RYOT’s Molly DeWolf Swenson is using virtual reality to tell stories that provoke action

By Christina Campodonico

RYOT’s Mar Vista headquarters is a colorful playground for Molly DeWolf Swenson and her colleagues to experiment with virtual reality storytelling Photo by Maria Martin

RYOT’s Mar Vista headquarters is a colorful playground for Molly DeWolf Swenson and her colleagues to experiment with virtual reality storytelling
Photo by Maria Martin

Molly DeWolf Swenson, named one of AdWeek’s Most Influential Young Women in Media and Tech, didn’t train as a journalist, filmmaker or programmer.

But as chief marketing officer for RYOT, a Mar Vista-based media company recently acquired by The Huffington Post, Swenson has visionary ideas about how online media, virtual reality and 360-degree video can make the news not only more engaging for audiences, but also more empowering.

Espousing the principles of RYOT founders Bryn Mooser and David Darg — that reporting the news should also invite responsive action — Swenson, 28, believes the impact of a story shouldn’t end when the credits roll or a period finishes the final sentence. Rather, the end of a news item should be the beginning of an opportunity to take action.

“Think about if all news was linked to action,” she mused during a talk about the future of news for TEDxBerlin. “For one, if on every story about a natural disaster there was a way for you to donate or to give money to somebody who was affected, easily? Imagine if on every story about a piece of legislation or a representative … there was a way to register to vote or to contact that representative? Imagine if on every cat video you watched, there was a link to a local shelter where you could volunteer at or you could adopt from? … What if news agencies and media teams spent as long trying to determine potential solutions as they did on fact-checking and on sourcing their stories, and they gave readers a way to get involved instead of just feeling totally helpless?”

RYOT fills the gap between consuming news and doing something about it by linking its stories and videos to a website or phone number that readers and viewers can use to act on the information they have received.

Under Swenson, RYOT Films has taken this same approach to filmmaking and VR, producing more than a dozen socially conscious films in the past two years. These include a 360-degree video documenting the devastating aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary short “Body Team 12,” about a group of body collectors removing the remains of Ebola outbreak victims.

There is also the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival hit “Confinement,” about the cruelty of solitary confinement in American prisons. RYOT paired its haunting three-minute VR simulation of life in an 8’-by-10’ cement cell — complete with dripping water, prisoners shouting off in the distance and a narrator who was wrongfully imprisoned telling you about the psychological tolls of extreme isolation — with an ACLU petition calling on the U.S. Attorney General’s office to end solitary confinement of youth in federal custody.

This summer Swenson went to Brazil to oversee RYOT’s experimental storytelling project the “Rio Creator’s Lab,” which produced 360-degree videos that went beyond Olympics coverage to tackle cultural and socioeconomic stories surrounding the Summer Games.

But even as one of the most prolific virtual reality film producers under 30, Swenson’s path to VR was not direct. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Social Studies, she interned at the White House, competed on “American Idol” and worked with a consulting group advising celebrities about philanthropic spending. Yet her vision for VR is palpable when she talks.

“You’re not showing them something, you’re taking them somewhere,” said Swenson excitedly while discussing RYOT’s VR philosophy during a July 2016 media panel held at Google’s Venice headquarters.

The Argonaut caught up with the media influencer at RYOT’s offices on Venice Boulevard to talk about her career path, RYOT’s mission and the future of VR storytelling.

How did you get from the White House to virtual reality?

The first job I actually had out of college was at a startup modeling agency in New York. … But then ultimately I wanted to be surrounded with people that are really smart and passionate and hardworking and doing it for a greater cause. And I didn’t feel like fashion was the greater enough cause. I went from there to the White House and I got exactly that. I was surrounded by people who are incredibly hardworking and passionate and were doing it for some sort of greater good, but felt like a cog in a machine. I also didn’t love wearing pantsuits every day. It was the least attractive I’ve ever felt in my entire life: living in DC and wearing pantsuits on an unpaid intern’s budget. Coming out of that, I knew I wanted a startup environment back.

I actually ended up coming out to L.A. for Hollywood week for “American Idol.”… When I was out here I was pretty realistic about my chances of being the next American Idol, and I interviewed for a bunch of jobs. So I ended up getting a job offer after I got eliminated [from “American Idol”] from a company called Global Philanthropy Group that does philanthropic consulting for high net worth and high-profile individuals. My first three clients when I worked for them were Ben Stiller, Shakira and Kobe Bryant.

