Each day this week, the Des Moines Register is releasing a new chapter of its innovative series Harvest of Change.
The project examines the reshaping and reimagining of Iowa farms and farm families as they respond to sweeping changes in American life. Their stories are told through a fascinating blend of print journalism, 360-degree video, and the emerging technology of virtual reality.
The series is getting a lot of attention for its use of new tools of the journalistic trade.
One of the series’ chapters is being hailed as a first-of-its-kind virtual reality news report. It tells the story of a sixth-generation Iowa farming family that’s challenged to maintain its traditions while adapting to the globalized world of agribusiness. It incorporates spiraling video that records sound and images in all directions, and uses the technology of Oculus VR, a computerized gaming platform that puts you into a simulated 3-D version of fields, grain silos, and cows.
You need an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset to achieve the immersive 3-D experience, but it’s impressive just with a plain old laptop and their plug-in app. The virtual tour roams the 1888 farmhouse, barns, fields, and various workshops. You can pause to interact with family members and farm animals, listen in on conversations, poke around inside of machinery engines, or click through to 3-D infographics and explorative video.
The whiz-bang effects are fun and fascinating, but it’s the very human stories that make the series so compelling.
The series examines five change agents that are remaking rural America—aging, culture, immigration, technology, and globalization. Each day views a topic through the lens of a different farming family. There’s an aging father and son, a same-sex couple, and a Laotian immigrant. Their stories bring to life the broad themes of change: a graying urbanite who’s returned to his rural roots and ancestral home; a conventional farmer whose miller refuses to process his genetically-modified corn; and a rookie farmer with a commitment to chemical-free practices but whose crops are crowded out by weeds.
I’m guessing you’re not a regular reader of the Des Moines Register.
It’s a pretty safe bet these days when even an influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper has an annual readership that adds up to about 20 minutes worth of traffic on Buzzfeed. And yet the Register has undertaken this risky, ambitious, and technology-driven endeavor. The parallel that runs between newspaper journalism and agriculture, the storyteller and the story, is itself one of the more powerful narratives of sweeping demographic and economic change told through Harvest of Change.