Situated in the heart of flyover country, the city of Des Moines, Iowa, doesn’t tend to come up in many discussions centered on the technological future of journalism. Today, however, the Des Moines Register, with a combined print and online readership of 420,000 people (average reader age: 52), is one of the first newspapers in the country to leap headfirst into the strange, alien world of virtual reality.
The interactive project debuting today is called "Harvest Of Change," a five-part story focused on five different forces driving big changes in the state of Iowa. Those five broad change agents driving the local economy are:
Each topic, which will appear as separate feature articles in the paper this week, is illustrated from the point of view of a farming family. For example, "Cultural Changes" tells the story of Matt Russell and Pat Stanley, "a same-sex couple at the forefront of the local food movement." The "Technology" part of the package is about a farm family switching from traditional to organic farming practices, and the challenges they are currently facing.
Enter the Oculus Rift, which is being used to help tell the "aging" part of the package. While the overlap between Des Moines Register's readers and the VR headset's 200,000+ early adopters is probably tiny, the team at Gannett—which owns the newspaper—saw an opportunity to serve its audience with real, difficult, and ambitious journalism refracted through the prism of a 3-D lens. (For everyone who doesn't own a Rift, you can download "Harvest Of Change" as a free app to your desktop, or play a stripped-down version of it in your browser.)
To film the Oculus footage, for three months a very small camera crew (which included a reporter and two interns) followed the Dammann family, who have been farming in Iowa for six generations. The family owns what's called a "century farm." Their dilemma: The current generation of Dammann kids might not want to keep the family legacy going.
When you put on the Rift, you are beamed into a helicopter hovering over a lush green field. Then, you're dropped into a digital replication of the Dammann family's farm, replete with animals, tractors, and buildings. All of it is built on top of the Unity 3D gaming engine. (When Gannett showed an early version of the game to the family, their initial reaction was: "Those hay bales are too big!") Actuating different items around the farm (the baby calf, hidden photographs, etc.) unlocks a different part of the Dammann family’s story. It feels like a documentary with a non-linear narrative. You are encouraged to explore.
If it strikes you a bit odd that the country’s 71st largest newspaper (and one that targets a rural audience, no less) is investing in high-tech storytelling, well, that dissonance might be the point. It's an attention-grabbing experiment, sure, but it hints at some potential future applications that newspapers on either coast might want to pay attention to. The goal was to do "explanatory journalism," says Mitch Gelman, VP of Gannett Digital. (Gannett is the parent company of the Des Moines Register.) "But we wanted to do it in a character-driven way."
I was able to try "Harvest of Change" out for a brief demo. It was a bit dizzying (as Oculus tends to be), but it immediately became apparent why, if and when virtual reality begins to seep into the mainstream, it could soon become a powerful tool for education and journalism, should it ever leave the tech world's fringes. Even if the game’s graphics don't exactly dazzle (and they don't), the beauty of the virtual farm is you don't have to cover everything; you get to pick and choose what you want to engage with. It’s kind of like going to a museum and checking out whatever catches your eye, or sparks your interest.
You can check out Des Moines Register's project here.