“Who’s heard of Vice Media?” Rupert Murdoch tweeted in 2012.
Less than six years later, the answer is “everyone.”
From its roots as a 1990s punk magazine, VICE Media has grown into a multimedia empire. Although VICE Magazine still exists, the publication accounts for only a fraction of the company’s business, VICE founder Shane Smith told The Telegraph in 2013. Eighty percent of VICE Media’s business is in video content.
An emphasis on video, a brand-first approach and a lack of paywalls have all helped VICE not only gain a massive audience but also to make money doing it. In the process, the company has forced other established media outlets to rethink their own approaches.
VICE Media and the Shift to ‘Hard News’
VICE began its online life as an “edgy digital outsider,” Chris Ip writes at the Columbia Journalism Review. In the early 2010s, however, the company began to shift its focus. As David Carr noted for The New York Times in 2014, VICE’s promise to “become the next CNN” had started to gain traction.
Among VICE Media’s most notorious projects at the time were backing Dennis Rodman on a trip to North Korea, publishing Simon Ostrovsky’s dispatches from inside Ukraine (and covering Ostrovsky’s subsequent kidnapping), and releasing “The Islamic State,” a 40-minute documentary from inside a team of ISIS militants.
“Vice is deadly serious about doing real news that people, yes, even young people, will actually watch,” says Carr.
Meanwhile, other major news outlets were faltering. NBC’s Brian Williams was suspended, Al-Jazeera America’s newsroom underwent major shakeups and CNN watched its (pre-Trump) ratings plummet. All the while, VICE Media was on the rise.
Virtue and Vice: Putting Branding First
VICE attracts younger viewers by establishing itself as the real, raw alternative to slick, prepackaged news reports. But this gritty image is as carefully prepared as its competitors’ sleek one.
“Vice has been very smart and strategic in how they position themselves and how they are reflected in the media,” Manatt Digital Media director Eunice Shin told Ip. “And that’s all purposeful.”
Throughout its transition to a hard news approach, VICE’s direction and outreach has been heavily influenced by the company’s advertising arm, Virtue. Instead of taking the news as it comes, VICE’s method has been to determine what stories and approaches fit its brand, create content and then launch that content strategically with an eye to global engagement.
VICE has faced certain ethical challenges in building its news empire, and its tone has matured as a result. “With expansion comes a sense of responsibility,” Alex Miller, VICE UK’s executive creative director, told Ip. “As time goes on I don’t think that being silly, being stupid, is cool anymore. When you look at the planet, at the state that it’s in, it demands attention. It demands scrutiny. And it demands a certain level of seriousness.”
Smith sees VICE’s core mission as a relatively simple one. “We want to do three things. We want to make good content, we want to have as many eyeballs as possible see that content, and we want to make money so that we can keep paying to do that content,” the VICE founder told AdWeek.
To do that, the company focuses on maintaining the integrity of its own stories. Rather than giving its advertisers the framing they “think they want,” VICE focuses on matching the content it wants to provide to brands that can gain visibility by having their ads associated with that particular story, says AdWeek writer Emma Bailizan.
VICE’s Move to Video
Twelve years after VICE began its life as a magazine, the company made its first foray into digital video. Today, VICE’s video accounts for the vast majority of its output, organized under eleven VICE-owned websites. Its YouTube documentaries and HBO-based documentary series, in particular, have helped cement the company’s rise in the video world.
But VICE had to forge its own path. As Smith told Google, focusing on video in 2006 came with costs. “Everyone was still talking about hits and we were penalized for putting videos online because everyone was still looking at page views. No one was looking at ‘time on site.’”
Consequently, Smith said, the advice in the early years was to create “short, snackable content” — not the longer, more in-depth coverage VICE wanted to pursue. That the average VICE video viewer spent 30 minutes on the page meant nothing.
It means something today. According to VICE’s January 2016 Digital Media Kit, the company garnered 7.34 million unique page hits a month across its various channels. VICE also boasted 11 million YouTube subscribers, and YouTube viewers had spent 10.3 billion hours worldwide watching VICE’s video content. Viewers continue to tune in on YouTube to the tune of 90 million video views each month, or about 3 million every day.
