By Dayo Olopade, News Partnerships

The USA TODAY NETWORK consists of a flagship brand and 107 local properties across the nation, including brands such as Detroit Free Press, The Arizona Republic, The Indianapolis Star, The Des Moines Register, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and The Tennessean.

USA TODAY is an early adopter of virtual reality video and has been publishing creative and exciting 360 videos on Facebook. The network published one of the most popular 360 Facebook videos of 2015.  According to Niko Chauls, Gannett’s director of Applied Technology, “We think about virtual reality as a new medium – not a feature enhancement, or a platform, but a new, emerging medium. It represents a tremendous opportunity for us as storytellers and content creators.”

As Facebook has made significant investments in 360 video and VR across multiple platforms—from the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR partnership and the recently announced Facebook Surround 360 camera—news organizations like USA TODAY are wondering how to deconstruct the mysteries and intricacies of 360 and VR and determine how to apply it to their existing workflows.

Getting Started

The USA TODAY NETWORK began their journey with three goals:

  1. Determine the value and potential of 360 and VR to a news organization.
  2. Learn by doing.
  3. Empower the organization to create 360 and VR content at scale.

The network’s first VR project, “Harvest of Change,” with the Des Moines Register, began in 2014 as an exploration of a new technology.  “At the time we did not really understand what we were getting into, but had an instinct that VR and 360 was an area we needed to explore,” says Chauls. It told the story of three generations of an Iowa farming family and the challenges they faced.

Built for the Oculus Rift DK2, this first exploration featured a CGI recreation of the farm, data driven graphics and fully spherical 360 videos.  The project was groundbreaking, earning an Edward R. Murrow award and the first ever “Best Use in Technology in Journalism” award from the National Press Foundation.  More importantly, says Chauls, “It demonstrated to us internally the power of immersion and engagement of VR and 360 content experiences.”

In the past two years, the USA TODAY NETWORK has created more than 40 additional VR experiences.  Starting with cameras that were not fully spherical (producing “donut” imagery), the network covered a number of stories including the Kentucky Derby (with the Courier-Journal in Louisville), followed the Cincinnati Reds for a season (with the Cincinnati Enquirer), and transported people to Havana, Cuba for the first time in VR with both English and Spanish experiences (with USA TODAY).

“Practices”

“We are still humble students of the space,” says Chauls. While producing an increased volume of spherical content, the organization began to learn how to tell stories on a 360 canvas. Producers had to relearn directing narrative, building a complete story arc with a beginning, middle and end on a new medium. Through trial and error, they began to learn the tools for storytelling in a new medium.  “Over time we built up a series of ‘practices’ that to this day we still refuse to call ‘best practices,’” says Chauls. Among them:

Height Matters

  • When shooting at an IndyCar event at the Texas Motor Speedway, producers learned that camera height has an enormous impact on creating sense of presence.  Initially, the camera was mounted a few inches above the driver. Rather than creating the sensation of driving the car at 250mph, Gannett had inadvertently placed the viewer floating awkwardly above the car—producing the opposite effect.  After viewing the footage, the team repositioned the camera and reshot the scene.

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Heat Matters

  • Over the course of multiple shoots the USA TODAY team learned that when VR cameras are working, equipment tends to overheat. The production teams now attend most shoots with backup arrays and portable cooling units that they have built in house.

Cameras Matter

  • The team graduated from 360 rigs to GoPro arrays and other fully spherical cameras as they became available. They have also used the consumer focused Ricoh Theta S. Working with the Facebook Surround 360 camera is on the roadmap.

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During this period the team shot footage and an interview with the Blue Angels, which Mark Zuckerberg shared as an example of innovation on the storytelling and technical side. On USA TODAY’s Facebook post alone, the clip has had more than 11 million views, 340,000 shares, 98,000 likes and 33,000 comments.  “This clearly demonstrated to us how powerful 360 content assets can be in storytelling and as a social sharing mechanism,” says Chauls. “The Facebook platform allowed our audience to view and interact with the content without requiring a download, plugin or special equipment.”

 

Scaling Up

Once there was a significant body of knowledge at headquarters, the network focused on empowering the organization at large. The Virginia based core team invited members from several newsrooms to a VR summit during which they team trained, educated and empowered the network of over 3,800 journalists, providing them with equipment and “practices” to take back to their newsrooms.

These investments in in-house talent have paid off via 360 and VR stories produced and shared at both local and national scale. Most recently, the USA TODAY NETWORK announced the launch of VRTually There, the first ever VR news experience that will include a slate of regularly-scheduled original programming to include content from across the USA TODAY NETWORK touching on a wide variety of topics—music news from Nashville, sports news from Detroit and Indianapolis, political news from Washington DC, and tech news from journalists based in San Francisco and LA. Says Chauls: “Virtual reality represents the new frontier of immersive storytelling. As we begin to master the tools and techniques of this new medium, we’re already looking beyond and preparing for the next wave of technological opportunity.”