When The Gray Lady Goes Virtual

By Andrej Mrevlje |

On the September 18, 1951 the New York Times celebrated its 100th birthday, and Life magazine called it the “Gray Lady” for the first time. “The Lady is the newspaper – The New York Times – regarded by many in the world at large (and all within its own world) as the world’s greatest. And newsman generally hail it as ‘old’ and ‘gray’ by way of acknowledging its traditional special marks: starch conservatism and circumspection.”

Life never explained why the paper was called a lady and not a gentlemen. Was it for some obscure and irregular question of grammar that only native speakers might understand? I cannot tell. Or was it out of high respect for ladies in general? Or due to the eternal liberal culture that seems to dominate everything that touches the Gray Lady? But Meyer Berger, who wrote this marvelous piece, noted that at that time the paper was known by a starch conservatism. Hmm.

Whatever. Aside from the fact that we do not know what the circulation of the Gray Lady was at its 100 year mark (at least, I couldn’t find the figures), everything else seems to have remained fairly similar over the past 64 years. In 1951, the Times was put together by about 1,300 journalists. Or rather, this was the number of people – mostly journalists – who contributed to a fresh copy every morning. Presently, at the age of 164, the Times still employs over 1,000 journalists. It’s interesting to note that in the old building, which occupied good part of the block between 43rd and 44th streets, there were, “42 Teletype machines, two radio Teletype machines, 14 Western Union Morse Wires and 14 Western Union teleprinters, all grinding out some one million words a night. The product next morning – every morning – is the fullest, most expensive record of history compiled by man,” as Berger wrote.

Now, to my mind, the Times’ technology in 1950 was advanced enough that must have been superior to what State Department used at that time. The Times has always been proud of its bureaus around the world, and back then, the foreign correspondents were just as important as ambassadors. This is not true today. But, judging by Hillary Clinton, who during her service in the State Department was “forced” to use her own private server, the technology available to the federal administration still lags behind the technology of the Times. And as far as I know, all Times reporters, including its celebrity journalists, are using the company’s computers, which are operational only through a protected New York Times system. New York Times emails are also encrypted. The proof? Have you visited the Times’ new building and tried to log into their wifi? You can’t. It’s not that it’s locked with a simple password. It’s much more complicated than that.

Sure, computers, broadband, smart phones and such are not the only technology that a newspaper needs to find and report the news to consumers. The Gray Lady, at her very advanced age, is now facing much more serious challenges related to technology needed for the partial or complete digitalization of the paper – it is not clear yet which it will be.

Recently, during the Paris attacks, I was using some of the different digital platforms from around the world, while trying to gather the most possible accurate information about the dreadful killings. As I followed the news, I was not looking for blood, but trying to understand what was going on in Paris – something that I couldn’t do just by watching the stupid cable TV channels. So what I noticed was that – in overall quantity of news content, quality of information, video material, graphics and sources – the quality of news that the New York Times provides to its readers had improved substantially in the last few months. The paper now possesses (though it hasn’t yet fully used) a platform that, compared to what other media sources have, is a potential killer.

I must confess that normally I am not an avid, or even regular, reader of the Times, as my work has not allowed me to use it. But I was startled when I noticed that the Times recently joined the media sources who are trying to distinguish themselves in the field of virtual reality. “Isn’t this kind of project a bit nuts for an old lady?” I asked myself.

In fact, reading more and trying to watch the product of the paper’s efforts, I still  don’t understand why the New York Times launched this project at all. Was it because they managed to organize probably the largest communal screening of a virtual reality film ever, as New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein mentioned during his presentation of the project? Later on, the well-respected heads of the paper went to conferences and gave interviews where they repeated the same concept: it was a record for distribution. Imagine 1.3 million cardboard viewers turned into subscribers! Is this the number of total subscribers? How could one expect that anything the Times does would reach less than a million readers?

But to me, when I took the cardboard viewer in my hands – I borrowed it from a friend who subscribes to the New York Times – it felt like the one summer during my childhood when a then-gigantic Yugoslavian shoe producer distributed paper baseball hats with their brand, Peko, written on the front. It was my first experience with direct advertising. It was new, and it took me half an hour to forget about that hat.  

So what’s the game? We do not know. The only person who put more serious effort towards a discussion about whether or not an important news organization should test virtual reality tech as “a new way to tell stories” was Michael Oreskes, editorial director of NPR, who wrote: 

In this V.R. experiment we should applaud, and even emulate, the effort while also studying the details of execution. There are two sets of issues for us.

The first is inherent in the technology. The name itself sounds an alert. Our stories can’t be virtually true. They must be fully real. Silverstein notes that the images shot by a V.R. rig of many cameras must be ‘reconciled in post-production to create a wraparound environment.’ Words like ‘reconcile’ and ‘create’ would alarm any photojournalist or documentary filmmaker. Silverstein didn’t give us any more details. I’ve been told by others experimenting in this field that the wraparound environment is generated by a computer which fills in necessary details to create that powerful feeling of being there.

Oreskes made a pertinent observation, but unfortunately it did not trigger more discussion. We will have to wait to see what happens.

To learn about what is happening in the field of virtual reality in other media, I suggest you read this well-written piece in which the staff at the Week tries to answer their own questions. As the Week says, public discussion on V.R. is impossible because corporations are jealously  hiding their projects.

For whoever might be interested what is happening with virtual reality in Hollywood, the California Sunday Magazine wrote a very interesting piece on the subject.

And to close this post as I started, let me suggest that you watch this video interview with Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times. During the “Conference: Journalism + Silicon Valley,” organized by the Tow Center at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where Thompson defended the concept that quality journalism should be paid for. Recently, the Times has set out a plan to double the income from online subscribers by the year 2020 – they should have around two million online subscribers by then, which will create an income of $800 million. Thompson talked about this, and about furthering the digitalization of the paper while keeping its high quality. Thompson also explained how the paper plans to use social media like Facebook as a platform for the distribution of the high quality news products. The Interview with Thompson can be found on video on the Tow Center’s website, where it starts at the 6 minute, 24 second mark.     

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