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What it’s really like to produce a weekly virtual reality show at USA TODAY

December 12, 2016 | By Theresa Cramer – Independent Journalist @Cramerstrasse

Creating a weekly news program is a lot of work no matter what format it takes—but when you throw virtual reality into the mix, everything gets exponentially more complicated. That’s not stopping USA TODAY. Back in October, USA TODAY NETWORK announced VRtually There which it calls “the first branded news experience presented in virtual reality.”

USA TODAY has been producing Virtual Reality (VR) content since 2014, starting with Harvest of Change, a piece about the realities facing farmers in Iowa. Keira Nothaft, Director of Innovation, says that VR offers “an immersive way to bring the news to people in their homes in a very personal, interactive way.” But don’t be fooled, she says, “Creating VR or 360 news is a laborious process.”

In the case of VRtually There, each episode has three segments. The first is the “thrill me” segment, which features exciting stories about things like rollercoasters or a ride on an F18. The second is the anchor of the show, concentrating on storytelling. And the third segment which slows the show down, allowing viewers to pause and explore a place. It was original imagined as a daily show, though it was quickly scaled back, according to Niko Chauls, director emerging technology at USA TODAY NETWORK. He envisioned it as a way to “attract a new audience, create an incremental new revenue stream and build habit/routine/return visits with a regular publishing cadence.”

There’s a team in place to make it all happen; David Hamlin, Executive Producer of VRtually There, works with three staffers. Nothaft heads up the innovation team of four people, and there are also freelancers across the country ready to work on these VR stories. But it all starts with finding the right story.

“There has to be a physical imperative to do the story in VR,” says Nothaft. If someone at USA TODAY thinks they have a story that might be a fit, they bring it to Hamlin, who then talks about it with Nothaft and her team. From there, Hamlin drills down into the story with producers and much of the preproduction is similar to any video endeavor. They confirm locations and characters with the people working in the field. Once the team is in the field, Hamlin says often all he can do is pray—especially if his team is shooting in a remote location.

Despite working with a team of people who are fairly well versed in VR, Hamlin is a realist. “Nobody really has a ton of experience in 360…It’s a very collaborative process,” he says. The real difficulty begins when the content gets back to the studio and it’s time to stitch the recordings together. Right now it all has to be done by hand. Hamlin doesn’t even see the footage until after it’s been stitched together. At that point the producer usually becomes the editor, and they start working the footage into the final project we eventually see.

In a given week, Hamlin says. “Monday and Tuesday is spent assembling the pieces of the show that’s about to air. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are spent cutting next week’s show.” The fastest the team can put together a segment is two weeks, and although many segments are produced well in advance, the team also tries to leave room for timely content. For instance, they did a segment on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which needed to be aired in a timely manner.

In order to keep up with the demand for content, Hamlin and his team have to stay ahead of the game by working on multiple stories at a time. He says that in order to make the model sustainable, they are going to need to stockpile stories. As demanding as the schedule is, Hamlin says, “I do think what we’re doing is new and groundbreaking. And I’m proud to be a part of the effort. It’s brave of USATODAY.”

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