Shane Smith, founder of the pop culture magazine, discusses the growth of his once-underground publication and meditates on why it has achieved such acclaim.
One evening in October of last year, after a reported couple of drinks in a Brooklyn bar, Rupert Murdoch was giving a good impression of a man who thought he had seen the future. From his car on the way home he tweeted: “Who’s heard of VICE media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media. Global success.”
The months since have served to emphasise the Digger’s clairvoyance. If you hadn’t heard of Vice media back then, it is likely that now you have. In America, in particular, two archly millennial Vice stories have made the “established media”, Murdoch included, look distinctly 20th-century by comparison. The first involved the on-the-run internet millionaire, John McAfee, whose paranoid tale of drugs, murder and subterfuge in the jungly paradise of Belize dominated the daily news channels and blog sites for a few weeks before Christmas. When McAfee surfaced, having gone into hiding after being sought for questioning over the death of his neighbour, it was in the company of not only his 18-year-old girlfriend, but also a couple of young reporters from Vice. While the rest of the world’s media, as well as the Belize police force, had tried to track McAfee down, Vice had helped to smuggle the fugitive over the border into Guatemala, and also, in true chaotic gonzo fashion, succeeded in inadvertently revealing his whereabouts in a blogged photo, which carried the message, “We are with John McAfee right now, suckers!”
The second Vice scoop was perhaps even more incendiary. Last month a documentary film crew from Vice blagged its way into North Korea in the company of the NBA legend, and celebrity rehab casualty, Dennis Rodman, and the Harlem Globetrotters. The Vice crew once again could hardly believe its fortune when Rodman ended up befriending Kim Jong-Un, the recently installed supreme leader of the world’s most repressive regime, and now, apparently a basketball fan. Over the course of a couple of days, outtakes from this unlikely bromance were sent from the Hermit Kingdom via Vice.com and provoked predictably manic viral attention.
When I visit Vice’s offices in Brooklyn, co-founder Shane Smith has spent the weekend both defending Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy” and revelling in the media storm that has attended it. The story, a trademark mix of laddish farce and harder-edged foreign affairs is, he suggests, pretty much the perfect Vice exclusive. “The thing is: Dennis Rodman is absurd. North Korea is absurd. And our whole mission statement at Vice is the absurdity of the modern condition. So it made perfect sense for us.” Smith is amused and frustrated in about equal measure by the generally outraged response of Fox and CNN and the New York Times and the rest. Above all it demonstrated, he says, a certain kind of unease – perhaps even envy – at the Vice philosophy of what he calls “immersive” journalism.
How much, I wonder, did Rodman, the lavishly pierced and tattoed former lover of Madonna, know about the trip in advance?
“Well I think he was keen to go play a game with the kids there but I don’t suppose he quite got the gravity of what he was doing and where he was going. He’s not a diplomat. And frankly we did not know that Kim Jong-Un would show up. When he did, we thought: ‘Oh, OK, what happens now?’ And then, when he said, ‘Hey, everyone come back to my place for dinner!’ we were quite gobsmacked.”
In some ways it was a logical conclusion to what has been a long-term obsession for Smith. He visited the police state a couple of times in 2007 to film The Vice Guide to North Korea, a documentary of pre-conceived weirdness which did not stray far from what heavy-handed minders allowed. Smith was, in any case, subsequently banned from returning, but felt he had unfinished business in Pyongyang. He believes the Rodman stunt served a wider purpose, giving his film crew “unparalleled access” to the regime for a documentary on which they are still working.
“People turned round and said we ate food with this guy [Kim Jong-Un] and people are starving in North Korea. So you are saying no diplomat can ever eat food with a bad leader? That’s half the world gone. It’s just we had an idea of how to get in and how to get access and it worked. But when people like [former Clinton spokesman, now a TV political journalist] George Stephanopoulos ask Dennis Rodman about foreign policy and people are surprised he doesn’t understand all the subtlety, I mean who is shocked by that?”
