Jake Silverstein started editing the New York Times Magazine in May 2014, after six years editing Texas Monthly. During Silverstein’s tenure as editor, then editor-in-chief at Texas Monthly,the magazine was a finalist for 15 National Magazine Awards and winner of three (he’s listed as co-author of one, the “The 50 Greatest Hamburgers in Texas“).
After joining the Times magazine, he led it through a major redesign, launched in January 2015. The Times Magazine has been nominated for eight National Magazine Awards since he became editor-in-chief, including seven in the 2016 awards. He also guided the the publication’s first virtual reality film, part of a package on refugee children called “The Displaced,” which also included photography by Lynsey Addario and three text stories. As part of “The Displaced,” The Times distributed 1.3 million Google Cardboard VR viewers to subscribers, the largest such effort to distribute VR viewers to date.
Silverstein, a native of Oakland, Calif., worked as a newspaper reporter at the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, Texas and was a contributing editor at Harper’s before joining Texas Monthly as a senior editor in 2006. He has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Texas and has written the book, “Nothing Happened and Then It Did.”
Silverstein talked with me by phone from his office in New York.
What led to this package of stories being done as a virtual reality and text and photos package? Was there something about this story that made it a great candidate, or did it happen to be up next while you were thinking about doing a VR thing?
First of all, the global refugee crisis is a story we’re thinking about constantly. The notion that we would tell a story that was directly about people who had been displaced as part of the refugee crisis was not a brand new thought. When we realized that our virtual reality launch was going to happen, I think there was very little doubt that this was the right story to tell. That was for a couple of different reasons.
We wanted to show that this technology could be used to tell a story that I believe nobody would deny is the most important story in the world right now. I think if you tell a lighter story, particularly for your inaugural effort for a brand new technology like this, the danger is it just looks kind of like a gimmick. We already had a sense for what virtual reality could do, immerse you in worlds not your own. We wanted to skip past the testing out the technology phase and actually use it to tell an important story.
We knew that a big obstacle in getting people to watch a virtual reality film would just be all the different steps that they’d have to go through. You have to download an app, you have to fold together this piece of cardboard, once you download the app you have to then download the film itself. You have to be somewhat motivated to go through all those steps. We felt that New York Times readers, who are interested in the world almost by definition, would be more likely to take those steps if they knew that waiting at the end of that process was a film that was going to tell them something about a matter of grave importance, not just a cool experience, like riding around in NASCAR or something like that.
Equipment-wise it sounds like virtual reality journalism is sort of a drop-and-pray medium – [laughs] That’s a good way to put it! – How is the experience of actually seeing what you’ve got?
A lot of the work that goes into making great VR is in choosing your locations and choosing your subjects. You don’t have as much of an opportunity, obviously, to frame and control the visual storytelling as you do in traditional film. A lot of planning and thinking went into this on the very, very front end, before we’d even sent the film crew anywhere. From a narrative standpoint we wanted to focus on children and wanted to focus on the idea of resilience, whether that’s an idea that is true and real, or whether that’s an idea that adults who feel terrible about what they ask children to go through have invented. We also knew we wanted to look at kids from a variety of different countries. The Syrian dimension to the refugee crisis was really dominating headlines for obvious reasons, it’s the country that’s had more displaced people than any other right now. But what we found really tragic about this crisis is how truly global it is. We wanted to remind people of that, and show people that there was almost this kind of unfortunate fraternity of all these children from all over the world, different cultures, different situations, but bound together in a certain experience of being displaced. We knew that we could probably only accommodate three different countries in our production time, and our budget. We had to think about, “What are the three countries?” “How do you represent different aspects of this crisis with the countries that you choose?” “Visually, what will be interesting to go back and forth between for a viewer?” All that kind of thinking went into setting up the film. We worked with Lynsey Addario, the fabulous photographer, who has shot many, many projects for the New York Times and for the New York Times magazine. She immediately had some ideas about where we wanted to be, where we would find visually arresting situations. That helped guide us before we had even dispatched a crew to the ground.
