The New York Times VR app has been the most successful product launch in the publisher's history, trumping the amount of downloads that its news app got when it first came on the market.
It has also engaged viewers for longer than the outlet's traditional news content has, said Sam Dolnick, associate editor of digital at The New York Times, stacking up over 1.3 million views in returning and and first-time users.
Speaking at FIPP London event today (11 May), Dolnick explained how he introduced virtual reality into the publisher's output, wanting to reinvent its content for a mobile audience.
"I was downloading every app in the world trying to see what people were doing out there on their phones, when I used a virtual reality app and saw my first film on Google Cardboard – I thought it was impressive," he said.
People in the NYT newsroom were also impressed with the virtual reality footage Dolnick showed them, but he still faced scepticism from a few – including Mark Thompson, the outlet's chief executive officer, who didn't see this medium's potential for news.
"Many of the authorities didn't think we should do it. They thought it was a gimmick and not worth our time," he added.
We piggybacked on our old legacy infrastructure – the delivery trucks, the printing plans, and all the things that were supposedly holding us backSam Dolnick, associate editor, digital, The New York Times
"But we managed to keep this project alive and created The Displaced, our first virtual reality story about children's life in refugee camps.
"We went after the then biggest story in the world and tried to tell it as ambitiously as possible."
The NYT VR app was built in two months, Dolnick said, which involved "taking a big risk, but we felt it was a great opportunity to position ourselves at the front."
The app, which has now been downloaded over 600,000 times, has a gallery of virtual reality films that users can download, ranging from the US election campaigns to scenes of the Paris vigils.
Dolnick said NYT VR has also become an additional source of revenue, as it includes advertising. Some companies sponsor films while others ambitiously produce their own virtual reality films and use the app as a distribution channel – something that viewers have also enjoyed.
"We have virtual reality films made by advertisers such as Mini and Hilton, which is a monetisation plan for us – we have advertisers that want to be there and engage this way with our audience."
Google agreed to provide The New York Times with one million Cardboard headsets to be given away to the publisher's Sunday subscribers, who had a positive reaction to the initiative.
"We were all so nervous to see what the reaction would be like on social media," Dolnick said.
"We all woke up at dawn to check our phones, and the response was pretty extraordinary. We even had a lot of people saying that their kids didn't care about news before, but now they couldn't get them away from it."
By sending subscribers packs with everything they needed to get started in consuming virtual reality content, The New York Times found the old method of home delivery helped personalise the experience for its audience.
"We piggybacked on our old legacy infrastructure – the delivery trucks, the printing plans, and all the things that were supposedly holding us back – to leapfrog into the 21st century.
"Other companies had been playing around with virtual reality but they were not in people's homes, so by combining the delivery system that we had with this new technology, we were able to create something that we were pretty excited about, and so were the staff that were sceptical to begin with."
From there, the company hired a virtual reality editor and formed a team to focus on experimenting with this type of storytelling.
"We are hoping that virtual reality becomes part of the newsroom's muscles and not siloed off to the side," said Dolnick.
The publisher is trying out a range of distribution methods for its virtual reality content: on the website, in newsletters and on social media, in a bid to reach people all over the world.
However, the team is hoping people watch the virtual reality films with a headset to make the most of them, and NYT will be distributing another 300,000 Google Cardboards later this month to its digital subscribers.
"Each piece of virtual reality content that we make is an experiment in storytelling."
"It is a brand new medium and we are still figuring out the rules – there is a lot of room to experiment," Dolnick said.
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