Is it journalism in any sense, though, or just a curious, contrived spectacle? “Well,” he says, “we are getting a story that everyone is interested in seeing and nobody else could get. People call us ‘adventure journalists’ or ‘daredevil journalists’ or whatever. But in an insane world the mad way often works …”
Smith has high hopes that the Rodman documentary will surpass the million-plus hits reached by Vice’s 2009 interview, by Smith himself, with Joshua Blahyi, known as General Butt Naked, the cannibal warlord of Liberia. “Both are crazy stories with sad and tragic underpinnings,” he says. “But a news story for us is the same as for everyone; we like our stories to punch you in the face.”
Does he ever feel that he weights his stories more to the punch in the face, and less to the sad and tragic underpinnings?
“The easy answer is no. If you look at the story we did about the slave labour camps of Liberia,” he says, [another strand of the Vice Guide to Liberia] “we broke the story, it was an important story. This guy General Butt Naked killed 20,000 people and ate some of them. I don’t know how you would go about further sensationalising those facts.”
Shane Smith is a burly 42-year-old Canadian, whose vast glass-sided office is dominated at one end by a stuffed grizzly bear in front of a blown-up photo of the snow-capped Rockies. He is a direct and charming talker, but he carries just the vaguest hint that if there were any literal punching in the face to be done, he would not be taking a step back. The Vice offices are in a corner of recently gentrified Williamsburg, on a street decorated with expensively commissioned graffiti and bookended by slightly contrived boho cafes. The office itself is on the site of a former brewery, but any sense that this is a sort of slacker’s paradise is dispelled when you step inside, and teams of intense twentysomethings are busily convening everywhere you look to discuss this magazine spread, or that mobile platform, or the latest YouTube offering or marketing collaboration.
Vice has come an awful long way from its origins as a free and underground music magazine in Smith’s native Montreal 20 years ago. He created it with a couple of friends – having persuaded the city fathers to let them take over an earnest community title called the Voice. In the two decades since Vice dropped its middle “o” it has grown from being a “hipsters’ bible”, given away on street corners and in record stores, to a global brand with offices in 34 countries. The high-traffic online and documentary film incarnations of the Vice sensibility are about to spawn a 24-hour terrestrial news channel available in 18 countries. A documentary series in partnership with august HBO will include the Rodman and McAfee films. There is also a record label and an ad agency, Virtue, which numbers Nike and Dell among its clients. Announcing some of those departures at an industry event in Abu Dhabi last year, Smith envisioned “a changing of the guard within the media,” and announced his ambition for Vice to become both the largest online media network in the world and “the voice of the angry youth”.
To back up this fighting talk, Spike Jonze, the disruptive intelligence behind the film Being John Malkovich and the Jackass franchise, was installed in 2007 as creative director. Two years ago a consortium that included Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP advertising group, and Tom Freston, founder of MTV, invested a reported $50m in Vice media. Since the company purchased Vice.com (formerly a porn site) the same year, revenues have doubled to a reported $200m in 2012, on which insiders suggest an unverified 20 per cent profit margin. Smith talks of 3,000 contributors, though the official payroll is about 850. The average age of a Vice journalist is 25, but scanning the screen-staring ranks of the magazine’s newsroom that seems on the high side. It is easy to see why, on his visit here, Rupert Murdoch might suddenly have felt all of his 82 years.
Smith retains a centralised control of his ever-shoutier multi-platform mouthpiece. “We have a global editor, then we have domestic editors and content directors each country that we are in,” he says. “They send in the stories they want to do and we say ‘great, let’s do it’, or ‘no, let’s not do it’. And we make a call that this would be good for online, this would be good for mobile, this would be good for the mag, this would be good for TV and so on.”
He remains insistently involved with every stage of that decision-making. “We are releasing so much content now,” he says, “that there is a probability otherwise that it will run away with itself. You know, if you are Henry Ford you better give a shit about making cars. And if you are making grapple grommets you better give a shit about grapple grommets. We are in the business of creating content so I better give a shit about that.”
