New York Times Doubles Down on Virtual Reality at NewFronts

New series will focus on space exploration, the Olympics and more

It was déjà vu all over again at The New York Times' NewFronts presentation this morning, where once again, visual storytelling—and, more specifically, virtual reality—took center stage.

After kicking off the event with a live performance from musical duo Lion Babe, a stream of NYT executives and journalists came out to tout the company's achievements. Proclaiming that "the future of storytelling is visual," CEO Mark Thompson noted that over the past year, the Times has increased its investments in digital video platforms and expanded its U.S. millennial audience from 20 million in March of last year to 31 million this year, per comScore.

Evp and CRO Meredith Kopit Levien was on hand to discuss developments at the company's native advertising unit, T Brand Studio, which has now produced more than 150 projects, including several virtual reality experiences, for its partners. She also announced the launch of Story[X], a new digital division launching this summer that will develop new tools—integrating technology like augmented reality and connected automobiles—for both the Times newsroom and advertisers.

The Times' svp and assistant editor of video, Alex MacCallum, turned the focus to the company's digital video innovations, which has included live videos giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the Times newsroom during big events (via Facebook Live), immersive 360-degree tours of locations around the globe, interactive charts and more.

It was virtual reality, however, that got the bulk of the attention. "Today we stand before you as the leaders in virtual reality journalism," declared New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein, who noted that since the Times debuted its first VR film exactly one year ago, it has distributed more than 1 million Google Cardboard viewers to subscribers through a partnership with Google and GE (with plans to distribute another 300,000 this year) and debuted a VR viewer app that became the most successful product launch in Times history.

In the coming year, the company will focus on expanding its VR reach beyond its own mobile app and is in talks with several of the top VR platforms. New VR videos slated for 2016 will include a recreation of famous Olympics stadiums and a look at climate change in Antarctica, while a new all-VR series will be comprised of clips that place the viewer in "relaxing environments."

VR will also play a part in most of the six new "interactive series" announced by the Times this morning. Those include "The Fine Line," which will spotlight some of this year's top Olympic contenders and use tools like motion capture to explain their success; "The Art of Better," which focuses on the science of productivity; "Two Tales of a City," featuring two travel writers visiting the same city on different budgets; "The Inside Track," which visualizes how hit songs are made; "Chartland," which uses charts to discuss topical issues; and "Out There," a series about space exploration.

The Times is betting that VR will be a major draw for advertisers. So far, the company has created half a dozen VR videos for brands like Mini and Tag Heuer—some of which have been more successful than the Times' non-branded VR content, said associate editor Sam Dolnick. The Times is now planning to attach a sponsor to each of its new series and VR projects, per svp advertising and innovation Sebastian Tomich, and will also create tie-in branded content that can be distributed across platforms like Facebook and YouTube.