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In Virtual Reality, 'The New York Times' Will Help Viewers 'Bear Witness' To Stories


You might soon experience a migrant's journey in virtual reality. Today, The New York Times announced that it will send out more than a million of the virtual reality headsets called Google Cardboard to Times subscribers. The Times will then produce short virtual reality films that people can watch. You just plug your smartphone into the headset. Jake Silverstein is editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, and he's one of the leaders of this effort. Welcome to the program.

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: The Times has tried a lot of different efforts to bring people into a story, whether it's photographic walks or short films or other multimedia. Why virtual reality?

SILVERSTEIN: Well, in terms of bringing readers or viewers into a story, there is really nothing that compares to this emerging technology of virtual reality. I mean, literally you can look all the way around in a circle. You can look up, you can look down, you can feel completely immersed in an environment. And what it does is it gives a viewer a sense of empathic connection to the people and the places in a way frankly that no other media I've experienced can do.

SHAPIRO: I think a lot of people imagine virtual reality as, like, experience an alien planet or a haunted house. There's a real entertainment value.

SILVERSTEIN: Right, right.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's the journalism value to this?

SILVERSTEIN: A lot of what - particularly in the realm of foreign reporting, what we do and what other journalistic institutions do is bear witness. And this is a way in which we can help put our leaders in a position in which they can kind of bear witness too. They can have that experience.

SHAPIRO: VCIE News has tried something similar.


SHAPIRO: I just watched a short film of theirs on this Google Cardboard headset. And it took me into a village where people had survived Ebola. You hear the waves crashing. You hear the chopping of wood.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I hear, again, a sound of men walking and children playing. We are surviving.

SHAPIRO: Is what The New York Times plans to do similar to that or are you taking this in a different direction?

SILVERSTEIN: No, it's similar to that. I mean, our film, I think, is different because we brought a different sensibility to bear on the project. It's a little bit more complicated of an effort. And then the other thing I would say is that what The New York Times is able to do is that we're able to distribute the Cardboard to our home delivery subscribers, which suddenly solves this fundamental problem of scale and distribution, which is a problem that all emerging technologies have. We are able to get over that hurdle because we have - it's funny. It's like we have through the legacy print operation the means to distribute this brand-new media - form of new media out to people through our delivery systems.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell us about the first film that you're producing on this platform. It's called "The Displaced."

SILVERSTEIN: That's right. It's called "The Displaced." What we were interested in was telling the story about the global refugee crisis but through the eyes of children, that there are 60 million people in the world who have been displaced by war and persecution right now - more than in any time since World War II - and fully half of them are children. And so what we wanted to do is pick three of those kids and try to give readers a sense of what their lives were like. There's a kid from eastern Ukraine. He's 11 years old. He's been able to return to his village after the fighting moved on, but his village has been destroyed. There's a girl, a Syrian refugee who's now in a refugee camp in Lebanon. And then there's a boy who's been internally displaced within South Sudan by violence.

SHAPIRO: And how much of a commitment is this? How many of these do you expect to do a year?

SILVERSTEIN: So we've already made one that was kind of like our - sticking our toe in the VR waters. It's a wonderful behind-the-scenes portrait of the artist JR. Then we'll have this new film "The Displaced" in the app. We'll be following up a month later with another film in December. So let me say to all of The New York Times subscribers out there, hold on to your Cardboard.


SILVERSTEIN: And then in 2016, we'll have a fourth film. And by that time we expect to have really figured out what our longer term slate of VR might look like and hopefully we'll be able to begin that longer term slate at that point.

SHAPIRO: That's Jake Silverstein, editor and chief of The New York Times Magazine who's helping to lead the effort to create virtual reality films at The New York Times. Thanks, Jake.

SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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