From simple to complicated work processes

The consensus in the field is thatVR operations are complicated and expensive. This is true with longer productions, but one can also start experiments with a lower budget. A good way to start inexpensively is to make shorter pieces first and then gradually expand into more complicated and longer productions. For example, Euronews has started to train its journalists to shoot 360-degree routinely, with only a short introduction. (See more in Chapter 7.)

The process of making VR stories can sometimes be very slow. However, it need not necessarily be so. The 360-degree live cast is the fastest way to get content published on platforms like YouTube or Facebook.The 360-degree content can be quite a fast way to disseminate important news if there is a limited amount of postproduction. For example, the BBC already was able to use 360-degree footage in reporting the Bataclan terror attack in Paris 2015. Zillah Watson and her colleague filmed, edited, and published the footage on YouTube and Facebook within hours (Watson 2015).

Ole Krogsgaard from Euronews goes against the current wisdom, stating that interviews, when properly done, also can be interesting content in 360-degrees. Some prominent VR journalists have been avoiding 360-degree interviews, but Krogsgaard thinks that it can be a good and cost-effective way to expand the spectrum of 360-degree content. Euronews has also experimented with easy-to-use editing tools like web-based VR editor Fader to lower the threshold for journalists to start editing more complicated stories themselves (Krogsgaard 2017 a,b,c).

There are also other VR strategies than Euronews’ “keep it simple and cheap”. Many of our interviewees have mostly been doing longer VR productions. Compared to documentaries made for TV, a VR documentary takes even more work because of the extra pre-planning and laborious post-production. Because the tools and programs used are developing rapidly and no general standards have developed yet, a wide variety of cameras, editing technologies, and programs are utilized. Many of the tools used come originally from game production like Unity, a development platform for multiplatform games and interactive contents. Hence, all kinds of new expertise and skills are needed when producing the content to VR.

Some companies make only a few VR productions per year. For example, PBS’s Frontline program in the US has traditionally focused on investigative stories and documentaries. In 2015, it started to produce VR documentaries in collaboration with VR studio Emblematic Group, funded by the Knight Foundation (Wang 2015). In the interview, producer Benedict Moran explained that Emblematic Group has produced a couple of ten-minute-long VR documentaries per year (Moran 2016). In September 2019, the Frontline website contained 14 360-degree documentaries; the last (Greenland’s Glaciers Are Melting Faster Than Expected) was published in September 2018.

Dagens Nyheter has started with a small VR staff and two full-time workers who get occasional help from other sections in the newsroom. D.Y started publishing VR stories in December 2016 and has published so far (at September 2019) 20 360-degree documentaries, each lasting from four to nine minutes.

In conclusion, concerning the use of staff, much, of course, depends on the general strategy and the resources. For example, Euronews can make a substantial amount of 360-degree news with relatively cheap equipment and short introductions to journalists on making 360-degree. Conversely, expensive documentaries like those by Emblematic Group have taken months to finish.

There are several open-ended questions for anyone considering starting a VR production. One substantial challenge is how to make content available to users. So far, one can apply several strategies. A news outlet can create an app to publish VR content. This is good in that the outlet can control its app, which is a more stable platform for more complex VR productions, but bad because it means users must download the app before perusing the story. The downloading process may be one hindrance to getting people to experience the content.

The news outlet can use already-existing VR platforms like Google’s YouTube VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s GearVR, the HTC Vive Headset, or Sony’s PlayStation VR. Thus, making a version for each platform will add to production costs. Moreover, the platforms may take a share of the potential revenues derived from, for example, advertising connected to VR viewing. It is also unclear whether the tools of the big platforms are collecting user data.

Finnish journalists Ville Juutilainen and Jussi Pullinen both underscore that the whole process of making VR journalism should be based on open standards and platform independence.

Open technology solutions that are not parts of larger ecosystems are especially in the interest of national media companies [...] such equipment and technologies that you can use inside your own system without the risk of the information being transferred to somewhere outside.

Pullinen 2019

Thus far, one of the successful ways of making journalistic VR is to collaborate with a platform like Samsung GearVR and gather sponsors to cover expenses, as The New York Times does (more about this in Chapter 11).

According to journalism educator Robert Hernandez, the biggest bottleneck for adapting VR in newsrooms is the culture of fear, especially fear of the costs of producing VR.

The biggest problem that I see still is culture. Not necessarily accepting VR - I think there is a lot of acceptance ofVR. But there is cultural fear of the cost of producing VR. And I encourage newsrooms to look at the low- end cameras. To start producing those experiences, because there are a lot of things that you can learn in terms of where to place the camera, how to hide it, placing, framing, that you can do and learn on low-end cameras before you get in the high-end cameras, before you are going to immersive experiences, so it is not a lot of money to start. But a lot of people have that roadblock: oh my God, it costs tens, hundreds, thousands of dollars.

Hernandez 2017

 
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