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.

Robert Hernandez will speak on the panel ‘VR is here to stay. What’s next for journalism?’ at the GEN Summit 2017 in Vienna, 21–23 June.

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.

The Wall Street Journal’s Nasdaq VR experience

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.

By Mark Billinghurst, Director at HIT Lab NZ

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.

https://medium.com/media/3ebd9e6160dfb1272f33b8b40a6f1492/href

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.

Robert Hernandez at the GEN Summit 2015 in Barcelona

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.

Emblematic Group did a visualisation for the Wall Street Journal with live market data

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.

https://medium.com/media/7c6d7e130d185ab314cde3d2ce035d0b/href

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.

https://medium.com/media/76f4d8658af8d15523416ecc9712e654/href

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)

Ben Kreimer—Buzzfeed

“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)

Kathryn Bigelow—filmmaker

“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)

Quotes brought to you by Storyzy


Embracing immersive technologies is key to the future of news was originally published in Global Editors Network on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

A seat at the table: Google News Lab & Euronews talk to French voters in 360

What’s it like to have a cup of coffee with a voter two weeks before the French Presidential election? We partnered with Euronews to find out: providing viewers a seat at the table of a French voter to hear his views on the candidates in the run up to the upcoming election.

The piece, also available on YouTube, will be part of a series of nine 360 videos, all produced in partnership with Euronews, to get the pulse of diverse French voters ahead of next month’s elections. The partnership will also produce a tenth episode that will create a VR environment allowing viewers to watch the nine profiled voters’ reactions to the election results. To get closer to the subjects as close as possible to the field, Euronews worked with over half a dozen French regional media newsrooms, including in overseas territories, such as Ouest-France, Centre-France, Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, La Nouvelle République, Radio Caraïbes International and StreetPress.

The project is a part of a broader series of immersive storytelling partnerships the News Lab has undertaken to produce pieces that showcase the potential of immersive storytelling technologies in news and to share best practices and learnings from those projects across the industry.

We had the opportunity to speak to the project lead at Euronews, virtual reality editor Thomas Seymat, about the series, why he felt it was important to undertake, and lessons it taught him on the use of immersive storytelling in news.

How did the idea for a 360°/VR piece about the FR presidential election come to your mind?

Thomas: The political events of 2016 have been a wake up call for news organizations. Failures to see the results of the Brexit referendum or the U.S. election coming highlighted the gap between the media and the people they are supposed to cover. Filter bubbles, online and in real life, skewed perceptions.

In 2017, with key elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany in the fall, journalists have a responsibility to get closer to the electorate. Immersive journalism gives us the tools to do precisely that: meeting French citizens ahead of the vote and, thanks to 360° video, taking our digital audience along with us.

Tell us about Euronews’ efforts to produce news video in 360°?

Thomas: Euronews published its first 360° video in February 2016. With the support of Google’s DNI fund, we have scaled up our operation and published over 85 videos since the end of June 2016. Thanks to this volume, we now have a unique experience, and have built a bespoke 360 workflow: it is a live experiment which consists in having both TV and digital workflows running in parallel, in the same space and within the same editorial team, to benefit from each other

It runs parallel to the digital and TV operations, but benefits from the skills from both. The aim of this workflow is to publish several timely, multi-lingual, 360° news videos per week. So, while ambitious, it proved relatively easy to adapt our existing process to the production of this multi-episodes series covering French society ahead of the presidential election: the numerous moving parts that form our immersive journalism workflow are already used to work together. The rhythm imposed by a multi-episodes series is pretty intense, especially due to the hard deadline of April 23rd, the first round of the election. I am not saying it is a walk in the park, but since we had accumulated experience shooting and publishing 360° videos we had learned how to overcome last minute challenges. We only had to fine tune our process. We did not start from scratch.

Why did you decide to partner with local newsrooms? What specific challenges/advantages did this collaborative approach present?

Thomas: Local media are trusted sources of news and have unparalleled knowledge of and access to the territories they cover. They are the ideal partners for a project like ours, as we wanted to hear from people with compelling stories all over France, and to strictly avoid “parachute journalism”, something that plagues large media organizations. Most newsrooms we contacted were eager to join this project, even though some had limited resources and time to invest. They have been instrumental to reach the level of geographical and sociological diversity the project hopes to cover.

It is also great to see that media innovation is not confined to large Parisian news organizations. Most importantly, we feel privileged to have the opportunity to share our immersive journalism experience with them, and to benefit from their knowledge and access. The joint publication of the videos on Euronews and the partner’s digital platform will ensure that it not only reaches a large audience, but also broadcasts the voices of diverse French citizens on a global scale, thanks to translation in English, German, Russian, Italian, and Spanish.

The project was a harder sell for others for various reasons, and that’s fine too. We approached every media organization with an open mind, hoping to find like-minded folks there. We are deeply grateful that so many answered positively and the collaborative aspect of the project improves several fold.

What advice do you have for smaller organizations that want to experiment in VR?

