By Sandy K. Johnson

Readers don’t just read news anymore; they want to experience it. And smart journalists are figuring out how to mesh top-notch journalism with high-tech tools like virtual reality and 360-degree video.

Journalists had a hands-on opportunity to try these tools at a National Press Foundation event showcasing  projects that won NPF’s first-ever Best Use of Technology in Journalism Award: Harvest of Change and Iowa State Fair Soapbox 360. The projects were a collaboration of Gannett Digital and the Des Moines Register.

“What we’re witnessing is the dawn of a new medium,” said Mitch Gelman, a former Gannett vice president and now a media and technology fellow at the Newseum.

Virtual reality is attractive to advertisers, Gelman said, creating a potential new revenue stream with sponsored content. There are challenges for the technology as well, including concerns over the ethics of gathering VR content, high production costs and worries that readers won’t take to it.

Another challenge: VR is not for every story. “We need a great character, great visuals and a narrative story to pull it together,” said Robert Padavick, director of 360/VR Editorial and Production at Gannett.

Without that storytelling aspect, VR is just “cotton candy,” as actor Robert Redford called it.

The cameras to shoot video for virtual reality run the gamut:

  • Good: Ricoh’s Theta, estimated cost $350 (Gelman called it “the iPhone of 360 video”)
  • Better: GoPro gear, estimated cost $1,500
  • Best: Nokia’s OZO, at an eye-popping $60,000

To help understand the journalistic potential of VR, Gannett hired Ray Soto as the creative lead for applied technology. Soto’s background is in game design.