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W hy The New York Times Cares About Carboard

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Nick Cotton Oct 27, 2015


The New York Times recently announced a partnership with Google to give away one million Virtual Reality headsets to their subscribers.

The concept of virtual reality caught the imagination of the nation in the ’90s, with the popularity of films like The Lawnmower Man. But – much like the beloved hoverboard – it’s taking much longer for science to catch up with science fiction. After a few failed attempts, VR stuttered and fell out of the public eye.

Fast forward to 2012 when a high-end consumer VR headset called the Oculus Rift raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter. That seed money went to create a dev kit that impressed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg so much he wrote a check for $2 billion. After that unambiguous show of confidence from a social media giant, the tech world jumped on board the VR bandwagon. Samsung, FOVE, Zeiss, Razer and Avegant all have virtual reality headsets you can buy right now. Sony, HTC, and Microsoft have headsets expected to be released in competition with Facebook’s Oculus Rift in 2016. All of them are positioning themselves to dominate the future of high-end consumer entertainment.

Google has a different plan. And the New York Times has jumped on board.

Google created their own VR headset in 2014. The ingeniously named Google Cardboard is a project designed to introduce the general public to the most recent advances in virtual reality. The notion sounds implausible but the execution couldn’t be simpler. All it takes is a folded bit of cardboard, which you can purchase for as little as $17, and a smartphone. The user downloads an app onto their phone, slips the phone into the cardboard box, puts the box up to his or her face and VIRTUAL REALITY!

It’s that simple. Anyone with a smartphone is just $17 away from a top-of-the-line experience. But there’s one small hiccup: content. It doesn’t matter how cheap the headsets are if there is nothing worth watching.

The New York Times has decided to fill the void by committing to the weekly creation of virtual reality journalism. What does that look like? I don’t know. It doesn’t exist yet. We all get to experience it for the first time when they release their NYT VR app on Nov. 5th alongside their first VR news story, “The Displaced.”  It’s an in-depth view of the lives of three children displaced by war in South Sudan, eastern Ukraine and Syria. Light and breazy. Perfect subject matter for format where you can’t look away.  

All companies with subscription models should take note. The addition of VR is going to deliver four key benefits for the NY Times:

1) They win the news  cycles – both with the giveaway and by being the first major newspaper to be producing VR content
2) Increase the newspapers perceived value to those who already subscribe
3) Appeal to VR fans who are desperate for quality content
4) Rationalize the cost of subscription for those who think news should be free

Let’s unpack the last point because it’s key.

Subscribing to news coverage is an old model of doing business. The new generation doesn’t see value in paying for articles when there is so much free content at their fingertips. But virtual reality isn’t at anyone’s fingertips. It’s new, it’s cutting edge and quality in this new format is hard to find. Over time that will change, but until then, VR fans are willing to pay for VR experiences.

By adding virtual reality content behind their paywall, The New York Times is hoping to make subscriptions to their newspaper more appealing to millennials and early adopters.

How many other business could come to the same conclusion? The race is on.

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