I met the co-founders of RYOT through Ben Stiller because all of Ben’s foundation work was in Haiti. Both Bryn [Mooser] and David [Darg] were working on humanitarian projects … so I met them because I was essentially giving them Ben Stiller’s money.

A year and a half in I was sort of ready to leave celebrity client services — even though that job was my dream job on paper, right? I was working with very interesting high-profile people. It was a startup. Everyone was really smart. But celebrity client services is celebrity client services. And I had the opportunity to join [RYOT] as the first hire, and I was really, really interested in the mission, which at that point was just to be the first news site that linked every story to an action that the reader could take. We actually launched the day that Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

What was that day like for you?

It was four of us in a garage. We were breaking stories before CNN was. Four people in a garage in Mar Vista would have tweets, breaking stories before massive news organizations based in Times Square. And you know, on your phone RYOT looks the same as CNN. So it’s a complete democratization of news, and we realized that it was a David-Goliath sort of moment … and of course David won. He was smaller; he was more nimble; he was smarter. Like the ability to be nimble when you are a small startup is and should be scary to these massive legacy news organizations that have gigantic overhead and Times Square rent that they have to pay. So you know the day was incredibly charged with energy. We had all of these actor and musician friends of ours tweeting about RYOT launching and saying, you know, ‘Why get your news from CNN or Washington Post when you can get it from RYOT?’

We were just the right amount of capable and delusional. To think that we could build a company from there that sold to AOL [Huffington Post’s parent company] …

You said a very interesting thing about VR on a media panel at Google Venice recently: “You’re not showing them something, you’re taking them somewhere.” Has your philosophy about virtual reality evolved? What’s the direction that you think VR is going to take now?

I think VR is best when it’s transportive. It’s most effective when it feels like you’ve just been transported to another place and when you have a welcome back to reality moment when you take off the headset. And I wouldn’t say our perspective on VR has changed, but certainly our tactics are evolving as the technology adapts. For both humanitarian aid and journalism, speed is a currency. Your ability to do both of those jobs effectively depends in part on how fast you can react. So one of the issues with VR right now and any sort of storytelling is you have to sacrifice storytelling sometimes for speed. And certainly with the technological limitations in VR and the post-production being more involved, we are definitely having to sacrifice story for just speed, in some cases.

So what we are trying to crack right now is how we can create formats in VR that are turnkey and effective for communicating news quickly. Is that just setting up the camera and having a voiceover? Is that having a host-driven narrative? We are trying out all these different things, and we haven’t figured it out yet. But it’s really great getting to experiment.

Do you remember your first experience with VR and what that was like?

The first time that I ever wore a VR headset was at a birthday party of one of our investors, who sadly passed away about a year ago. And he just had one of the VR headsets and I put it on and I watched the Cirque du Soleil experience. …  And I remember being like, ‘Wait, where are my hands and where are my feet?’ I thought I was going to be able to see them because I didn’t know the difference between augmented reality [a digital overlay on a real-world environment] and virtual reality [full sensory immersion into a computer-generated environment], and how that changes your ability to see the reality around you.

But the first one that I saw that really changed how I viewed media was our Nepal Quake Project, and it was actually bringing that home for my parents and showing it to them and watching them cry that made me think, ‘Oh my gosh this medium is going to change the way stories are told and the way news is delivered.’ Because I think for all of oral and written history everyone’s been trying to get closer to the story. … There’s no way of gaining greater proximity than virtual reality. I do think that proximity, in some ways, is an antidote to apathy. It’s very hard to ignore what’s happening 10,000 miles away if you are watching it in a VR headset and it feels like they’re standing next to you.

Journalists are traditionally supposed to be objective — stand at a distance, in a way. How do you report the news with VR, which brings you up close, but also be objective at the same time?

I think one of the reasons why VR is such a great tool is because it is true vérité. When you think about it, you can’t have a big crew and boom mics and gaffers and lighting, and you literally have to set up the camera and run away — let what happens around you unfold and capture it. And so I think that there’s less opportunity to fuck with the footage. You have to rely a bit more on a very basic sort of storytelling tools.

As far as whether or not you can get involved as a journalist, like I said in the [TEDxBerlin] talk, nowhere does it say you can’t get involved. It just says you have to seek the truth and report it. And I think those journalistic standards are actually pretty agile and pretty easily transferable into this new medium. It’s just our job as good people to make sure that the content that we are sharing and curating and creating is stuff that is going to open people’s minds in a positive way.

View RYOT’s VR and 360-degree videos at ryot.huffingtonpost.com.