“I’m the first full-time virtual reality editor at any publisher, so nobody knows that that means,” joked Jenna Pirog, describing her role as The New York Times Magazine’s virtual reality editor.
Indeed. Pirog, who joined the Times eight months ago after several years in the photo and tech industries, is spearheading the publication’s foray into VR, and it falls to her to figure out how to apply the immersive video format to Times articles.
Since the Times in October released its first VR film, “The Displaced,” following child refugees, it has produced six more, with the newest one focusing on the magazine’s music-themed issue for South by Southwest.
The Times’ VR films have been shot across the world, from South Sudan and Ukraine in “The Displaced” to Paris after the November attacks to the U.S./Mexican border in “10 Shots Across the Border.” A film could take as little as a week to as long as several months to stitch together.
While Pirog is the only full-time staffer devoted to VR, she works with about 30 colleagues from the Times’ newsroom, video, marketing and graphics department to create the films that live on the NYT VR app.
Pirog sits in the magazine’s pitch meetings to figure out which stories could use a VR component, asking the question: “Where can we take them that will be surprising and informative?”
With the format still in its infancy, the Times is open to experimentation. “We’re still figuring out how to use it because we’re not exactly sure what the best story is, but we keep trying new things until we figure it out,” she said.
Digiday caught up with Pirog before she heads to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival this weekend, where the Times is taking over an Austin restaurant and dubbing it as the “NYT VR HQ” consisting of panels and VR demonstrations.
Digiday Daily Newsletter
Here’s what she does, slightly edited for clarity:
7:00 a.m.: Wake up and hit snooze for 30 minutes, think about the day. Having released a VR film in both Spanish and English the week prior and two films releasing in conjunction with the Magazine’s special music issue on Thursday, I know this week will be a doozy!
7:30 a.m.: Fun fact about working in film: You can fuss with the edit until it’s time to post, which is great news for a control freak like me. My editor and I had worked the night before on a few important changes to this week’s VR doc about “The Internet,” a Los Angeles-based band that is navigating the music industry on their own terms.
We had spent a few days with the band, filming them as they prepared for a world tour, and the resulting film was feeling like a really intimate glimpse into the life of a musician. Since it takes about two hours to render the seven-minute film, I passed out. I check email and sure enough, there’s my new edit waiting to review. However, VR vids look super creepy on a flat screen; they are meant to wrap around your head so they look like a flat world map, Greenland and Antarctica disproportionately sized and stretched. I load the film into a headset and review. I think it looks sweet!
9:30 a.m.: The New York Times Magazine is on the 6th floor, so I drop my ever-present bag of VR paraphernalia (two different phones, noise-canceling headphones, Google Cardboard, VR headset, chargers, etc.) at my desk and head up to the glorious 14th floor cafeteria for a sesame bagel, coffee and chat with my favorite cashier to see how his date went the night before.
10 a.m.: Every Tuesday, the magazine holds the weekly ideas meeting, by far the best meeting I have ever attended. Imagine sitting in the room while each brilliant story editor and staff writer at one of the best magazines in the world pitches their latest story ideas, each tested by the collective wit of the group.
This meeting is a wellspring of ideas for VR content, but I am learning that every story is not right for this medium. Stories with present action that the camera can witness giving viewers access to a place they might not otherwise be able to go still work the best. My favorite ideas this week were [REDACTED] and [TOP SECRET].
11 a.m.: Time to check the beta app and test the new version of the music film in Google Cardboard, which is how most Times readers experience our VR films. I spend a large part of my days inside a Google Cardboard or another VR headset, which still cracks up my colleagues who walk by my desk. I am acutely aware that most people have still never even heard of virtual reality, so I try to treat every launch like it might be the first impression.
Noon: Quick meeting with the busiest person on the floor, Jake Silverstein, our visionary editor-in-chief. He loves VR and wants to see the final cut of the film we are launching at SXSW that Thursday before it goes live. After seven minutes watching him look around in the virtual world, he comes out of the headset with a smile on his face. He likes it! What a relief. Some notes about copy and narrative flow, and I’m back at my desk calling my editor to make changes for that afternoon’s version.
Post-production on a VR piece is no joke. We can still make tiny changes, but they have already been fine-stitching, color-correcting and creating a 360-degree sound design for the past four weeks.
1 p.m.: Meeting to discuss our plans for SXSW. I’m flying to Austin on Thursday as NYT VR is taking over a restaurant (with multiple ping pong tables!) to spread the word about our VR content. Every guest will receive a Google Cardboard and the opportunity to watch our NYT VR films in a comfortable swivel chair (still the best way to view VR) with noise-canceling headphones. (I never realized how important these are to me. Seriously, never fly without them.)
The Times’ social team has asked me to Snapchat from the NYT VR HQ. Scary! I usually only Snapchat my friends who have had a little too much to drink and are trying to start a dance party. Wait, that was me. Wait a minute, maybe that’s what I’ll do, so follow along with “nytimes” on Snapchat at SXSW!
1:15 p.m.: Since I am one of the only employees at The Times focused purely on VR, I try to set aside a little time every day to watch what other VR companies are making. I heard National Geographic put out an amazing 360-degree video over the weekend of an active volcano, so I check that out. It does not disappoint!
1:30 p.m.: Getting a story featured on the homepage of NYTimes.com is one of the best ways to drive attention to your story. They have a constant barrage of stories to choose from, so I pitch the homepage team like I would any other news outlet. Not only do they like the idea of featuring our music VR on the homepage, they are considering sending a push notification to subscribers to make sure they know there is a new film to watch in the app. Sweet. But as much as I might plan to have my film featured on the homepage, I could always get bumped for breaking news.
2 p.m.: I have a reporter headed into the field in the next few weeks to start reporting a new VR story. Lots of planning and research still needs to happen, so I take some time each day to read every piece of news I can find to be informed about the security of our destination.
3 p.m.: Since VR is a new medium with not-yet-set rules, I meet with the Times’ standards editor to give him a preview of the film to make sure we are in line with the paper’s journalistic ethics. He has a few questions about mild drug use depicted in the film. But since this is an authentic VR experience where everyone was aware they were being filmed and it’s 360 degrees (so we can’t make decisions about where to point the camera), he approves the film. Phew.
4 p.m.: Meet with one of the many VR production companies that are popping up everywhere, each with their own proprietary camera. I watch a few of their VR pieces to understand their style.
4:30 p.m.: I feel like I’ve watched a little too much VR today, so I take a few moments to lie on the floor and collect my brain. Your brain is actually tricked into thinking it’s having an experience and sometimes the effect can feel a bit like sea sickness. I’m sure tech will evolve beyond this at some point, but for now when you make VR films, you have to be careful of P.P.S. (potential puke shots). I’m already the strange, futuristic tech lover around the office, so this practice only establishes me as a weirdo even more so.
6 p.m.: I meet with the deputy director of video on a new film we want to launch. This one will be a long game, where we need to establish trust with the subjects and slowly film the action over time. It’s always the most exciting when you start something new and you don’t know exactly where it will go.
8 p.m.: Shut down my computer, load up my bag of VR paraphernalia (which I will surely need to impress my friends later that evening) and cross Eighth Avenue to Beer Authority, a pretty mediocre bar with lots of space and proximity to The New York Times building (and trivia!) to toast the reporter headed into the field.
As an editor, I am the support system while they are in the field, taking care of logistics and research and being a sounding board about what’s happening and making quick decisions so the reporter can focus on gathering the story. And in a burgeoning medium like VR, where there aren’t any rules, we are leaving lots of room for experimentation, failures, surprises and unexpected successes.