The last thing was that we knew we wanted to see a child who had been displaced from their country, who had kind of settled into this weird normalcy of life in a refugee camp, and that was our Syrian refugee, Hana, who’s in been in Lebanon for four or five years now. We knew we wanted a kid who had been displaced from his home, had been able to return to his home, because the fighting had moved on, but his home had been destroyed. We wanted to give viewers a sense of what it’s like for people, for children in particular, who have to live in the ruins of their former lives. That ended up being our Ukrainian child, Oleg. Lastly we wanted, this is the hardest of all, to try to capture a child who was literally on the move, who didn’t know what was going to happen next and who was fleeing actively. And we ended up looking in South Sudan for that type of situation. We found this boy, Chuol, who wasn’t literally fleeing when we were filming him, but he was at a refugee camp that was kind of an ad hoc camp that he is no longer at, and people were passing through on the way to someplace else. And once we kind of scoped that out and we sent the film crew out, it’s not correct to say we knew what we would see when the footage came back, but we had seen in some cases the still photography from these locations before we saw the VR, so we knew what the children themselves looked like, we knew what their environments looked like. VR, in the way we use it here, has a lot in common with portraiture, so we had a good feel for what we were going to see from the VR when it came back. Nonetheless, it was thrilling the first time we put on the headsets and saw some of the raw footage and then the first rough-cut. It was really thrilling to see it.
The VR component is paced differently than the written narratives. Each child gets about equal time, for instance, where Hana is the centerpiece of the magazine’s pieces. How did the storytelling emerge across mediums?
We always knew we wouldn’t do three full-scale feature stores in the magazine. We thought it would just end up being too much, right? We wanted to be able to focus readers in on one story and give them a sense of the other kids’ stories. And we wanted that central focus to be on this girl Hana, who’s Syrian, because Syria is kind of the epicenter of the global refugee crisis at the moment. Sue Dominus, the writer who wrote that story, is amazing. What Sue’s so good at is understanding the psychology of her subjects, understanding what they’re going through and being able to invite a reader into their consciousness, into their experience, into the way they see the world. She does that in all her stories, but in this one I think it was particularly affecting. You might even say that Sue is a particularly immersive writer, she has an ability to immerse herself in a subject’s consciousness and then hopefully immerse her reader in that consciousness as well. So one of the things I liked about having Sue as the centerpiece of the magazine package is because it sort of put her abilities as an immersive journalist head to head against the technology of VR, which is itself of course very immersive, and it showed how good old fashioned narrative storytelling can itself be an immersive medium.
She’s your John Henry.
Yeah, exactly, that’s a good way to put it!
You’ve said that you think about writing as putting on a show for the reader, and obviously VR is an actual show. How much did that play in wanting to use it for “The Displaced”?
I do think of writing as putting on a little private show for an audience of one. But I also just think magazine making is putting on a show, and in this case, the VR was obviously a big part of that. I think a lot about the audience, about the reader, what they’re going to experience, when we should be asking a lot from them, and when we shouldn’t, when we should be making things easier on them and when we should be making things more challenging. This was a project where that kind of thinking had a whole new dimension to it, because we were thinking a lot about user experience with the virtual reality. There were lots of user experience issues that came up in an editorial context. For instance, how quickly do we want to cut away from some of the shots when people are still getting used to the whole idea that they can look all around? One of our notions was each child’s story should have within it one very long cut, where you could just look around and feel as if you were not being kind of rushed along by a narrative, but just present in a scene. The first of those comes around a minute and a half or two minutes into the film, when you’re in the cucumber field with Hana. Up until that point all of the cuts have been, I don’t know, at most you’ve been with the kid in a single cut for 15 or 20 seconds. And that cut is significantly longer. The hope we had was that the viewer would actually start to relax for a little bit, would feel present in a way that you don’t when you know you are about to get cut to the next scene. Because of that relaxation, the viewer would sort of look around, and really begin to grasp the strangeness and the power of this new medium.
There’ve been questions around where journalists exist in the VR space, because it’s so immersive, it almost blurs the line between story and audience and storyteller. What did you run into on a practical level on where to put the journalist? What were the ethical questions you had to deal with?
