Can ‘Vice’ keep it real, after lauds from the media establishment’s most establishmenty award-dealers?

Vice grows up. ()
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Remember ten years ago, when Vice was mostly just this slick hipster rag that you'd pick up for free on the floor of some grimey record shop in the East Village, and maybe you'd skim through it while sitting around your friends' apartment drinking beer on a Friday night, but really you only cared about the Do's and Don'ts, and the photos of pale topless girls with knobby knees, and the consistenly venomous record reviews?

In 2012, Vice is still free, and you can still find it on the floors of record shops, and it still has all of that other stuff, too. But the Brooklyn-based monthly also has something that the Vice of the early 2000s probably never would have envisioned in its wildest dreams (or worst nightmares): A chance at beating The New Yorker (and New York, and GQ and Bloomberg Businessweek) in this year's National Magazine Awards.

Vice, meet The Establishment.

Of course, the two are already well acquainted. It's just that it is part of Vice's popular appeal to downplay that. Right down to the official reaction to the news that they had been nominated in the grand prize category of "General Excellence" for "general interest" titles.

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"It is ... the first time we can tell our parents what we do for a living without shame," read a brief statement circulated by the magazine Tuesday afternoon. "To the rest of the industry, we would like to say: Thank you for finally waking up and realizing we do it better than you. We will not forget and will make sure you don't either."

It's not that the magazine's rise in the ranks of the good and the great has been fast to arrive; it's been around for 18 years, and has morphed in that time into a major international media brand. It's just that, until fairly recently, you might not have had a reason to utter "Vice" and "The New Yorker" in the same breath.

"I still kind of feel like it's a prank," said editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro a few hours after the announcement came over the transom.

He and publisher John Martin were halfway through courses of pork and lamb's heart at Parish Hall in Williamsburg when their smart phones lit up.

"I think it's pretty appropriate that we were eating heart when we got the news," said Castoro.

If nothing else, the nomination to what is arguably the most coveted accolade in the magazine world (along with a first for indie music staple The Fader in the general excellence category for specialty publications) is a sign that disruption within the industry is not confined to websites and iPads.

"It's surprising," said Castoro, "but at the same time, when you look at everyone else nominated in that category, they're all great magazines, but I would hope that when the judges looked at them and then looked at us, they thought, 'What the fuck is this?' It's completely distinguished from the other nominees, and I think that had a lot to do with it."

To read the coverage of Vice that has been popping up with an increasing degree of regularity in the mainstream press, one might forget that amid the many-tentacled media empire it has spawed (online video network, record label, publishing arm, etc.), there is still a flagship print magazine that comes out every month and doesn't cost anything if you pick it up in one of the more than 1,500 spots where it is distributed in the U.S. alone. (Lucrative print ads have long been a staple of the Vice business model, which has branched out in recent years to include partnerships with corporations like MTV, CNN and Intel.)

But the magazine itself, said Castoro, 30, who succeeded longtime editor Jesse Pearson in 2011 after joining Vice as an intern 5 years earlier (watch out, David Remnick!), is better than it ever has been, flush with its signature irreverent prose, provactive photo essays, and more and more of the type of ambitious long-form journalism that makes ASME judges salivate.

That includes stories that might not fly in more august publications: "Paintballing with Hezbollah" for instance, or Castoro's week-long immersion in a reclusive (and press-averse) Siberian religious cult.

"I love Harper's, and I love The New Yorker. Same with GQ. I read them all regularly," said Castoro. "But I feel like maybe with some of those magazines, it's like, a certain article could appear in this one or that one, and it wouldn't really make a difference. And I feel like most of the stories you read in Vice, you would not find anywhere else. You could look at one of our stories without design, or a layout, or a title, and be like, 'that's a Vice story.' I don't feel like you can say that about many magazines."

So it will be worth sticking around until the end of this year's awards gala, scheduled for May 3 at the New York Marriot Marquis. (Last year's dragged on to hair-pulling lengths, a miscalculation that the organizers have promised will not happen again.)

In the meantime, Castoro is gearing up for his next few issues. The April edition, with a Hollywood Babylon-inspired "showbiz" theme, features an interview with and cover designed by octogenerian experimental film legend Kenneth Anger. (Possibly the strangest interview Castoro's ever done, he said.) After that, it's onto the annual photo and fiction issues in June and July.