NYT, Facebook launch multi-year augmented reality reporting project

The New York Times and Facebook have struck a multi-year partnership to co-develop augmented reality (AR) filters and effects on Instagram that help users access and contextualize New York Times journalism, executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: It’s the first time that The Times has experimented with augmented reality technology at scale and off of its own website and apps. The partnership also represents an evolution in the relationship between publishers and tech companies.

Details: To get the partnership off the ground, The Times has built a dedicated “AR Lab” team within its research and development unit of more than a dozen employees.

  • That team will develop augmented reality filters and effects using a Facebook platform for developers called “Spark AR Studio.”
  • Facebook will provide guidance on ways to use Spark, and in turn, The Times will provide feedback to Facebook on developer experience and features.
  • Facebook will be providing financial and technical support for the project, but it will not have any influence on the editorial side. The Times will have full control over the design and content of the effects.
  • The first few filters from the launch series will include visual interactive pieces tied to the centennial of women’s suffrage, coverage of the California wildfires and air quality during the COVID-19 lockdown, as displayed in the picture above.

How it works: Instagram users can interact with the filters and effects on the @NYTimes Instagram account profile page, under the effects tab.

  • The filters will also be available on Instagram for users to overlay onto their own pictures and videos that they share with friends.
  • “We actually think that these will be useful to convey our journalism,” says Monica Drake, assistant managing editor at The Times.
  • “When users encounter the effects through our handles or people who share the effect, we hope they come to us to find a fuller story. It gives them an entry point into our journalism.”

Between the lines: The Times has led the news industry for years in experimenting with different forms of storytelling using new technologies.

The big picture: The new partnership represents an evolution in the relationship between The New York Times and Facebook, as well as the broader dynamic between publishers and technology companies.

  • “We’re in an era where big tech companies are also big research companies,” says The Times’ head of research and development Marc Lavallee.
  • “The investment Facebook is making in AR writ large makes it so that we want to make sure that we have a good working understanding of the technology.”

Yes, but: The relationship between the two companies hasn’t always been so cozy.

  • The Times was one of the first outlets to pull from Facebook’s Instant Articles product in 2017, after it felt as though the monetization terms favored Facebook.
  • Its former CEO Mark Thompson had at times openly criticized the tech giant for its policies impacting the news industry.
  • Facebook has since begun to invest in its relationship with publishers, in part because it’s conceded that its users care a lot about consuming news on its platforms.
  • The partnership launched Wednesday will be its first long-term effort in producing sharable AR-first journalism on Instagram.

What’s next: The Times says it expects to be able to publish more filters with stories on a much more regular basis in the near future.