion and creating a memorable experience is at the crux of a successful immersive piece. It’s imperative that we bring purpose to immersive projects and think beyond the story to how the audience feels as a result of the interaction and how that interaction stays in their mind afterwards. If we only use immersive technology to show what already exists in other places, we are not using the medium to its fullest extent.

Spending the year with many investigative journalists during the fellowship opened my mind up to the possibilities that immersive storytelling holds to tell data-driven and long-form stories in new ways. VR and AR work so well for visual stories, but we already have filmmaking and photography that do those things pretty well, too. To take immersive storytelling to the next level, it needs to be a space where in-depth longreads come to life.

L.A.-based data artist Refik Anadol has created massive scale projects that interpret information in stunning ways — like taking the history of the L.A. Philharmonic and . He sees working with data as a way to bring seemingly unfathomable amounts of information into something we can simply enjoy.

“Data is a living thing. And it yes, it changes. Because if the big question is, What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century?, the answer is in their tools.,” Anadol says. “And then if those tools are coming to us to make art — wow. So that’s hopefully something positive, to make the story better.”

What’s next? I aim to build on this framework to create a working model and checklist to help journalists create more impactful immersive projects in virtual reality, augmented reality, and even in the physical space around us. I also plan to include ways of threat modeling to keep in mind the legal and policy implications of this kind of work. We are just scratching the surface of this technology and its potential effects on society. Imagine what’s possible when journalists think a little more like artists.

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Laura Hertzfeld

Written by

Storyteller, LA ambassador, midnight baker & professional pop culture junkie. JSK Fellow at Stanford 2018–19. Director @journalism_360 #binders

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University