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For The New York Times Co., A Very Real Bet on Virtual Reality

By Tim Beyers – Oct 21, 2015 at 8:00PM

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Starting next month, over 1 million home delivery subscribers to get the tools to watch stories in a new way.

Credit: Alphabet via Google+. 

Neither newsprint nor HTML code is enough for The New York Times Co. (NYT 0.76%) to tell stories anymore. The Old Gray Lady is teaming with one-time enemy Google -- or, as it's now known, Alphabet (GOOGL 0.97%) (GOOG 1.00%) -- to add virtual reality to its repertoire

On Tuesday, the Times unveiled NYT VR, a new platform for delivering immersive virtual-reality films. Its first is called The Displaced and tells the story of three children uprooted by war. The New York Times Magazine teamed with producer Chris Milk and his virtual-reality company, Vrse, to produce the documentary.

Subscribers will be able to view the film beginning the weekend of Nov. 7-8, the same weekend the Times distributes the Google Cardboard do-it-yourself virtual-reality viewer to 1 million home-delivery subscribers. Times Insider members and an unspecified number of digital subscribers will also be given codes to redeem a viewer free of charge.

The $2 billion bet that changed how we see VR
For old guys like me, this is what virtual reality looks like: 

That's from the 1994 film Disclosure, adapted from Michael Crichton's novel of the same name. Others think of gaming and the Oculus Rift virtual-reality system acquired by Facebook in its $2 billion purchase of Oculus in March of last year.

Earlier this year, M&A firm Digi-Capital estimated the market for virtual-reality tech would top $30 billion by 2020. "VR film" occupies a portion of that figure, though given the other options (VR theme parks, VR games, VR hardware, and so on), it's likely that Digi-Capital refers to films that entertain rather than educate.

So why should investors care that the Times is using VR for immersive news narrative? Simple. Circulation problems are rising at all U.S. newspapers. In fact, a study by the Pew Research Center found that top-tier newspapers such as the Times endured a 4% drop in weekday circulation last year after two years of gains. VR offers existing readers a reason to stick around and new readers a different way to experience the Times' style of reporting.

"The great irony here is that it takes the print newspaper -- a 164-year-old business -- and its still remarkable distribution system to deliver one of the most advanced digital storytelling technologies to more than a million people," said Meredith Kopit Levien, Times Co. executive vice president and chief revenue officer, in a press release announcing the breakthrough.

Real cash from virtual reality
VR also offers new advertising opportunities. In this case, readers who opt to watch The Displaced will also be exposed to sponsored VR films from General Electric (GE -0.27%), with a short that explores how industrial and technology design takes cues from nature, and carmaker Mini, with two shorts titled Backwater and Real Memories.

For investors, the additional placements are encouraging if not surprising. GE has recently amped up its creative efforts. In May, YouTube star Sally LePage became the company's first "creator-in-residence," charged with producing videos to help engage millennials in matters of science and technology.

In sponsoring LePage and teaming with the Times, GE is at least partly returning to its roots as an early backer of television programming with General Electric Theater, which starred President Reagan for most of its 10 seasons on the air.

Finally, it's worth noting that even without sponsors, New York Times Co. is in a better position financially to invest in VR than it was just a couple of years ago. Cash from operations more than doubled to $80.5 million last year and is up to $138.1 million over the trailing 12 months, S&P Capital IQ reports. A little risk-taking seems warranted, even if it comes with a dose of irony.

The company best known for covering the problems and possibilties of the real world may find its best opportunity in the virtual one.

Tim Beyers is one of millions of writers who've never written for The New York Times. He's also a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission and owned shares of Alphabet (A and C class) at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool.

The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares) and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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