Shoot and publish: 360 journalism on a small market budget

By on December 6, 2017

ONA Alaska leader Kyle Hopkins has been experimenting with 360 cameras along with the KTUU newsroom in Anchorage. We asked him to tell us what they’re learning along the way and how they’re planning to develop these projects. Join ONA Alaska or find an ONA Local group near you to stay up to date on future opportunities to share ideas and learn from peers in your community.

In Alaska, many of the best stories live in farflung towns and villages that can only be reached by plane or boat. Travel gets expensive quickly here, so we’re always looking for ways to make the most out of every hour on the ground in locations where we might not return for years, if ever.

In the past, that meant bringing a DSLR and taking dozens of still photos for online galleries and shooting loads of b-roll. But as 360 cameras became more affordable, we began to experiment with some low-cost options. The goal: If one of our broadcast photographers, reporters or multimedia journalists is going somewhere cool, they’ll have a 360 cam in their kit.

We’re market 147. The tools have to be affordable. So we started with a Theta S, which an editor for the Washington Post recommended as a good entry-level camera, and a 360 Fly. The Theta traveled with our crews along the Iditarod Trail to an island ghost town and glacier ice caves. From the start, the results were mixed.
Link: A recent 360 package shot on remote Alaska islands

What worked:

  • Still 360 photos in visually interesting places where there was something to see in every direction, such as messy homeless camps in the forest or even outside the window of a small plane.
  • Landscape portraits. The Northern Lights can sometimes be seen outside Anchorage and one of our photojournalists has been capturing some beautiful shots with the Theta S.
  • “Walk with me” videos in which a reporter is exploring a new location for the first time.
  • Facebook (for now). The algorithm smiles on 360 clips, or at least it did when we began to publish photos and videos directly to our page. Our followers seemed to like the Facebook display, in which you move your phone around to see different views of the 360 image.
  • Samsung Gear 360 (for the price). We’ll likely try and pick up the new Theta V, because our interactive map requires Theta pics, but the 2017 edition of the Samsung camera was a good option at under $200. We have to be prepared to lose any camera we buy when it gets knocked off a dog sled.

What didn’t:

  • Headsets. The video quality just wasn’t there yet. Even when we could convince someone to open our videos in YouTube and put their phone in a headset, the results were meh.
  • The 360 4K Fly, frankly. We liked the idea that it was compatible with GoPro mounts and could take a beating, but the resulting videos were a little too muddy to be more than a novelty.
  • Audio. The built-in microphones produce tinny audio with voices drowned out by ambient noise. On a recent trip we experimented with capturing audio separately and marrying the video and audio clips in editing, but that can be a real challenge given the huge size of the files. (In other words: Sooo much wind noise.)
  • Editing, in general. We are accustomed to editing for broadcast television and typically do not use Adobe Premiere or other software that might lend itself to fine-tuning 360 clips and audio. The Samsung 360 Gear comes with editing software that got the job done for a recent 360 package but took far too long to process, and it was a struggle to tweak the audio track. Save yourself some heartache and look for projects where you can just shoot and publish.

For the first year we decided to focus on still photos and, given the amount of travel we do for stories, worked to create an interactive map to display the work and highlight some of the cool places we visit.

I’m no developer, but I signed up for Carto to create the map. We found that, at the time, there seemed to be no options for embedding a 360 photo on a map without asking the user to click through to another page. Carto came to the rescue and volunteered to work with us to create a custom map that we were eventually able to iframe on to a page of our website.

Link: KTUU’s Alaska 360 interactive map

The limitations of the older cameras are evident on the map, even in still photos, and the older Theta videos can be hard to watch. But we figured the cameras would keep getting better and less expensive while we learned this new storytelling language. Sure enough, we recently borrowed a new(ish) Samsung 360 Gear and began experimenting with our first narrated 360 packages.

The bottom line:

VR and 360 cams encounter a lot of skepticism in our market as some people believe they are cool in concept but not in practice. We think they are a legit tool that can be used for anything from an awesome social media push to your broadcast story, to the best storytelling tool for certain projects. The technology might not be there yet, at least on a budget, but we hope to be primed and ready to make use of these cameras as they keep getting better.


Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is ONA's Director of Programs. She is currently leading the AI in Journalism Initiative and ONA's emerging technology strategy. She is responsible for creating programs and initiatives to train ONA members and connect them to tackle big issues facing our field.