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How Editor Jake Silverstein Got the New York Times Into Virtual Reality (Q&A)

It all started with, "Want to see something cool?"

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for New York Times

Back in February, Jake Silverstein, the newly minted editor of the New York Times Magazine, got an off-the-cuff visit from Sam Dolnick, a gregarious and energetic editor at the paper and a key member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family that controls the Times. He walked into Silverstein’s office carrying a Google Cardboard viewer, basically a beige box affixed with plastic magnifying glasses.

He held it up and said, “Hey, want to see something cool?”

This past weekend, 1.3 million Times subscribers also got to see something cool. The publisher sent out the virtual-reality viewer piggybacked to each Saturday print edition to promote its first virtual-reality film, “The Displaced,” a distressing document of the global refugee crisis as seen through the eyes of three children. The film confronts viewers with the kids’ immediate surroundings — a debris-riddled classroom, a deadly marsh, young exiles laboring in a cucumber patch.

It was the culmination of a rough idea hatched in that February meeting, and last week, Silverstein introduced the film to a comfortable crowd of Manhattan media types at a cocktail event. CEO Mark Thompson warmed up the audience by joking that Silverstein’s virtual-reality ploy was the kind of “irresponsible … crazy exercise that we as a company should do more of.”

 Jake Silverstein, editor of the New York Times Magazine
Jake Silverstein, editor of the New York Times Magazine
Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for the New York Times

Silverstein sees it as a new type of storytelling that could become crucial to the paper’s future.

“This will really be a watershed moment in the emergence of this new technology, particularly in the journalism space and what it means for institutions like the New York Times,” he told the crowd, adding that the delivery of Google Cardboard to Times readers accounted for “the largest distribution of virtual-reality viewers in the history of the world.”

A lot of superlatives.

Silverstein, 40, isn’t afraid to take large leaps, whether it’s spending a year in South America to retrace the paths of his favorite poets, or lighting out for a quirky, West Texas border town where he landed his first newsroom gig before eventually running Texas Monthly and then the Times Magazine. Re/code spoke to the young editor to expand on his views and to discuss how the Times is transforming itself into a digital publisher.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: You used to live in New York when you were an intern at Harper’s Magazine in the late ’90s, and now you’ve returned in pretty grand fashion as the editor of the New York Times Magazine. I don’t know that you can get better than that. How is it being back in New York?

Silverstein: I have a lot of friends up here, so it was good to be back here. Most of all, from a professional standpoint. This is a great time to be at the New York Times Magazine, a great time to arrive.

Really? The Times’ business hasn’t been super great. The digital side is doing well, but there are major challenges for the paper. Is it really a great time?

There have been harder times to have been here, like during the economic downturn. But the last couple years have been transition years here. There’s a tremendous amount of energy and appetite for change. And the Innovation Report … my whole time at the Times was post-Innovation Report. That memo leaked four days after I arrived. A lot of people talked about how that report kicked down some doors. So, for me, my whole experience of the Times as an employee has been during a period of really open conversation.

I’ve heard similarly from insiders. People are more comfortable trying different things, especially on the digital front. But people also seem more relaxed, especially after Dean Baquet, the executive editor, took over the newsroom from Jill Abramson.

She hired me, so I’m very fond of her. From everything I know, she is an amazing journalist. And Dean, his spirit of open-mindedness and creativity has really been a higher part of the advancements the paper has made.

You’re officially a New Yorker now, but you grew up in the Bay Area.

Oakland, California. I went to Berkeley High. But I basically missed the entire tech boom. By the time I started thinking about moving back in the 2000s, everything was a lot more expensive.

Did you ever consider working in tech?

I had no aspiration to work in tech. I was in New York right after college and was trying to primarily write poetry in my off time. I was having a hard time writing. I then moved to West Texas, to a town called Marfa, where I worked at the Big Bend Sentinel, the only other newspaper I worked for besides the New York Times.

So how did virtual reality come about at the Times? Even for those intensely interested in VR, ideas for its mainstream use typically center on gaming or film, not newspapers or magazines.

In early 2015, we began talking to various virtual-reality studios, and pretty quickly we saw the potential to do some important reporting using virtual reality. The challenge at that point was how would you get it to readers? How would you solve the scale problem? Then, almost concurrently, we were down in SXSW, and we had a meeting with Aaron Luber at Google about Google Cardboard. They were looking for a media partner like us to do a distribution deal. So those two conversations came together fairly harmoniously.

But there was a kernel moment. How did you even come to the idea that a magazine could do a virtual reality film?

Two things: In November of 2014, we did our annual innovations issue, and in it we did a whole piece on virtual reality. And Facebook acquired Oculus and got everybody all excited about it, and we sent Virginia Heffernan to try out the Oculus Rift. So it could’ve come from her but also from Bill Wasik, one of the deputy editors here. A lot of people were part of this.

A still from New York Times Magazine virtual reality story “The Displaced”
A still from New York Times Magazine virtual reality story “The Displaced”

And the company brass just went along with it? They weren’t like, “You’re the editor, just fix the words, please. What’s this virtual reality thing?”

There were some very appropriate questions about whether or not the business case was there yet for virtual reality. The idea was make sure there’s a strong business case for doing this and not something that’s just cool and has a one-off potential, but something that has some lasting value and could be a welcome business for us.

This relates to what Dean Baquet was talking about at our Code/Media conference. He said it’s important for editors to pay attention to the business, not just the words.

That sort of thinking for an editor is way more common in the magazine world than in the newspaper world, so it’s not uncommon for me to think that way. Magazine editors see themselves as faces of a business. It’s much more common for them to go on sales calls with their publishers. And it’s also a case of people who are my age coming up in this business who never knew an era where it was easy to make money. So we’re all running around worried that the money will stop coming, so we’re much more attuned to the need to make things pay.

I noticed that all the top brass were at the event, including Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, but also David Perpich, his nephew and head of Times product, and Sam Dolnick, another family member who’s now associate editor. So you had a lot of backing, clearly.

I can’t say enough how much Sam was a part of this. It all began with Sam walking into my office in February.

(Editor’s note: Dolnick offered his comments in a separate conversation.)

Sam Dolnick: Just before I met with Jake, I had met with Vrse Works (a VR studio), and I was completely blown away with what they showed me. Within 30 seconds you realize this is going to be a big deal. And the magazine is the place for blue-chip storytelling at the Times, and it was clear that’s where we should take it.

And Jake is incredibly ambitious and is game for anything, so the magazine was the right home for this. After I showed him the video, I don’t think it took him a full minute to grasp it. He put the Cardboard down, and he said, “I’m in.”

Silverstein: Sam has been a shepherding presence of this whole project. He’s definitely a person internally who had the vision that virtual reality has a place at the Times. And where there was some skepticism for a business case, Sam’s enthusiasm pushed it along immeasurably. The whole project is an interesting example of how the Times is working together interdepartmentally — everyone had a stake in the movie, from tech to video to the magazine to print distribution.

Sam compared it to an episode of “Game of Thrones,” where all the different warlords of the different factions had to come together: “And this is the thing my tribe has had to contribute …”

It really exercised all the muscles of the New York Times.

So should we expect more virtual reality films soon?

We have a really exciting project that’s coming in December, and another we’ll have for early next year.

What are they about?

I can’t tell you.

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