Thomas: A good story is a good story, so trust your journalists. Give them a chance to take a 360° camera while reporting a story, but without the pressure to necessarily produce something. If you are interested in immersive journalism, but unsure where to start, I recommend you check Journalism360. It’s an initiative which aims at gathering resources online for both beginner and expert immersive journalists. I wish it would have existed when I started doing immersive journalism, it would have saved me a lot of time!

Creating a VR experience takes resources, journalists, video editors, and partners. What surprised you about the process?

Thomas: Our extensive VR experience has prevented us from having any (large) bad surprise for this presidential election project. We had a few good surprises even, such as we have encountered the same interest for experimenting with 360° video among our local partners that I had found among most of my colleagues when I started implementing the project last summer. The new approach was never a concern or source of objections when we pitched the medium, so it’s encouraging for the future of immersive journalism in France.

What kind of unique, ethical questions came up in interviewing individual voters all across the country in 360°? Can you provide an example?

Thomas: Our videos were shot in people’s homes — so they have to understand a 360° camera captures everything around them. We also wanted to capture the most natural speech possible, so we kept the crew to a bare minimum: 1 local journalist, and 1 journalist-producer from Euronews. We did not want to invade homes and make people so uncomfortable they would shut off.

Filming in public can be a challenge as you inevitably feature passers-by who haven’t explicitly granted permission to be filmed. This situation occurs during regular filming too, and it’s simply something you need to be prepared for, if anyone does object. The benefit of our approach to 360° was that it was inconspicuous, and encouraged subjects to open up. As an editor you need to be on your guard to ensure nothing you broadcast contravenes French media publication laws.

We’ve also hoping to be able to use some cutting-edge new graphical approaches thanks to our partnership with Vragments towards the end of the series to summarize the content.

Were there any major technical challenges or storytelling challenges your team faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

Thomas: Despite all of our experience, the scale of the project means that of course there is going to be some challenges, but so far, nothing we could not fix with either a little extra effort, flexibility, or goodwill. I don’t monitor all the VR news pieces published in the world, but I don’t think anything close to this has been attempted to this scale before.

What do you hope to achieve in terms of how this piece will impact the conversation around the election? Will it contribute something that more traditional forms of storytelling couldn’t?

Thomas: In terms of impact, when watched properly with a cardboard or a headset, and earphones, VR isolates you from the surrounding world. Which is great because it means we have your full attention, and you are not distracted by your smartphone, etc. This will reinforce the strength of the testimonies in our video, in which people are being very open about their hopes, fears, and expectations ahead of the vote. By listening more closely to those people and being immersed where they actually live and work, audiences can better understand why they have formed the opinions they express.

Because it takes audiences directly to the center of the story, immersive journalism can paint a scene better than the best photographer or writer could. Spherical video is a de-mediated media in the sense that the viewer has a lot of editorial agency to choose where to look — a choice traditionally dictated by the journalist. So we really are taking our international audience into the houses, gardens, and workplaces of the French citizens we are creating portraits of.


A seat at the table: Google News Lab & Euronews talk to French voters in 360 was originally published in Google News Lab on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Announcing: Journalism 360 Challenge Grants Now Open

We know that advances in virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality will produce richer journalism and give audiences new ways to relate to news. Yet there are significant storytelling, technical, and ethical challenges around these new technologies, which is why we’re helping to build capacity for creative experimentation through the Journalism 360 Challenge grants.

In partnership with the Knight Foundation and the Online News Association, the grants provide a total of $250,000 for projects that can advance the field of immersive storytelling for journalism. The grants are open to global entries and welcome applications from journalists, content creators, developers, or educators. Each applicant can apply for up to $35,000.

At the Google News Lab, we’re investing in helping journalists embrace immersive storytelling through training, product development and community building. With our involvement in Journalism 360, we want to help journalists learn more about the application of immersive storytelling, experiment with new technology, and share learnings and best practices with each other.

Journalists gather for a Journalism 360 meet up to discuss challenges and techniques in immersive storytelling. Photo credit: Matt Cooke.

The challenge opens on March 8 at 12:01am ET and closes April 10 at 11:59pm ET. Once the submission period is closed, entries will be reviewed, ideas will be selected, and winners will set off to embark on their projects. The end of the working period will culminate in an opportunity for the journalism community to hear what’s been in the works and how it can inform or shape their own immersive journalism efforts. More on those dates, soon.

Here are the sorts of questions the applications might tackle:

  • Ideas that use mixed reality, virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree video to engage audiences.
  • Ideas that can provide best practices for replication and iteration across the field.
  • Ideas that help democratize immersive storytelling tools and methods for news organizations.

In the meantime, the Journalism 360 team will host a series of in-person and virtual events to answer questions. Check out the list of events here and dive into the FAQ with any questions. And be sure to follow @Journalism_360 for the latest.


Announcing: Journalism 360 Challenge Grants Now Open was originally published in Google News Lab on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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