The Economist Is Looking to Bolster Its Content With Virtual Reality and Mobile Video

British publisher stays on the cutting edge

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The Economist says its reporting and visual storytelling can be just as smart in virtual reality as it is in print.

At its Digital Content NewFronts presentation at The Standard High Line Hotel in New York today, the London-based publisher unveiled a slate of video offerings that spanned daily short-form explainers on a mobile app to longer, documentary storytelling on virtual reality headsets like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.

It's been less than a year since the 172-year-old publication launched its filmmaking arm, Economist Films, which has since released a number of 15- to 20-minute documentaries covering hard-news topics like drug legalization and physician-assisted suicide. Now, at its inaugural NewFronts event, Economist Films said it will expand a number of existing series that explore cities, companies, artists and issues around the world.

In an interview after the presentation, Economist Films president Nicholas Minter-Green said NewFronts give The Economist a chance to expand its own brand by illustrating how its coverage goes beyond politics and economics into cultural offerings, sports and social issues.

"We were NewFronts virgins up until today, so we're pleased to have got one under our belt and to share the exciting stuff that's coming up," Minter-Green said. "I think what we've shown is that we're producing high-quality work that is challenging the preconception of what The Economist is."

The Economist has already won a number of awards for its editorial and branded content. Last year, it won an award during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and last week it won two British Media Awards: one for its Economist Espresso app and another for Economist Films.

One of the most notable Economist Films additions for its second year is the virtual reality documentaries it will produce at the unit's media lab in New York. Producers already have begun experimenting with the emerging platform that has been a key component of many NewFronts presentations. In one Economist Films VR feature, "RecovVR: Mosul," viewers take a virtual tour of the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they discover centuries-old historic and religious artifacts destroyed by ISIS in 2015. A newer film features daily life in modern-day Osaka, Japan.

The Economist also announced Espresso TV, a daily video feature that ranges from two to five minutes in length. The programming will be featured in The Economist's daily Economist Espresso morning briefing news app and distributed to the publisher's more than 36 million social media followers. The Espresso app, which costs a few dollars a month and publishes a small number of short stories fives days a week, will feature a combination of newsy explainers and more evergreen posts. 

"Also, being bundled together with the Espresso app, I think people are going to love it," Minter-Green said. "It's going to be quite habit forming. Our mini documentary series that we talked about today are fantastic, and they've been getting great numbers and working well for our brands. But because they are in clusters, they're not sort of habit forming. But what I think the daily video can do is really grow an audience that is waiting and looking for it every day."

Economist Films is already partnering with a number of brands. Turkish Airlines sponsors the travel show, while EY sponsors a series on business disruption. Other advertisers for documentaries and branded content include Virgin Airlines and Salesforce.

"I think we offer a really powerful way to reach an audience that is influential and sometimes difficult to reach," Minter-Green said. "And we have that audience."

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.