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Left to their own vices

Launched with a drug-fuelled fanfare, one magazine has brought gonzo journalism into the digital age, earning a billion-dollar valuation in the process. Ben Machell looks beneath the covers

 

When Vice magazine launched in Britain, 10 years ago, it threw a party to celebrate. Five hundred Ecstasy tablets were procured for the occasion. The following Monday morning, the tiny editorial team working out of a shared office space in Shoreditch, East London, found they still had a load left over. The British publisher, Andrew Creighton, then in his late 20s, says he kept the pills in his desk drawer and would give them out to interns or, occasionally, drop one himself before ringing round trying to sell advertising space.

Creighton, who at one point had credit-card debt of £70,000 (HK$820,000) from trying to keep his fledgling title afloat, was having a drink with some investors when the pub’s landlord mentioned he wanted to sell up. “We were drunk and we bought it there and then. We had no money and we had to mortgage our future on it,” he remembers. “It was stupid.”

Originally founded in Canada and produced by small bureaus in New York then London, Vice was given away for free in selected clothes and record shops. The cover of the first British issue featured a line of cocaine on a mirror, and the articles included an interview with radical Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, one woman’s account of infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and the first in a series of incredibly funny, explicit sex guides. The tone was knowing – sex, drugs and parties were all common reference points – but it was also smart, direct and inquiring. The world, it seemed to suggest, was an interesting place full of interesting people, and by hanging out with them and writing about it, we could learn a few things.

“The basic approach was always ‘let’s find weird stuff and then try to explain it to people’,” says Andy Capper, a one-time court reporter for the Liverpool Daily Post who headed the original Vice British editorial team of just four full-time staff. “It was being written by kids we knew and people we were mates with,” he says, chuckling down the line from New York, where he now works as global editor of Vice. “Nobody expected it to last for very long.”

Last year, Vice Media was valued by Forbes magazine at about US$1 billion. The average age of its 800 full-time employees – working in 34 countries – is between 26 and 27. Besides the magazine, they produce videos that are put online: frontline dispatches from Syria and the Gaza Strip; documentaries about heavy metal bands in Baghdad; fashion, music and lifestyle shows. There are dedicated Vice websites in more than 20 countries, with comment, opinion and daily news items posted in addition to magazine content. Company-wide revenues for last year were reported to be about US$200 million.

In December, Vice acquired style magazine i-D for an undisclosed figure. Even its pub, the Old Blue Last, now turns a profit.

So, how did it all work out so well? The answer, at least in part, is mundane: video streaming. Around the middle of the last decade, technology that allowed us to watch and share video clips quickly and easily became available, powering websites such as YouTube. Almost from the off, Vice began to shoot its own videos and put them online for people to watch for free, exploiting the fact that, if marketed correctly and shared around by the people who watched them, it was possible to reach huge audiences for peanuts, or at least the price of a hand-held camera and plane tickets to wherever the story was. At a time when much of what we watch online is incidental – pop promos, cute animals – Vice has been churning out documentaries and original shows for the past six years.

Think of it like this: online video streaming is today what cable television was 30 years ago – reaching millions but hamstrung by patchy programming. Vice, then, is an MTV, a young, credible brand that is making the most out of the technology that delivers it. Every month, videos produced by Vice are watched 65 million times worldwide. To put this into context, in 2011 videos on the CNN news network’s website, CNN.com, were watched about 100 million times a month. But the chief executive of CNN probably never got drunk and bought a pub.

Still, to hit these kinds of numbers, you have to keep coming back to the content you produce. And while Vice has always faced dismissal from some quarters as the work of buffoonish hipsters, it has always been able to trade off a reputation for streetwise derring-do.

Capper talks about a documentary he made in 2009, The Vice Guide to Liberia. During the first Liberian civil war, there was a militia leader, Joshua Blahyi, popularly known as “General Butt Naked” because of the fact he would lead his child soldiers into battle while in the nude. He was also a cannibal.