Before meeting Smith I’ve been trying to get a proper immersive sense of what that content might include. There is above all a sort of attention-deficit quality to Vice’s output, shifting abruptly between tones and sensibilities. To take just the current magazine for example, lengthy closely reported articles about expat Jewish Americans settling illegally on the West Bank and the rise of Swedish fascism rub up against vaguely cruel spreads about Elvis lookalikes and high-concept fashion shoots. There is a voyeuristic Dazed and Confused edge to a lot of it, done with the production values of National Geographic, and occasionally the kind of easy misogyny that has seen the magazine banned from campuses (though Smith insists that the readership, particularly online, “is not skewed as much to the male as you might think – no more than 60 per cent”). Regular features include “Do’s and Don’ts” which offers a surrealist commentary on random snapshots of people, fashion victims and other candidly photographed unfortunates, in the street or in clubs or bars, sometimes bleakly funny, sometimes laced with the kind of bullying rhetoric of anonymous blogging. Alongside that there is an indefatigable effort to find a musement in the world – there have been popular “Vice Guides” to everything from anal sex to Mecca – and a commitment to understanding, however brutally, or surreally, the margins of global culture. The writing owes something to the golden age of British style and music magazines, the Face and NME and the rest, self-consciously erudite or smugly postmodern, and something to the packaged curiosity, and patient storytelling, of Reader’s Digest.
Smith and his less visible co-founder Suroosh Alvi have the unusual ability both to curate this slightly dysfunctional mix and sell it smoothly to advertisers and anyone else who might listen. He gestures intermittently toward his and the magazine’s “DIY punk origins”, but you guess he was always more Malcolm McLaren than Johnny Rotten. “We were a quintessential Gen X magazine, and we are now a quintessential Gen Y company,” he will say.
How does he define that particular alphabetical shift? I wonder.
“Well,” he says, “20 years ago we were the hipsters’ bible and all that crap, and then we went online, and famously, or famously at least in Vice lore, we reinvented ourselves. We like to say, in reference to Dylan, ‘We are not afraid to go electric’. We let our very high-profile editors go. We handed the thing over to kids straight out of school and let them run our magazine. And that has allowed us to become this Gen Y platform. It took us 10 years to get to a million copies of the magazine, and it took us one year to get to 10m uniques [online browsers] a month.”
And how does he measure success himself?
“For me personally, you always think when you are starting out, I am going to make a nebulous amount of money, buy an island, wear an Amadeus wig and go naked and be crazy. But, you know, I was talking recently to Spike [Jonze] and he said ‘Take money out of the equation. And ask yourself what would you do?’ and I realised two things: first I would pay money to do the job I am doing, and second I wanted to build the next CNN, the next ESPN. And I also realised that given the digital revolution that is not only within my grasp, but I am frontrunner to get there. Once I realised money isn’t the report card, and putting your imprint on the world’s cultural fabric is possible, that is when we stopped scrabbling around on the periphery begging for money, and thought ‘let’s go for it’.”
It may not sound much of a business plan, but the money duly followed “in buckets”. It’s in Smith’s interest to say so, but you pretty much believe him when he suggests that every private equity firm or media corporation around has tried to buy Vice at one time or another. Rupert Murdoch was only the latest mogul enthusiast for the company, he suggests.
“We have had everyone in here. Hearst, Time, Condé, Google. It was funny, we were in a meeting with News Corp and Rupert walked in, and I said, ‘You should come by the office some time, check out the shop’. And he said, ‘Well let’s go now’. So we drove out here and I walked him round, we had a drink in a bar round the corner. And I suppose because he is recognisable people started tweeting…”
Smith explains Murdoch’s fascination with Vice as only natural. He has the feeling that in the “boardrooms of every major media company they are saying, ‘OK we need Gen Y, we need online, we need social, we need mobile, and we don’t have any of that stuff. We need it globally, we need scale and we need to be able to monetise all that.’ So they look around to see who ticks those boxes and eventually they come to us. They come out here and see all the kids working 18 hours a day and everyone really passiona