But while VICE creates video content throughout its vast range of verticals, it was viewers’ responses to a particular type of content that pushed VICE to change the news world.
“The content that outstripped everything else by a huge margin was our most serious hard-hitting documentaries like Vice goes to Liberia,” Al Brown, VICE UK’s VP of programming and film, told The Guardian in 2015. “Everyone told us to make bitesized funny clips but we were putting 20-50-minute serious documentaries and they were by far the most popular thing we put up. There was a very well-connected global young hungry audience which wanted to experience big complex global stories in a way that was accessible and no one else was doing it.”
In 2016, VICE took two huge steps toward its news empire. The first was the launch of VICE News Tonight on HBO, grabbing 225,000 viewers in its debut episode, according to Deadline reporter Lisa de Moraes.
The second was VICE’s partnership with UK newspaper The Guardian, according to Deadline reporter Diana Lodderhose. The partnership supplemented one of VICE’s weaknesses while playing to one of its core strengths: VICE received access to exclusive news reporting and journalism support from The Guardian while supplying its video content expertise to Guardian staffers.
The move to video hasn’t been painless. In 2017, VICE laid off 60 people, or about 2 percent of its total staff, in order to make room for more video-focused positions, according to AdWeek’s Sami Main. The goal, according to Smith, was to create “the largest millennial video library in the world” and to expand VICE’s offerings in news and other areas.
VICE’s focus remains on speaking to its young, bright, curious audience. But to make that approach viable, the company has also had to find ways to “sell” its own place as a spot for advertising, notes Digiday’s Sahil Patel.
To do so, VICE recently partnered with Kantar and Millward Brown in order to better measure engagement and translate it to data that shows old school advertisers how the new school consumes content. “We have more demand from clients to execute on brand studies,” VICE chief media officer Oliver Laubscher tells Digiday. “This is our first step in representing branded content in a more accurate way through the help of a third party.”
VICE’s branded content still makes up a significant part of its bottom line. It has, however, raised some concerns about the company’s veracity as a news organization, including a callout from Variety that claimed VICE was padding its own engagement numbers with its advertisers’ viewers.
While VICE executives have worked to separate news from advertorial, the parallel universes have themselves raised questions about whether and to what extent other news media companies — which rely on placing advertisements, as well — maintain their own journalistic integrity.
What’s Next for Digital News Media?
In 2018, the world is a more complex place than ever. Millennials, VICE’s core demographic, are entirely adults — the tail end of the generation turns 18 this year, and its eldest members are nearing 40.
While VICE has long trusted its millennial audiences’ collective BS meter, the rise of “fake news” has become a major concern as well as a political issue. The sheer complexity of information and the critical thinking skills needed to parse it are in high demand, giving VICE an extraordinary opportunity to turn news delivery on its head — forcing other news companies to step up or fold.
VICE has patience on its side, though, and that’s a big deal for its audience. Bob Lefsetz nailed this in the Lefsetz Letter he sent out after the world saw VICE’s Charlottesville coverage. “[The video] was that powerful,” he writes. “And Vice didn’t advertise it, didn’t take a victory lap, but it did post it to YouTube for all to see.”
VICE understands that you make money in digital media by getting your content in front of people, without gatekeeping it all behind paywalls. You can hold out your hat and ask for money later. The point is to capture an audience first and hold onto it.
Lefsetz compares this model of doing business to the mp3, torrent and streaming technologies that upended the music industry: “While rockers were bitching about getting paid, rappers were posting their content on Soundcloud and Spotify and suddenly hip-hop became the sound of the nation. Not that any news outlet picked up on this, they were too busy repeating the protestations of the oldsters.”
Founder Shane Smith, however, knows that he can’t hang on forever. He’s admitted as much. A new generation will rise, and with it will come the next visionary with the next big idea for tapping into that generation’s concerns and hopes.
But while Smith is known for being provocative, VICE’s core vision has remained pure at heart. “I think [Shane] sees the media world, by and large, as a system that suffers from a bureaucratization and standardization of something that should be the most beautiful, human, cultural artistic thing,” says VICE creative officer Eddy Moretti.
“At the core of Shane’s vision is that if he holds onto that, he can cut through all the bullshit, and the company can continue to grow without losing sight of the secret behind its success.”