“He did unspeakable, crazy s***,” says Capper. “And someone contacted me saying, ‘Yo! I’m in Liberia and I’ve met this guy. Do you want to do a documentary about him?’” So Capper flew to the capital, Monrovia, and produced a film exploring what’s currently the world’s second-poorest country and hanging out with Blahyi in his new life as a charismatic evangelical preacher. It’s a mix of fraught, funny and shambling: Capper and his team are shown a beach covered in human excrement, then taken to a shanty town brothel (“One of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life”), arrested by police who turn out not really to be police (“The ‘prison’ they took us to had a chimpanzee running around it”) and chased down alleys by angry mobs (“We had to get a local gang to escort us out. It was awful.”).
This kind of approach is replicated across Vice’s documentary content. A few years ago, after bribing officials, it obtained tourist visas to visit Pyongyang, capital of the world’s most secretive state, North Korea.
One thing visitors to the country are expressly forbidden from doing is covertly filming things.

“From the minute I got there, I was s*** scared,” admits Shane Smith, a Vice co-founder, at the start of the A video-editing suite at Vice’s Williamsburg office in Brooklyn, New York.

“The basic approach was always ‘let’s find weird stuff and then try to explain it to people’” eventual hour-long film. A bearded, affable Canadian with aviator sunglasses and greased-back hair, he spends much of the film looking for hidden surveillance devices in his hotel room, eating alone in eerie, empty banquet halls and being taken to designated tourist sites and choreographed public events, all the while trying to give government officials the slip. Other films about the socalled Hermit Kingdom exist – in 2010, for example, the BBC’s Newsnight programme produced its own, filmed with the permission of the North Korean state – but none exhibits the gonzo weirdness of Smith’s. At one point he gets his ever-present minder drunk on blueberry wine and the two almost get into a fight. Later, he is threatened with jail when caught filming in the wrong place.

The documentary’s finale sees him at a state-sanctioned karaoke bar, leading a room of perplexed guests in a rendition of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK.

Vice believes that this style of documentary attracts a young audience that increasingly ignores traditional mainstream media. “I think less than 30 per cent of anyone aged 18 to 35 watched any television news yesterday, which is down from 51 per cent five years ago,” says Creighton, who has graduated from publisher taking pills at his desk to president of Vice Media. “People are switching off. But what we’ve seen is people watch our news content more than any of our other videos. It’s not the titillation stuff, not the music, not the silly stuff – it’s the news documentaries getting the most attention.”

Still, the suggestion that Vice will go places other mainstream media will not is overstated, say its critics.

In a filmed interview with The New York Times reporter David Carr, Smith said the newspaper’s recent coverage of Liberia had been fluffy, focusing on its surfing and tourism. Carr stopped him. “Before you ever went there, we had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a f***ing safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.” Smith looked chastened.

It felt like Vice was a bratty kid being scolded. But the fact remains that by the end of, say, Capper’s Liberia film, you have learnt things: about the West African state’s fractured past and politics; about the fact that the World Health Organisation estimates 73 per cent of the female population were raped during the civil war; and about the power of religion, forgiveness, poverty and drugs in a part of the world most viewers would not previously have given much thought to.
Alex Miller describes this approach as “almost tricking people into learning about stuff, into caring about the world”. Miller is 29 years old, a former writer for music magazine NME and the editor-in-chief of Vice in Britain. He tells me about being tear-gassed while covering the civil unrest in Athens that helped bring down Greek prime minister George Papandreou, and kicking would-be muggers “in the balls” while filming the London riots. He describes Vice today as “a documentary company that will record the things mainstream television wouldn’t want to show, with people mainstream television wouldn’t want to present it, in a way mainstream television wouldn’t want it shot”.

He will soon visit the West Bank for something called Palestinian Youth Week, set up by former members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “I came here as a guy who could write about indie bands. Now I’m off to Palestine to make a documentary. What’s not exciting about that?” We meet at Vice’s new British offices, 12,000 square feet of open-plan workspaces and glass-walled meeting rooms. There are at least 60 people, a mix of staff and interns, working on laptops or coming in and out of the 30 video-editing suites. Finishing touches are being made to a special Syria issue. Nobody seems to be on Ecstasy.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “Because if you look at the past decade, we have basically gone from putting on loads of parties and taking drugs and staying up late and watching bands to thinking, actually, the world is changing, it’s becoming a more serious place. And you’d be perverse not to feel that there needs to be some kind of seriousness with your discourse with the planet.”

