By 2021, 85 million Americans will use augmented reality (AR) at least once a month, a 126 percent increase over 2017 usage numbers according to eMarketer:
AR is growing because it helps users contextualize and share the experience with minimal effort, not to mention it helps companies solve business problems. But can AR really help save a struggling industry?
Bad News — and Some Good News — for Journalism
You would be hard-pressed to find an industry in greater turmoil than journalism (no, not even retail). In 2019, Pew Research reported that newsroom employment had declined by a quarter since 2008, with the greatest decline occurring at newspapers:
The number of newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 28% between 2008 and 2018, from about 71,000 workers to 38,000. But there is a glimmer of hope: since 2008, the number of digital-native newsroom employees has increased by 82%, from about 7,400 workers to about 13,500 in 2018.
Why are digital newsrooms on the upswing? I think AR provides a very strong clue.
USA Today: “Heading in the Right Direction” with AR
The USA Today app provides a section of content delivered through AR. Audiences can dig into news events through an AR experience that ranges from the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to a virtual recreation of the first slave ship to arrive in America. As reported in Journalism.co.UK,
Since the publication published its first AR story in July 2018, USA Today has seen significant user engagement. Its project for the Women’s World Cup attracted 200,000 views, while the average time spent on last year’s Oscars project was almost four minutes — standard content achieved around 90 seconds on average.
Raymond Soto, director of emerging tech, USA Today Network, told Journalism.co.UK, “That blew our minds and told us we’re heading in the right direction when it comes to interactive storytelling in AR.”
Creating AR experiences requires that USA Today apply skills ranging from storytelling and journalism to animation and coding (which answers a longstanding question about whether journalists should know how to code). Covering an event like the Oscars gives USA Today more runway to prepare (it took the publication three weeks to create AR content for the 2019 Oscars). But USA today can move relatively quickly to cover breaking news, too, in AR: within eight hours, the publication had created an AR experience to explain the Notre-Dame fire of 2019. To be sure, eight hours is an eternity in internet time. But the point of AR in a digital newsroom is to provide an audience more context and a deeper understanding through an experience, not just to report breaking news in real-time.
Additionally, the emergence of AR should help publishers take a more mindful approach to content. Having AR available as an option necessarily triggers questions such as: what kind of content resonates best with the audience? AR? Video? Writing? Flat imagery? None of those content forms is the single answer to meeting the needs of a diverse audience. Ensuring that context and message ring true requires a more thoughtful approach to how to marry the story with the format.
AR Catching on Across the Industry
USA Today has some company. The New York Times and Washington Post have been using AR for a couple of years to provide audiences a more immersive understanding of current events. In 2019, The New Yorker began producing its iconic cartoons in AR. Publications ranging from Quartz to W are joining in as well, as newspapers and magazines look for ways to compete with the explosion of online outlets (blogs being an obvious example) that challenge premium content with free reporting (not to mention the need to consider the amassing problem of fake news).
As The Washington Post’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Jeremy Gilbert said back in 2018, “For the past two years, (the Post) has been refining the augmented reality experience for readers, experimenting with new ways to use this technology to immerse them in a place or subject. From taking readers inside some of the world’s most iconic buildings to offering them a game-like experience around the 2018 Winter Olympics, AR allows us to bring stories to life in a near-frictionless way.”
What’s Next for AR in Journalism?
AR in journalism is by no means a savior. As Digiday reported, the distribution of AR experiences is fractured by an atomized app ecosystem, and monetizing the content remains a challenge. On the other hand, AR enjoys a massive content outlet: anyone with a smartphone and access to an AR-enabled app can experience it. Our mobile devices are the equivalent of our front doorsteps that used to welcome the delivery of physical copies of newspapers before digital changed everything.
As Allan V. Cook, Managing Director, Deloitte, Digital Reality, said, “Every 10 to 15 years we have a seismic shift in how we interact with one another, as well as the level of that interaction. If I told you 10 years ago you’d use your phone 100 times a day, you’d have said I was crazy. Now the average person interacts with their phone 2,600 times a day. Ten years ago, we couldn’t perceive how impactful that single device would be.”
As Cook suggests, AR is hitting its stride at the right time: a generation of audiences that consumes and shares content on their mobile devices has achieved critical mass. In fact, publishers are barely scratching the surface of what AR can do to tell stories for a mobile-first generation.
AR gives publishers a new way to tell stories, a new way to grab the reader as they join the reporter on their conquest for truth and information. It’s proving to engage readers, which is what newspapers and magazines need to attract advertisers and ultimately stay profitable. The simple questions remain: are they moving quickly enough? Will readers grow in appreciation for AR-based news experiences?