The VR Journalism Era is Coming: Adapt or Adios

In March, of this year, CNN launched its virtual reality (VR) news platform, CNNVR, confirming the arrival of the newest technological evolution of journalism. In less than 100 years, broadcast journalism has moved from radio all the way to virtual reality. Now, while admittedly, VR is still very much in its infancy, leaving much room for improvement, its potential is astonishing. Coupled with the advent of high-tech visual enhancements, like those offered by the 360-degree video camera, VR will change the way news is told and consumed entirely. While social media brought unprecedented immediacy, virtual reality will offer something else that journalism’s earliest pioneers could never have fathomed; unparalleled immersion.

VR will change the way news is told and received to such an extent that the viewer could essentially, for all intents and purposes, become the journalist.

Imagine being right there with the reporter, every step of the way, as the journalist makes their way through the war-torn streets of Homs, Syria. Imagine being able to choose which particular news stories you would like to view from a newscast from a list. Then, think of the possibility of choosing from any point of view from a 360-degree field of view as you watch a documentary on the famed Fingal’s cave. Sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? But that’s not all. It goes well beyond those superficial improvements. VR will change the way news is told and received to such an extent that the viewer could essentially, for all intents and purposes, become the journalist. Its capabilities are threatening to erase the already thin line separating the viewers, the broadcasters, and the subjects. How? Because the interactive potential of VR is such that the viewer could be able to choose things like the topics to be covered during an interview, as well as the very questions being asked.

Now, like every other major technological advancement in journalism’s history, the change will bring with a host of professional and ethical questions along with it. And, truth be told, on both sides of the fence, there will be legitimate concerns. Among the things some will likely say is that it will completely kill off the traditional role of the journalist given the opportunity for the viewer to control so many aspects of the story from start to finish. However, on the flip side, there are those who will believe that VR could give the public what they have long craved. Namely, news that is informative, while at the same time, highly entertaining. Either way, a balance will have to be found somehow.

However, my personal opinion is that once VR becomes the norm, there is no going back for regular broadcast news reporting, particularly television. Eventually, virtual reality will become the new news reality. You see given the limitless interactive and visual capabilities of VR, the chances are the audience, especially the younger demographic, will find it very hard to go back to one-dimensional television broadcast reporting. In addition, there is this feeling, perhaps more than ever, that mainstream news, has lost its essence, placing money and not the truth as its number one priority. This, in turn, leaves the public posing serious questions about the legitimacy of the information being presented to them. VR, provided it is used openly, can offer the additional transparency required to put many of these concerns to rest. It can do so because there is an opportunity for the viewer to be right there at the scene from beginning to end. Whereas broadcast journalism, of today, relies totally on the perspective of the reporter, and subsequently the editors, in the final presentation of the news story, VR will offer the viewer more fluid and flexible options. Among them, the viewer could form their own story using all the information offered to them.

VR will offer the viewer more fluid and flexible options. Among them, the viewer could form their own story using all the information offered to them.

Where does this incoming evolution of journalism leave Trinidadian broadcast journalism?

Generally speaking, there are two distinct possibilities. The first one will see the respective media houses finally recognise the changing nature of news, forcing them to adapt. This will, in turn, offer the public the opportunity of a modern broadcast experience. On the other hand, the second scenario is that the industry will continue in its current backward malaise, resulting in the well-known news stations struggling immensely as the viewing public, especially the younger demographic, will no longer be willing to look past its archaic nature. Indeed if we look at the industry, as it exists today, it is already in some trouble. This is because despite having multiple years to switch its focus to the current face of media, digital and social media, most, if not all, have not done as good a job as they have ought to by now. This is reflected in the statistics provided by web analytics website, Alexa. According to Alexa.com, only one broadcast media company, CNC3, features in the country’s top-50 ranked websites; coming in at number 43. Leading the way in the media industry is a print publication, with the Trinidad and Tobago Express Newspaper just beating out Pornhub, pun intended, to come in at number 10.

In reality, when VR becomes the international norm, the T&T broadcast industry will not only be two news evolutions off but three. The first evolution still missing is consistent live-based reporting. Somehow despite on-the-scene, live-based TV news reporting being present around the world stage for more than three decades, it is yet to become a staple here in Trinidad and Tobago. The second evolution missing is, of course, digital media.

Somewhat ironically, the station arguably best-suited for the eventual arrival of VR is government-owned station Caribbean New Media Group (CNMG). Out of the big three TV stations, CNMG has done the best job of presenting live news relatively consistently, while also doing a pretty good job with digital media. What is equally as important is that it has made the right production investments. However, there’s one problem, and a major one at that, CNMG is not widely-popular due to its government affiliation. As a result of this, and a few other rambunctious reasons, its production potential is under appreciated. While, on an even more serious note, its future is very much uncertain. So the company in, probably, the best position to capitalise on the opportunities of the VR-era is not guaranteed to be around when it begins.

While the future might look somewhat “iffy” for the television news companies, it looks up for the web-based/social-media companies, and, of course, the newspaper companies who continue to excel in print, as well as with their online versions. This is why more independent, niche market online publications like Wired868, Foodie Nation, and even Loop News have already begun to make their mark. For example, have a look at some of the videos the likes of Foodie Nation produces. Each production, all of which are relatively low budget, fetches a minimum of 20,000 views while going as high as, or even beyond, 200,000 views.

The likelihood is that given how TV companies tend to operate locally, they will only seek to make online media its focus when VR becomes the next big thing. However, this time, it might be too little too late. While the likes of CNC3, CNMG and CCN TV6 have managed to stay afloat with its many digital shortcomings, I believe there will be no such luxury, without substantial investment, by the time the VR-era comes around. They are running out of time to put things in place. This, on the other hand, will spell good news for entrepreneurs seeking to enter the online media market, as well as a potential VR media market. If they make the necessary investments now, these entrepreneurs could have the market for the taking by the time virtual reality journalism takes the world over.

Virtual reality news will not only change the way news is told internationally, but very much so locally. The question is who will be the ones to usher in this new evolution in T&T? Will it be the already established mainstream broadcast media companies, who have already demonstrated a stubborn reluctance to adapt, or will it be new faces? Either way, the choice faced is simple, adapt or adios.