What I’m listening to as I type: LEMONADE
I’m sitting in Jeremy Gilbert’s Washington DC office, trying not to look like a girl – scratch that – a middle-aged academic, as I bounce clumsily, and a little queasily, around Mars.
Gilbert is letting me play with Mars: an interactive journey, the virtual reality (VR) project for Oculus that the Washington Post published in March this year. Developed by staffer Chris Davenport in a project team led by Gilbert, the VR ‘tour’ of Mars takes Nasa’s scans of the red planet’s terrain, extrudes them, adds satellite pix and a little magic sauce, and creates a pretty real experience of what going for a stroll on Mars might be like.
It’s impressive as a content-led project, with an extraordinary level of research and detail underpinning the result, but, like other VR projects produced by news publishers recently, it all feels a bit, well, worthy.
“We did do one thing with Mars which we didn’t end up publishing”, Gilbert tells me. “We allowed people to drive the Rover around, which people found incredibly compelling but we had a hard time making it story telling. People wanted to drive the Rover because they could drive the Rover, not because driving the Rover helped explain the conditions on the planet or why people are going there or any of those things.”
Journalists decided that the job of a journalist was not just to show the world but to explain it sometime round about the 1880s, not long after interviewing became part of our toolkit. Instead of only saying what we saw, or reporting what we were told, we started asking questions (Schudson, 2001) and journalism began to develop as a craft and a profession – and a responsibility.
Personally, I felt the Washington Post’s version of Mars lacked Pokémon.
Gilbert’s role at the Post is Director of Strategic Initiatives. Which means he gets to do all the cool stuff – once:
“I typically do things that either are good enough for someone else to run in the future, or are complete failures and we won’t do that again for a while.
“One third of what I do are things that the top editors tell me to do, the things that we need done – Marty Baron and my boss Emilio Garcia-Ruiz. One third are things that I think of that I find interesting and seem like they have potential, and one third of the things are things that the journalists around the room say: “You know, I have an idea, can we do something like this?”.
The next cool stuff thing he showed me was a 360-degree video package, shot in the Galapagos. Gilbert and a team of staff travel writers. editors, with specialist producers from UNC School of Media and Journalism, spent a week in the islands collecting the video and source material. The result was published on the Post’s website in May.
I swam with the fishes.
And yet, like the Mars VR, beautiful but not quite there yet. My eye couldn’t settle – on the sidebarred text; on the stills; on the embedded video (all seamlessly attached to data points in the text). As a travelogue making me want to try the real location, it worked. As a piece of storytelling, not sure.
But as Gilbert explains, the challenge for new journalism is to learn how to work with non-linear storytelling (and, perhaps, an audience that is itself learning how to ‘read’ and get value from a broken-up story).
“Our expectations as journalists really have to change”, he said. “That we often think about ourselves as the people who bring you the perspective on an event, live or otherwise, and we tell you what matters, and here we are basically saying we’re going to create a space, especially in a virtualised environment that is not 360-video.
We’re dropping you in a place that we made and letting you do whatever you want, and in whatever order you want, and that’s a very different way of storytelling.”
This is what drives Gilbert – the possibilities of new storytelling. His background – with kings of interactive National Geographic, and at Northwestern University with the team that went on to found Narrative Science, is rooted in experimentation with narrative forms.
And he, and the Post, is going deeper and deeper into testing and trying new forms: “We’ve started to talk about if this is spherical video scene, can we actually offer different paths out of the scene into different spherical videos?” He tells me about a project the Post is working on with the University of Texas, at Austin, to add code to video scenes which will respond to eye-tracking, i.e. where the viewer is looking.
“Right now we can annotate [a video scene] by in essence burning on say some text and we can position it exactly on a video.
“But what the University of Texas is helping us do is to say: if the user’s eye is here, their gaze is in this direction, we can fit something that’s within their gaze and not attached to the video. So not using After Effects to burn it in, but rather tracking as the mobile device or the headset moves.”
They’re also using automated storytelling to speed up reporting on the US elections, and have been looking at using Bluetooth beacons to geographically trigger extra information, extra reporting, to attendees at events such as the election conventions. But Gilbert works on tools to support the day-to-day news operation too; showing me a freelancers look-up site they created.
“I really do three kinds of things: I do projects that are about creating better tools for journalists I do projects about creating better forms for news consumers to get their information, and I do projects that are trying to better connect people with information about distribution. So creation, consumption, and distribution.”
Two projects in the news consumption and distribution categories showed what the Post’s writers are capable of, given the freedom (and resources) to marry their specialism with experimentation in delivering very complex stories.
The interactive Waypoints package creatively tackles the story of migrants arriving at the Greek island of Lesbos.
While the masses of material collected by court and crime reporters around the Freddie Gray trial, was translated into an app making use of augmented reality (AR), and released on the Post’s site on on app stores in May.
The arrival at the Post of Jeff Bezos in 2013, as new owner, has delivered a good chunk of that freedom to experiment. Pouring money into the newsroom has, Gilbert acknowledged, helped (“we’ve hired a bunch of new journalists, we’ve hired a ton of new technologists”) and delivered a “pervading sense of optimism” in the Post’s future which has encouraged experimentation.
But, as Gilbert reminds me, previous owner Don Graham was pretty on the ball too: “He was on the Board of Facebook, so it’s not like he didn’t get it.” (Indeed as Kirkpatrick recounts in his book, The Facebook Effect Graham almost “got” Facebook itself, coming within a phone call of buying a big chunk of it in 2005)
“Don Graham knew much, much, much more about how to do great day-to-day journalism because he had grown up in this newsroom than Jeff Bezos may, but Jeff Bezos knew a whole lot more about operational speed. And he really understood how the right kinds of algorithms and the right speed of the user experience could lead to a massive digital audience.
“So I think the combination of a newsroom that already had a pretty good sense of how to tell stories, with a person who really knew how to build a big digital audience, it helped. That definitely helped.”
The Post took on around 100 new people with Bezos’ backing. Being able to invest in journalists and technologists “at a time that the economy wasn’t so great” and there were lots of great people looking for jobs was also a boon, said Gilbert. That investment pushed the Post past arch rivals the New York Times, to hit record-breaking web traffic last Autumn.
“It’s tricky because what’s the lesson for other people? There aren’t that many Jeff Bezos’ out there who are willing to invest heavily, and be fairly removed in terms of the day-to-day storytelling; letting the journalists do the storytelling they’re capable of doing.
“If everybody had one [a Bezos] that would be good for everybody. But in the absence of that, I think it’s hard but crucial to do these kinds of experimentation. But for a lot of people it has to come at a higher cost than it does for us.”
I met with Gilbert, as part of research for the book I’m currently writing on Future Journalism. The book, commissioned by Routledge is due to be published early 2017. If you’re interested in taking part, please tweet me.