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Enjoy the view: Steamboat Pilot adds 360 video to its storytelling toolbox

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With a circulation that doesn’t quite reach 10,000, the Steamboat Pilot & Today is venturing into a digital platform that few metros are attempting: 360 video.

The Pilot launched its 360 video project—“Wish You Were Here”—in time for the Colorado resort town’s 2017 Winter Festival. Using an inexpensive 360 camera funded by its Swift Communications owners, Pilot journalists recorded the usual spectacle of the festival that involves fireworks, horses and community activities—but with spectacular 360-degree views.

The winter-oriented videos recorded so far include a virtual ride on a snow cat grooming the ski slopes and dizzying rides up on a gondola or down the runs of the Steamboat Ski Area.

Since the winter, the newspaper has expanded 360 video into restaurants with a project called “Cooking With…” Pilot photographers or reporters typically go into a restaurant aon a busy Saturday night recording 360-degree sweeps of the kitchen and conversation with the chef.

Most of the 360 videos are evergreen videos, which all live in one space on the Pilot’s steamboattoday.com website. As part of a marketing campaign for “Wish You Were Here,” the paper created postcards with the classic phrase and illustrations that are handed out at Chamber of Commerce and community events, and stacked at restaurants. And when reporters and videographers are recording events, they hand out the postcards to participants and others.

“Our goal is to create a library of “Wish You Were Here” video,” said Pilot Editor Lisa Schlichtman,” so that over time we will have a whole collection of everything you want to see about Steamboat Springs.”

The 360 videos have helped expand the reach of the Pilot’s website, where more than 40% of it traffic originates outside the Steamboat Springs market.

As Schlichtman describes it, 360 video at the newspaper is not a high-dollar operation. The camera cost about $500, though it’s not the kind of high-quality recording that, say, The New York Times uses for its “The Daily 360” videos. The Pilot also has one subscription to Adobe Premiere, which allows for easier editing and captioning. The videos usually come in under $1,000 each. And the training for the four people making 360 videos was basically learn-by-doing.

For now, the Pilot’s website does not support playing 360 video so it links to YouTube.

But there’s a conundrum for the Pilot with 360 video. The audience flocks to them in impressive numbers—but to say they don’t spend much time watching the videos is an understatement. The average viewing time for a 360 video is just eight seconds.

And that, apparently, is not an anomaly. The Pilot conducts weekly conference calls with three other Colorado papers experimenting with 360 video—The Aspen Times, Vail Daily and Summit Daily News—and is hearing they also have extremely short viewing times.

Schlichtman is at a loss to explain exactly why that’s so.

“I think they get on and do a quick sweep of the area and then they are done,” she said. “They move it all around, and maybe that’s all that we’re going to get.”

The shallow engagement obviously sets up a big barrier to monetization for small-circulation Pilot. And it sets up a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Would more people visit and stay if the 360 quality were better, or would that be money wasted?

But 360, in Schlichtman’s view, is worth it even with its present limitations: “It drives people to stories and video so I believe its still valuable because I do believe that it drives interest.”