The big one is does the journalist appear in the frame or does the journalist hit record on the rig and then try to run and get out of sight? If you’re doing the latter, there obviously can be a little bit of, coordination is maybe too strong a word, but just discussion with your subjects: “Hang on a second, I’m going to run and hide behind that tree.” That kind of thing is a new thing. You don’t do that when you’re filming traditional videos. That said, I don’t know that that level of cooperation or working together with a subject is so different from what happens in many documentary films, in which subjects are asked to stand in a certain location to tell a story. That type of work is entirely consistent with what we think of as the standards here. We’ve reviewed our film and went into it very closely with the standards editor here at the Times. We stand behind it from a journalistic perspective. But I do think there are these questions about how you arrive at your footage and how you create it and how it’s manipulated. I don’t think those are questions that are fundamentally different from the same series of questions that can be asked about a traditional documentary film.
The reality is that done right, VR has the potential to be more transparent than traditional journalism, traditional documentary filmmaking, because you can see everything. You can’t see in traditional filmmaking what’s behind the filmmaker’s head. For all you know, there could be a whole bunch of stuff behind the filmmaker’s head that is, in ways subtle or in ways not so subtle, affecting the actions and even words of the characters on screen. In VR, if it’s done right, the viewer can see everything the subject can see. I think that has the potential to be pretty radically transparent. And then the question becomes from a journalistic standpoint, if the viewer can look at whatever he or she wants, how do you as a journalist direct their attention to what you consider to be important in the frame? Because obviously that is part of the act of journalism, directing people’s attention to what you consider to be important. That’s a question we’re figuring out, and a lot of the answer has to do with simply where you decide to tell a story in the first place and who you decide to put the camera near. But there is still a rulebook for journalistic VR that’s yet to be written.
We’re very aware of the fact that this is a totally unplowed field. Nobody’s figured out how to do it repeatedly yet. There’ve been some great projects, we feel proud of our projects, we feel like it helps show the way, but it’s certainly not the last word on VR. There’re a lot of other great projects out there, stuff that we saw that we were inspired by. It’s all brand new. What’s exciting about is that it’s like the early days of film, where people are just trying different techniques. Each film we’ve done has involved a film technique in VR that we hadn’t ever seen done before and that the people we were working with hadn’t ever seen done before. It’s like each film is an opportunity to stretch this whole new technology and try something new. And that’s tremendously exciting.
Was it worth it? And the subtext is, if you were a bean counter at The New York Times, was it worth it? The corollary is, what’s next for you and VR?
The short answer to the first question of whether it was worth it is, absolutely! In a bunch of different ways. I think a lot about the business of journalism. I think it’s not something that editors should shy away from thinking about or feel ashamed to think about. I think it’s critically important that editors are invested in the ways that the work that their writers and other editors and photographers and designers…is going to be supported, whether by advertising revenue or consumer revenue. If it’s not supported it won’t get done. And I want to see more of this great work get done. So I’m always interested in types of journalism and in projects that seem as if they’re going to have the potential to be successful from a business standpoint. And this is one that has been very successful. The first film, “The Displaced”, had two major sponsors, GE and Mini, and the second film, “Take Flight,” had three sponsors, Lufthansa, the Weinstein Company and Cadillac. VR is a new and exciting tool that marketers are drawn to because of its innovation and its newness. That’s been really helpful for our business side as they try to go out there and find partners who will work together with them to generate revenue around these projects. It’s been successful.
As far as what comes next, we have a bunch of projects starting to take shape for 2016. I think we’ll be doing a lot more newsroom VR, that will emanate from breaking news events or from planned news events. We did the Paris vigils in VR and that film got a lot of views, actually many more than we thought it might get, because it was such a quick turnaround there wasn’t much of a marketing campaign around it. You can’t just post it on Twitter, people have to go and download the app or go back into the app if they already have it. We weren’t sure that would be successful but it was, and that gave us a real shot of confidence that we could continue to do more newsroom VR. That’ll be a big part of what we do in 2016. We have a few projects coming from the magazine in the first four months or so of 2016. I’m not going to announce them just yet, but one of them is another big international production like “The Displaced.”