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Graphic by Tom Abi Samra

The Rise of VICE

Vice has risen to become one of the most popular and polarizing contemporary media outlets. How did it achieve this and will it maintain its relevance in the future?

Sep 30, 2018

If you are craving updates on the unfolding U.S. Supreme Court nomination battle, The Guardian or New York Times are probably the best resources for you. If you want to know how many flaming hot cheetos you can eat before dying, a few Google searches will provide the answer. If you want both types of information packaged into one place, fear not, there is somewhere to go. In the age of fluctuating subscriptions, threats of fake news and uncertainty about the media in general, there exists one media player ready to get dirty and change the game: Vice.
Vice Magazine was established in 1994 as an offbeat youth publication covering a range of topics including film, music, fashion, drugs and global conflicts. Over time, the company has evolved into the fully-fledged media giant which is now known as Vice. Founders Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes — who left the company in 2008 — built the company from a singular publication into the all-encompassing, cross-media platform it is today.
Starting in the early 2000s, Vice began rapidly seeking to broaden its audience and expand. Launching its U.K. branch in 2002, it has slowly built a global empire; Vice now has offices in 35 countries worldwide. Its growth was not limited to the addition of new international offices and commercial spaces, it also included diversifying their media platforms onto larger online channels. In 2006, Vice launched what would become one of its most famous segments, The Vice Guide to Travel, which brought the brand to a larger online platform and delivered content that millennials could access easily.
In 2018, the Vice empire spans across several platforms. Their television channel, Viceland, is available in about 44 countries. Viceland is separate from their successful HBO series titled Vice, which has received several Emmy Awards. Their website serves as a guide to their massive content selection. One of the most popular distribution channels for Vice has been YouTube. As a free public platform, YouTube helped Vice expand its reach to even more new consumers. With several relatively inexpensive distribution channels waiting to be picked up by the average media user, it's easy to see how Vice was able to attract public interest.
So what makes Vice so successful? There are several answers to this question, and it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly the Vice factor is. However, as a business strategy, Vice is differentiating itself from the rest of modern media. Their content focuses on fringe topics — The Emotional Side Of Camming is one of their recent articles — and keeps its audience engaged with their broad range of content and dedicated news channel, Vice News.
“Vice’s success goes along with Shane Smith, the bad boy CEO who tells it how it is. There was no media that was portraying that view effectively. Once they got some money they still kept up with their grungy vibe. People who read Vice feel unique but also involved in a community, sort of like being a part of mainstream socialism,” said Cristobal Esteves, Class of 2019.
This approach to both online publication and long form documentaries is something new to the media world. Presenters are often placed in dangerous scenarios and show viewers the grittier side of investigative reporting. One of the most famous examples being Fighting ISIS, Vice’s Emmy-nominated documentary.
“Vice’s attraction for its valuable millennial audience is predicated on the notion that it is real and raw, not plastic and prepackaged like the rest of the mainstream media world. But it may be truer to say that Vice simply packages itself more deftly than almost any other big media company,” wrote Chris Ip for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Vice has also been praised for pointing the camera in another direction by looking beyond the U.S. American-centric realm of traditional media. This perspective is partly driven by Vice’s large number of diverse offices and strategy for covering alternative stories.
“It's definitely a bit alternative, but if you accept it for what it's trying to do, you get interesting and often adventurous coverage on very real topics, to very specific I-never-would-have-known-about-it topics too,” said Jacob Chagnon, Class of 2019, who read Vice content while studying at NYU Berlin to gain a greater perspective of the city.
“The staff and target audience are obviously very young, and I can get behind that. Sometimes it can be incredibly cutting too — I remember over the summer watching a piece on an administrative worker in Raqqa, I believe, whose job it is to keep track of people missing, kidnapped, dead, etc. It was one of the most heavy, shocking, but real pieces of journalism I'd ever seen, and anything that can make me feel so much when I'm usually not very phased definitely deserves praise,” added Chagnon.
Vice’s hard-hitting content receives mixed responses around the media world. Some regard it as insightful and eye-opening, while others view it as unnecessary and crass. This polarization illustrates how Vice journalism is not without its critics. Over the years, several media outlets have argued that Vice’s blurring of the line between entertainment and journalism has gone overboard. Vice’s journalistic style, once interesting and edgy, is now slowly attacking the foundations of journalism itself.
“It’s journalism at the intersection of shallow and gullible, where they meet, high-five and compare tattoos. We get ride-alongs and interviews, though precious little information. The report from the Philippines contains one unsourced statistic about political killings but no discussion of the effects of poverty or the legacy of [U.S.] American colonization,” wrote television critic Mike Hale discussing one of Vice’s documentaries.
Users who previously enjoyed Vice’s take on news are claiming the company is employing more clickbaity titles rather than content that is raw and to the point.
“I don’t want to read an article that has a cool title just to be disappointed at the news content halfway through. ‘Lindsey Graham Just Lost it.’ What does that even mean?” said Esteves when discussing his disappointment with the direction Vice was taking, referring to a Vice News headline on his phone.
“You've gotta take a lot of what they do with a grain of salt. Or, at least be able to filter the relevant and impressive from the niche and hipster. Because at the end of the day, they're definitely trying to be young and cool. With that, you get a fresh take on many world events and also adventurous, alternative pieces with lack of regard for conventional journalistic language, among other things,” concluded Chagnon.
With millions of dollars being funneled into Vice’s coffers from companies like A&E Networks, 21st Century Fox and Disney, it's likely that Vice will continue growing and expanding. Its current expansion plans are geared toward a more global audience, especially with more foreign language content being produced. In the last year, Vice has launched its Middle Eastern project that creates lifestyle content in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. Constant evolution and expansion comes with its pitfalls — only time can tell us what will happen to Vice Media’s attempts to blur the borders of journalism and media.
Taj Chapman is a columnist. Email him at
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