Playing It Cool
Dana, Rebecca, Newsweek
Byline: Rebecca Dana
Can Vice get 20-somethings to watch the news?
When Middle Eastern riots spread to Tunisia in September, culminating in an attack on the U.S. embassy there, America's leading news organizations spent tens of thousands of dollars moving experienced reporters, producers, and cameramen to the action. Vice Media, a Brooklyn-based digital news and entertainment company, sent a guy from Wisconsin.
The writer, a student doing Middle Eastern-studies research at a nearby university, filed a dispatch for the site that went up within hours of the assault. In it, he described leaving class, hopping in his professor's car, and following a plume of smoke to the embassy, where he watched teenagers and middle-aged Salafis wreak havoc. Living and studying in Tunisia, he had a ready command of local politics, allowing him to fluently explain the reasons for the alliance between poor, young people and religious extremists.
The dispatch was personal, vivid, compelling, and cheap. For a small fraction of what a mainstream-media reporter would make for a day's work, Vice got a fast on-the-scene account of a major world event, written by a relatable, articulate young person. This is the special recipe of Vice and the reason this Brooklyn-based hipster outlet has exploded over the last decade into a rollicking global media brand.
"We used to just want to survive," says Vice cofounder and chief executive Shane Smith. "Now we have lofty ambitions. We want to be the Time Warner of the Web." It's not as crazy as it sounds.
Vice Media began in 1994 as a tiny independent Canadian magazine. The magazine still exists--this year it was nominated for an American Society of Magazine Editors award for general excellence--but in the last decade, the focus of the business shifted online, where Vice posts a mix of short documentaries, blog items, lighthearted features, and reported pieces, filtered by category into verticals for news, videos, music, fashion, photos, travel, and so on. Vice also has a division that produces marketing campaigns for major companies and a dizzying array of scripted and unscripted television and film projects in the works. Come 2013, Vice will make an aggressive push further into the news business, relaunching its news vertical with dramatically expanded coverage.
The site's topics are not what's original--it covers essentially the same content categories you'd find in any traditional media outlet. Except for one key difference: Vice is cool. Its posture--pared down to its most basic articulation--is essentially: "Holy s--t! Look at this crazy thing!" Says cofounder Suroosh Alvi, "We do smart things in a stupid way and stupid things in a smart way." In Smith's coinage, "We investigate the absurdity of the modern condition."
That applies as much to riots in Tunisia as it does to Fashion Week, which Vice covered by, among other things, examining the derrieres of various attendees. It animates interviews with Pakistani arms dealers, African child soldiers, and random young people who just had sex (a recurring Vice feature). The effect combines the frat-house goofiness of Jackass, the swaggering showmanship of Hunter S. Thompson, and a tradition of scrappy, old-school investigative reporting. What it does not do is impersonate the voice-of-God style of traditional media. "We don't do the thing where we have a guy stand with a microphone saying, 'Forty-two people died in Fallujah today,'" Smith says.
"Our style is very experiential," says Rocco Castoro, a onetime Vice intern who at the tender age of 30 is the editor in chief of the site and the monthly magazine Vice distributes free at carefully selected locations (like American Apparel stores). "It is unabashedly subjective in many ways, which is not to say we want to be polemic and not get facts right. We cover things through experience and immersion."
The Vice method is pretty straightforward: a young person goes somewhere and describes what's happening and how it feels to be there. …