Scott Peter Smith, is a news product thinker, producer, writer, journalist and immersive media enthusiast.

Smith is a digital news innovator and lover of media tech products who delves into immersive media for journalism. He has experience as a visual and multimedia producer and has previously built a sustainable news video division in a national multi-title newsroom for news, documentary and series productions.

Smith has also built new technology for the distribution and publishing of videos for the business and created previously non-existent revenue streams. He has launched and built the podcast division at Arena Holdings to one of the largest in South Africa across multiple shows, titles and formats and left the company in the capable hands of the team he built. He has a strong track record of editorial and product leadership. Smith loves working with cross-departmental and cross-functional teams to do great work with a win-win approach. Smith says he is “always thinking of new and better ways to do things while still building great products and producing award-winning content.”

1. Can you tell me more about your career in journalism and how your career transitioned over the years?

To give you the short version, I have been working in journalism directly for 15 years, cutting my teeth on the then South African Press Association (now defunct) wire service as a writer. While I am a well-rounded and experienced multimedia journalism practitioner now, that was before many online news sites, and certainly before YouTube and the proliferation of video and audio as a staple of journalism production.

I always had a knack for visuals and a keen interest in technology. I was always interested in the internet and all that came along with digital journalism and publishing – formats, analytics, audience, distribution, and I wanted to understand it all – how it all worked in a practical, end-user way.

Slowly my trajectory angled towards different kinds of storytelling, mostly involving technology, leading me into publisher and leadership roles grappling with the full picture of editorial, product development and revenue models. The next step and a natural one on that trajectory is immersive storytelling, and I’m all in.

South African news publishers haven’t quite embraced it yet but there are several practitioners putting out world-standard work here and on the continent.

2. What is immersive media and how does it relate to journalism?

We can go into a number of directions here but there are three main areas of experiences that fall under immersive media or extended reality.

Examples of immersive media include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality.

Virtual reality or VR is the most commonly referenced content in immersive media – one that immerses the viewer in a new environment completely. This is of direct interest to me and often the user can interact with other people and virtual objects here or simply view all kinds of 3D content which otherwise is not possible to consume.

Augmented reality or AR brings digital content into a real-world environment. This is where smartphone use and webAR come into play and can be very effective, particularly with informational or explainer journalism. Mixed reality blends the real and digital worlds in an environment where they can co-exist – some broadcasters are doing interesting work here.

To bring this to journalism in a space that I am interested in exploring – is immersion and presence. You want the audience to experience an alternate reality – experience the other; something that is critical to journalism. The idea of this presence is the feeling of being there and this can be very effective in storytelling, opening up new kinds of journalism with new messages and issues to explore. Think climate disasters, the story of a refugee on a boat, or simply being in the room where a celebrity is being interviewed.

I came across a term recently that I like – ‘storyliving’, rather than just storytelling. The focus of media consumption is shifting from the presenter to the viewer, and this can be wildly exciting if you have the right story and you produce it right; making the experience much more real and contextual.

3. How can immersive media create a more engaged audience?

In short, it allows the audience to feel empathy on a deeper level, be inspired and learn by convincing them that what they’re seeing or feeling is genuine. Often, when creating immersive content, the producers need to think in 360, along with all the sights, sounds and sometimes touch, certainly interactivity with objects in the environment, are considered as part of the whole experience. This naturally makes the experience far more captivating.

I recently interviewed a 360 documentary producer from Cape Town who shared with me how he likes to think a step beyond the considered empathy that VR can create. He referred to it as solidarity. In his case, he is working in the space of building occupations in light of the affordable housing crisis in certain parts of our cities while so many buildings are left abandoned and unused. Yes, he wants to tell the story of those people who have occupied these buildings and he does that, but producing the work in 360 video helps to create that sense of solidarity with his characters, and potential action afterward that he is looking for.

One advantage of immersive technology such as 360 videos and the creation of virtual spaces is to show things as close to real as you can get, while not actually being there. In reference to one of my own projects that I am working on in downtown Johannesburg, I want to put people in an environment that they would not only not normally have access to but would often be dangerous to do so. Immersion can bring the story I am trying to tell so much closer to home, away from statistics – and experience a real day in the life of someone living a completely different life to yours.

4. Do you think more media publications and journalists will be moving into immersive media?

Absolutely, but it is still going to take some time.  There are still some barriers to entry – namely investment in technology, time constraints, and practical issues such as distribution and audience consumption – but these are hurdles we know become smaller over time with any introduction of new technology.

Keep in mind that the story still comes first. We still have to work within the confines of professional journalism. Get that starting point right and then ask how the use of immersive technologies can help that story. Sometimes they do, sometimes not – but as the means to produce this extra layer onto what we are doing becomes easier and cheaper – we will see much more of it.

Immersive production has already become a regular and prize-giving area of the more traditional film festivals. Tribeca, Raindance, Venice, and Geneva – all have strong and extensive immersive categories with some amazing work. Non-fiction stories are very much a part of these festivals.

5. What are the types of tools of immersive media that journalists can use?

The most accessible tool at this stage would be a 360 camera which can talk to your smartphone along with a spatial audio recorder. The editing process is largely the same as 2D video and existing distribution platforms such as YouTube and Facebook do support playing 360 videos. These tools are available and cheaper than a professional DSLR camera.

There are some examples of newsrooms using 360 videos in their reporting already to varying degrees of success. But it does allow a viewer to get a true sense of what is happening at the site, creating confidence in the authenticity of what they are experiencing.

There is another technique that I am particularly interested in – especially in creating a 3D space where we could build some interactivity with a game engine and create viewer involvement in the story. This is photogrammetry – in this technique, the subject or object is captured from different angles and all the images are then processed to extract 3D depth information of different points to construct a 3D recreation of the space or object. Then we can make so many more layers to the story, building out all sorts of immersion. The New York Times and The Guardian have used these techniques.

South Africa needs to create a little more space for this, but also our markets for consumption are a little less developed to validate the hard work it takes to produce some of these experiences.

6. Do you think that interactive journalism is the future?

I generally try to avoid thinking in terms of replacing or pivoting – but immersive journalism is certainly going to be a part of the future and it will become increasingly more common and accessible for the regular news audience. In time, these productions will be democratised – becoming cheaper and faster to take to the audience. I also suspect that increasing access to 5G will have a positive impact as we need the bandwidth to move these large files around at speed and from far-flung regions.

The sense of presence obtained through virtual reality allows us to experience the news from a first-hand perspective, improving our memory of the experience but also allowing us the tools to apply what we have learned through the VR experience.

South Africa has many problems. Rather than reading about it or watching another video of a march, a press conference, or listening to another interview – wouldn’t you rather experience to a deeper level the individual’s part in that story and engage with them through immersion?

Even on a commercial level, with declining print sales and struggling revenue models, these technologies can help keep titles fresh and relevant, gathering new audiences who may just pay for these well-produced experiences.

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