Will Local News Providers Make Virtual Reality an Actual Strategy?

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As “chief instigator” of the new “Media-Nxt” report, entrepreneur and academic Sean Branagan is brimming with enthusiasm about what new technologies can do to inject life into local news that’s so often missing. Yet before completing his over-the-horizon peek in this space last week, Branagan flashed a surprising yellow caution light, saying:

“I still have reservations with all these new storytelling platforms: I don’t see a new business model to support many of them yet, and I’m not convinced the social and cultural elements support this being a big, pervasive deal… yet. I would love to be wrong.”

So what does that mean for the most advanced stuff — virtual reality, which is usually hyphenated with less-advanced augmented reality (AR/VR)?

Trying to predict how popular VR will become is difficult because the most accessible virtual experiences so far, like those achieved with Google Cardboard and the New York Times’ “360 videos,” reveal only a glimpse of VR’s potential. To achieve the total immersion of VR, a viewer needs a headset or a complete equipment system.

Here’s how I think VR could be adapted to local news to make it much more compelling than text or even conventional 2D videos:

The subject is the life of a “dreamer”— let’s say the foreign-born child of illegal immigrant parents in Houston who faces automatic deportation if Congress doesn’t restore the “DACA”  protection established by former President Obama and which President Trump has conditionally rolled back, giving lawmakers six months to choose restoring it permanently.

The viewer goes to the dinner table of the imaginary Martinez family in the Sharpstown neighborhood of Southwest Houston where Luciana, a high-performing junior at Southwest High School, sits with her undocumented parents,  who shepherded her from Mexico to the U.S. in 2005, when she was 4 years old, Luciana’s parents made their risky flight northward so their one child could have opportunities they didn’t have coming of age in the rural poverty of the north-central state of Guanajuato. Luciana, now 16, has her eye on – and the grades to win – a scholarship to the University of Texas in Austin in 2019 to study environmental science. The viewer follows a series of close-ups – to Luciana’s face and her weltering eyes, down to her nervously tapping fingers, then along the table to her mother and father’s helpless faces. Juanita Martinez, who, with her husband, faces a more certain deportation, bursts out to her daughter: “¡Usted permanecerá en América!” [“You will not be forced out of America!”]

The images, instead of being National Geographic vistas on steroids, are freighted with emotion that doesn’t always explode, but keeps ticking, ever-so-gradually louder.

The next scene is on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in Room 2347 of the Rayburn House Office Building, where Houston Democratic  Rep. Al Green, one hand on a stack of pro-DACA petitions, details what he says will be a bipartisan effort to keep the dream alive for Luciana and thousands of other “dreamers” in his district and, altogether, 800,000 around the country. The scene then switches back to Texas, in Austin, where State Attorney General Ken Paxton tells a press conference that the “rule of law” requires the elimination of DACA, which means that Luciana will be deported to Mexico.

The viewer finally goes to the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Southwest Houston where Luciana tries to stifle tears as she sits at a table with a counselor. As she holds tightly onto Luciana’s hands, the counseler has no counsel to give the would-be U.S. citizen other than hope that a Republican-controlled Congress will overrule a Republican president.

So unfolds what could be a truly immersive VR experience – nothing like a workaday “The Daily 360” from the New York Times.

I would agree that the plight of Luciana Martinez cannot be replicated by hundreds of local new providers every day of the week. But there are the 800,000 dreamers who live in all the major urban regions of the country that are served by many hundreds of local news providers.

The dreamers are just one big local-national story waiting to be told through the unique nativist power of VR.

There are the estimated 22 million Americans who would lose Medicaid health coverage if the Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare succeed. What about local sites immersing their users in some of those stories?

What about the stories of the millions of minority public school students who continue to perform far below white students, jeopardizing the potential of the “knowledge” economies that urban regions everywhere are trying to grow or create to offset the long-term losses of manufacturing jobs?

Collectively, these stories would have the potential to connect with a very large share of local news consumers.

Yes, it’s true that the prices for VR headsets, starting at about $500, will eliminate a sizable percentage of the user market. Still, here’s what a recent survey by ARtillry and Thrive found:

The overall average for all age groups who said, yes, they had an interest, is 41%. It’s significant, I think, that Millennials were most firmly in the “yes” column – 55%.

Mike Boland, an expert on VR who recently joined Street Fight as analyst in residence, was the main author of the survey as chief analyst for ARtillry. In his assessment of survey results, Boland cited as a “key takeway”:

“VR satisfaction is favorable across headsets, invoking cautious optimism for VR’s future.  Because VR is so immersive and visceral, it incites a strong positive response. This is a blessing and a curse: Though it results in high satisfaction levels, it requires direct experience that can’t be replicated in commentary or marketing. The industry’s challenge is to bring technologically invasive experiences to the masses.”

In an interview with Boland, I asked if news publishers, especially at the local level, could generate higher CPMs from VR content to offset smaller audiences:

“There’s nothing wrong with ‘translating’ VR engagement to CPMs as a proxy. If one were to measure VR content in that manner, I believe impressions would be more valuable due to the demographic of VR owners, and the level of immersion — you can’t look away, so things like ad avoidance are less of an issue.

“Longer term, for ads to truly be measured adequately for accurate ROI assessment, new metrics will be required. But to ‘back in’ to a CPM figure would likely show favorable metrics for VR content.”

The Millennial market right now has more than 80 million men and women, the commanding share of news consumers and customers for business messaging. If 55% of Millennials are interested in adopting (and paying for) virtual experiences that are unequaled on any other platform, that’s a significant potential audience, with significant revenue potential.

All through this digital era, local news providers have largely failed to engage audiences deeply enough on a consistent basis. To me, VR content that truly creates immersive experiences beyond the surface impressions of 2D videos is a promising pathway to the deep user engagement that has eluded publishers.

Will they take that beckoning path  — or will they emulate the publishing executive who told a class of Sean Branagan’s students: When VR is a mass phenomenon, “THEN we will offer VR and AR on our site.”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.