As a former journalist who’s pretty concerned about the future of traditional media publishing, I certainly didn’t expect to be as impressed as I was by New York Times CEO Mark Thompson and NYT new media columnist Jim Rutenberg at SXSW. They weren’t dragging their heels and bitching about the future of journalism. They were excited by its prospects.

I’d go as far as saying Thompson is a media unicorn. He’s prepared to spend money that he doesn’t have on incredibly risky ventures in order to leap ahead of his competitors. In 2015, Thompson worked with editorial teams and technologists to produce their first piece of immersive virtual reality journalism. “If we don’t take risks, we won’t exist,” he says.

Thompson explains that to pull it off, they had to get over the historic tradition of separating advertising and editorial. GE and Google contributed more than $1 million to the project. While he says there’s been a traditional separation of newsroom activity and advertising, that’s not an option anymore. Journalists have to understand that they need ads to fund good work.  “You need a cohesive team. That didn’t exist at the New York Times three years ago,” he says. We shouldn’t underestimate the cultural complexity involved in making that happen.

“We want to be at the frontier,” Thompson says. That means experimenting with data visualisation, augmented reality, podcasting and virtual reality. He says being “brave and experimental” is part of The NYT’s attempt to reposition itself as a media leader, not an old broadsheet that’s limping to its death.

“The way people absorb stories is changing and we want to be part of that,” he says. When they released their first piece of VR content, they sent one million sets of Google Cardboard to subscribers and 500,000 people downloaded the app, watching for an average of 6.5 minutes. This is an amazing engagement result for a first outing in a highly risky editorial experiment. It proved to be commercially viable for NYT and its ad partners, and the learnings should only make the next experiment better.

In 2016, the NYT plans to release several VR films. Of their subscribers, 80 per cent use digital tools to access their news. They know the future is no longer there in black and white on the page. And they’re not waiting around to see what happens. It’s not to say that there’s not a place for the written word, but the team must step up and diversify their content formats if they wish to stay relevant.

It’s exciting to hear from a publisher that isn’t downing tools in an increasingly overwhelming environment. In fact, Thompson and his team seem to be invigorated by the challenge. They’re also working with brands like no one else – Google and GE don’t interfere with the content with pop-up adds or pre-rolls, they enable the content, making the experience better for everyone.