“Oh, The New York Times doesn’t do that.”
That’s how Sam Dolnick, a New York Times executive and cousin to publisher-in-waiting AG Sulzberger summarized the resistance to change that once characterized the company and its storied newsroom. It also appears to be a thing of the past, with the paper of record even going so far as to experiment with Snapface. In 2015, after watching a short virtual reality film about the United Nations (Clouds Over Sidra) and exchanging notes with the editor of the Times Magazine, Dolnick launched the firm’s “experimental” virtual reality offering: NYT VR.
In current form, NYT VR is an app designed to work with Google Cardboard and Daydream, that firm’s low-cost offerings that transform smartphones into low-end virtual reality headsets. Since its launch, The Times has regularly produced and published VR films in an effort to better understand the format and its potential as a journalistic medium. Recent subjects include a humanitarian crisis in Sudan, a narrative short about Abraham Lincoln, the fight to retake Fallujah from ISIS. Befitting its “experimental” label, the NYT VR app and its content are currently free.
At heart, The Times creates value by producing compelling news and entertainment content that viewers wish to consume. Such content may be sui generis, or it may complement other news coverage much like videos often appear alongside digital news stories.
Virtual reality may also aid the paper in covering news that traditional prose, photo, and video journalism fail to fully capture or properly present. In this case, these early experiments are valuable learning opportunities, helping journalists consider the best means of telling stories to audiences. Many have observed that it is not compelling to simply display two-dimensional video with a VR system, and we are only now beginning to develop an understanding of the best applications of the medium.
As observed above, NYT VR remains an experiment, and The Times has not monetized it directly. This is, of course, not atypical of the VR space, where incumbents are looking for ways to shoehorn VR into existing business models, and “VR-native” entrants constantly iterate over profit formulae. The Times could conceivably monetize its VR offerings by restricting them to subscribers or placing them behind the metered paywall, much like traditional Times prose journalism. They might also explore advertising opportunities, though there is no existing VR advertising market analogous to that for traditional video advertising.
In the meantime, NYT VR only captures value indirectly, through enhancement of the New York Times brand and customers’ willingness to pay for digital or print subscriptions, although the app does not require a subscription to operate.
As others (including our course note authors) have observed, producing VR content remains an expensive, time-consuming, and specialized process—attributes that limit VR’s journalistic applications. Absent direct and easily measurable advertising revenue, The Times ought to leverage engagement data to evaluate NYT VR’s effect on viewership of other content, and on the firm’s subscription business (much like it does in other arenas). Resulting insights would help quantify VR’s value to the company and mission.
As is the case for VR in general, advertising experiences on the medium remain experimental, though promising. The Times last year acquired Fake Love, a forward-thinking marketing agency; the firm integrated it with T Brand Studio, the in-house Times brand marketing unit. The Times is surely experimenting with advertising experiences, but it should carefully consider the best format for advertising on the new medium. In our discussion of Havas, we discussed the ways in which digital advertising both extends offline advertising and redefines advertisers’ expectations. The firm ought to experiment with both traditional pre-/mid-roll formats, and “native” ads where brand experiences are presented alongside journalistic pieces (with appropriate labeling of ads). The Times may also wish to cultivate partnerships with brand advertisers to co-develop experiences on the platform.
Finally, as the value creation and capture observations above suggest, The Times should consider how best to fold NYT VR into its existing business model. Video journalism, VR’s closest analogue in the firm’s content repertoire, remains outside of the Times paywall; potential explanations include both an interest in building the platform’s audience and in attracting the high spending (on a per-impression basis) that video advertisements attract. But absent compelling advertising experiences, placing VR content behind a paywall may increase the attractiveness of the Times content bundle and drive subscription revenue. However, doing so might preclude the learning benefits of exposure to a wider audience. As VR remains in its nascent stages and The Times is still tuning its digital strategy, I believe that their experimental approach is the right one for now, but the time may come to make tougher decisions about how best to capture value from VR content.