Vice, the Voice of a Generation

During the summer, Vice News achieved a grand slam by becoming the first media to infiltrate the ISIS militant terror group. But this coverage was not the only one to impress the journalistic world; indeed, Vice News also achieved remarkable work in covering the Ferguson and Ukrainecrises as well as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. This new comer in the world of information sets itself apart from the competition in numerous regards but especially because of an eye-opening fact: Vice News’ journalists are constantly on the frontlines.

Launched in the spring of 2014, Vice News is an online news site focused mainly on video content. The platform is the property of Vice Media, a network that is present in 36 countries and employs 1,500 people. Initially sold as a magazine, Vice was a precursor in the use of online video. Close to 20 years after its creation, the media produces so much content that it would be able to feed a 24-hour media channel.

The beginnings: from Montréal to Brooklyn

Vice’s story begins in 1994 with Voice of Montreal, a cultural magazine funded by the Government of Canada as part of a social integration program. Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes, all three unemployed Montrealers at the time, are entrusted with the English version of the magazine even though they have no press experience whatsoever at the time.

The three editors give the magazine a style and a soul by inspiring themselves from punk-rock fanzines and hip magazines the likes of i-D. In 1996, the three buy back the magazine and move it three years later to Brooklyn in search of new advertising partners. That is when Vice loses a letter to distinguish itself from New York magazine Village Voice.

Very quickly, Vice imposes its style and a strong identity that pleases young urbanites in search of an iconoclastic product. The content is rather bold, the tone is dry and the topics are defiant. Vice dares to cover subjects that most other medias ignore and that young adults love.

The birth of an empire: web, film, music and publishing follow the magazine

Vice diversifies its operations very quickly: to the magazine that represents its DNA are added a website (2001), a filmmaking company (Vice Films, 2003), a boutique (Vice Store, 2003), a music label (Vice Records, 2002) as well as a print publishing company (Vice Books, 2002). Although the first has difficulty finding its public at the turn of the millennium, the latter two achieve great success with the publication of The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll and the signing of successful bands the likes of Death From Above 1979The Streets and The Black Lips.

After acquiring its letters of nobility thanks to the judicious advice of Spike Jonze, Vice Film decides to focus on documentaries. In 2006, in partnership with MTV, it produces the first Vice Guide to Travel—a travel guide that is the antithesis of the traditional road guide because it focuses on the poorest places on the planet.

That same year, the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, featuring four young Iraqis who play in a heavy metal band, is crowned with success throughout the world and showcases Vice’s potential in terms of video production.

Produced for the DVD market, the film is premiered on VBS.TV, Vice’s new online platform devoted to video. When Vice undertakes its digital migration to video in 2007, the print magazine still represents close to 80% of its sales. In 2014, the magazine accounts for only 5% of the sales figure whereas 90% of the content is now in video format.

Vice’s success in the online video sector is attributable namely to its owners’ ability to implement Vice’s spirit on an increasing number of platforms. Besides Vice and Vice News, the franchise now showcases its style on a host of sites the likes of Noisey (music), Vice Sport, Munchies (food), Motherboard (science and technology), Thump (clubbing), I-D (design), Fightland (combat sports) and The Creators Project (creativity in the arts).

For Shane Smith, one of the group’s three founding members, Vice is a voice that speaks to Generation Y and that members of this generation respect. What makes the success of Vice’s online videos is both the gonzo style of the journalists in the field and the melange of genres that confronts superficial and more serious thematic subjects.

Vice is also in tune with this generation: informed, cultivated, sometimes cynical, very open when it comes to sex and drugs. Vice is the only chain where you can follow the traces of Islamic State combatants in the fieldattend a one-month long rave in Crimea and observe a young person getting high on frog venin in Amazonia.

Not only does Vice’s spirit attract a wide public, but also many budding journalists dream of working for the group and are ready to take many risks to make a name for themselves in the field. As for advertisers, they are also very intent on associating their brand with Vice’s hip brand image.

A business model focused on branded content

Vice’s business model is also a success because of the advertising that accompanies the videos (and to a lesser extent because of the banners). However, AdVice, the group’s advertising network, gives preference to associations with brands (90% of Vice’s revenue is generated by certain forms of product placement or branded content) such as Intel (which invests in TheCreators Project) and BMW (which places its cars in the shows).

In 2013, the Vice touch was celebrated by conventional television given highly respected HBO produced a documentary series jointly with the group. Among these, Basketball Diplomacyfilmed in North Korea and featuring a professional basketball team from Harlem, the North Korean national team, Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman in particular captured the public’s attention.

TV after the Web?

HBO and Vice seem to be following rather different trajectories. Whereas the cable channel is contemplating the launch of a Netflix-type web service, Vice (already 95% web-based) is now seeking to make its TV entry. In this regard, Shane Smith explains that his web advertising inventory is already sold out for the next eight months and that TV still represents three quarters of all advertising spending in the world.

For a while now, several rumours have Vice launching its own television network. The investment by Rupert Murdoch via 21st Century Fox of a 5% participation in the company’s capital (an investment estimated at $70 million) and the arrival of A&E Networks, a conglomerate formed by Disney and Hearts Corporation (an investment of $250 million), are fueling these rumours.

Late October, Canadian communications group Rogers announced a partnership of close to $100 million with Vice to launch in 2015 The Vice TV Network, a cable channel catering to the 18-34 year-old age group. It’s not a bad idea when in purely demographic terms, close to half of all Canadians will be aged between 18 and 34 years old less than seven years from now.

Both companies plan to produce content designed for mobile devices (through Rogers’ network) from downtown Toronto. Shane Smith explains that the partnership is aimed at establishing a content creation centre to produce high-end video content for a leading-edge media company that broadcasts simultaneously on mobile platforms, online and on television. Earlier in October, Vice News announced a deal with Skype, allowing them to use their technology to stream scheduled live shows on the Web.

Now in their forties, the three Voice of Montreal co-founders are at the top of a growing media empire evaluated at $2,5 billion, and plan on generating clode to $1 billion in revenues in 2016.

Fabien Loszach
Fabien Loszach holds a doctorate in sociology specialized in social imagery, art and pop culture. He works for the Brad agency as its director of interactive strategy and as a consultant in the media and digital fields. Furthermore, he contributes as a commentator to the digital culture show La sphère broadcast on Ici Radio-Canada Première. Each week, he discusses a current issue from a sociological perspective.
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