In other words, these days not knowing about what’s going on in the world is not cool. Post 9/11, the Iraq war and the global financial collapse, a generation has grown up with an instinct for both cynicism and earnestness when it comes to global affairs. Bafta-winning documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis says he believes “the Vice generation is apocalyptic and frightened. They have a vision of a dark, shadowy world which they can’t quite explain.” They are, then, providing some answers to an audience of people who want them, but who are not looking for them where their parents would have.

So Vice counts on the fact that its audience is more likely to trust news delivered by people who look and sound and speak like them.

“I think it helps that they don’t see us as being on some exalted plane,” says Miller. “We’re young and we’re fallible but, ultimately, our interests just reflect what everyone else cares about. Where’s the planet going? How did it get like this? What can I do about it?” It is also, generally, very funny. News bulletin solemnity is replaced with levity or sarcasm. Its The Hangover News blog, published each morning, delivers a news headline with the inevitable payoff “... but you were probably too drunk to notice”. Deadpan, slangy headings often introduce genuine scoops. For example: “I Spoke to the Author of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill: He’s scared about gay men ‘recruiting’ young boys into their homo club.” Or, “China Gets its First Political Sex Tape: Which is a surprise, given that some of those guys have 100 mistresses, and a truckload of enemies”.

In the office, I meet William Fairman, Rhys James and Charlet Duboc. They say they all grew up reading Vice. Over the past six months, the trio have been to Cambodia, Nigeria, Pakistan, America, Brazil, Jamaica, South Korea and Israel to film the Vice Fashion Week series, which uses fashion weeks as the backdrop to examine the popular cultures and social mores of different peoples. Two years ago, Duboc was an intern tasked with finding fashion stories.

“I wasn’t having much luck because credible fashion people didn’t want much to do with Vice,” she says. “But then I found Islamabad was having its first fashion week. I told our global editor and he almost didn’t believe me.
I looked around and it turns out there was a fashion week happening every week of the year somewhere, and nobody seemed to be reporting on it. So very quickly, he sent me to Islamabad to make a pilot. That was in January 2011. And now it’s taken over my life.”

The fast pace of filming is possible, they say, because they are used to having to wing it.

“We’ve always made our films on shoestring budgets,” says James. “Sleeping in c***py hotels, sharing rooms, staying with people’s friends. It’s the nature of being a really young company.”
And there are advantages to being young, especially when you’re filming or writing about other young people.

In December, Vice contributor Aris Roussinos uploaded an interview with Ahmed Ali Muhammad al-Swayib, the man widely credited with the killing of Colonel Gaddafi. Roussinos bumped into him at a hotel in Tripoli and, after having an AK-47 aimed angrily at his chest, convinced al-Swayib to talk. He recorded it on his BlackBerry. From his photograph, Roussinos could be an unshaven, slightly bleary-eyed student.

“And that’s the secret,” says Capper. “People look you up and down and think, ‘Well, I don’t need to have my guard up because these guys are just kids’. But it means that we’re getting s*** that news crews don’t get.

“One of the most important things with us is not falling into the trap of having this omnipotent tone you get with mainstream media that even a lot of blogs have these days. Everyone gives the impression they know everything about everything. It’s so pompous. If you can be honest and say that you don’t know everything and that the world is actually a complicated place, then that’s probably a lot more representative of reality.

“We’re not pretentious. I mean, in the pure sense of the word. We don’t pretend to be anything we’re not.

And the reality is that we know more about what’s happening in the world than a lot of people because we’ve been there and we’ve seen it. But I like that some people think we’re a load of snotty jerks.”
This year, says Creighton, Vice plans to establish its own 24-hour news coverage: “A multi-country rolling news network for young people.” He doesn’t want Vice just to be seen as “cool” now, “because ‘cool’ is just a byword for ‘small’”. He used to do presentations for investors saying he wanted Vice to be “the Time Warner of the streets”. Now, he doesn’t see why it can’t compete with mainstream media giants directly. It is his job to grandstand like this, but it doesn’t sound as farfetched as it might have done 12 months ago.

“We used to be accused of being snarky and negative. But I think we’ve always been incredibly positive. We get on planes and do it; if it’s dangerous, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re kind of childlike. From the start, we’ve always been like, holy f***, that looks awesome! I want to go there! Did you hear about this story? Let’s go!”

NI Syndication

 

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