What is Vice Media's Shane Smith really selling? It's hard to say, but everyone's buying
A little after 3:00 on Thursday afternoon, Shane Smith, the voluble, bear-like co-founder of Vice Media, walked into the Soho loft space that had been selected as this year's headquarters for Internet Week New York, the annual confabulation of all things digital.
He took a seat on a small black riser next to Internet Week chairman David-Michel Davies, who promised a keynote that would be different from the many other moderated discussions dotting the more than weeklong schedule.
Instead of the typical Q & A format, this one would start with a narrated video and slide presentation by the 42-year-old Smith, dressed as always in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, about "what Vice has been up to."
What hasn't Vice been up to? In the fall, after the pornography site vice.com finally went under, Vice got its hands on the URL and announced plans to move all its content there, with new channels organized into topics like Style, Food, Travel, Sports and News. The new site would debut content partnerships with The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and other "mainstream" media, as well as sponsored deals with brands like Mini, Vitamin Water and countless others.
In cable television, Vice partnerships with CNN and MTV were already water under the bridge by the time the company announced last week that it was producing a weekly newsmagazine for HBO, with guidance from top TV-news talent like Bill Maher and Fareed Zakaria. At Vice's presentation during the recent "upfronts," in which networks pitch their wares to advertisers, Smith let slip that a "news channel" partnership with Bloomberg TV was in the works.
THE COMPANY THAT STARTED IN 1996 WHEN Smith and his friends took a magazine called the Voice of Montreal, stripped out the Montreal bit and took out the "o" in "voice" before relocating to Brooklyn in a bid to lure streetwear advertisers, is now an international media conglomerate with 800 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenue, backed at least in part by British advertising and marketing behemoth WPP.
People were here at Internet Week to talk about the Internet, to congratulate each other and to sell their stuff. But Smith wasn't quite having it.
He walked the audience through coverage of the upfronts, mocking the efforts of the legacy networks to appear young and hip, to explain their brands with stunts like painting taxis to make the point that they are "colorful."
And he showed the audience "some of the things we're shooting around the world right now that makes us nervous."
On two flat-screen TVs flanking the stage, footage appeared from stories about suicide bombers in Afghanistan and violence in Venezuela. In one clip, a bunch of guys in the street were waving around rocket propelled grenades in Taliban-infested Karachi.
It's a combustible mix, and one that advertisers, increasingly, believe will really reach the young demographic that television is losing its grip on.
"Young people are disenfranchised," Smith said, speaking of the thinking behind the forthcoming HBO show, which will be called "Vice."
"They don't consume news media in the same way anymore," he said. "We wanted to do a '60 Minutes' for young people. HBO allowed us the freedom to do it."
Seeing what Vice comes up with is never confusing. It's been producing this brand of dark, off-beat journalism for years now, both through its flagship U.S. magazine, its 25 or so international editions, and the online video arm it launched in 2007. (There was also a short-lived MTV show called "The Vice Guide to Everything" that debuted in 2010).
But Smith's pitches can be baffling. "'60 Minutes' for young people" hardly sounds like something that will blow up your television. When he said later on during his chat that to reach young people, you have to "entertainmentize the news," it didn't sound very different from the kind of mainstream-media ethos that took root in the '80s, and which a younger Matt Groening enjoyed lampooning in his earliest cartoons. (And we know where Groening's brand of outsider critique got him.)
Much of Smith's 15-minute presentation and the half-hour discussion that followed was a politically-charged tirade about the world's angry young people from Wall Street to Athens to Tahrir Square. He must have used some variation of the word "fuck" at least a hundred times.
"We're at these upfronts," he said, "where we're giving away cars, where we're painting cabs different colors, where we're coming up with all these different show formats for young people, but what the fuck is happening in the world?"
Vice is here to tell you: Segments being mulled for season one of the HBO program, which Smith will co-host and co-executive-produce, according to a press release circulated last week, include: "Taliban child suicide bombers; North Korean slave labor camps; New York’s underground voodoo heroin clinics; Somalian pirates; and Satanic dentists in the Pacific Northwest."
The target audience, and Smith's ability to sell them to people with deep pockets and a profound distrust of their own understanding of young people's ideas, is the reason so many blue-chip brands (Nike, Intel, etc.) are clamoring to do business with him. If it all seems a bit like it was created specifically to shock parents, that's precisely what advertisers are thinking they need.
"Basically, young people all over the world are pissed off," said Smith. "They're fucking angry. And I don't know about you, but there's nothing that's scarier than young people who have no future."
And that's sort of where it gets confusing. Is it the role of Smith's brand of television to incite anger? Or to move angry people to give their money to this brand instead of that? Or to pacify them? In delivering the Angry Youth to CNN, MTV, Bloomberg, Nike and Intel, what is Vice's place in its own generation? It's not quite clear that Smith himself is sure of, or perhaps quite ready to admit, the answer. And he probably doesn't need to.
SMITH'S GENUINE PASSION FOR PARACHUTING INTO the dark corners of the world to tell important stories is matched by a certain zealous swagger. It gets a little tiresome to keep hearing about how he and his Vice cohort actually have the balls to pull it off, as if The New York Times and CNN don't also have boots on the ground in places like Syria and Libya, where, as Smith put it, "young people are actually overthrowing dictators." As if no one else has ever reported on Congolese conflict minerals and two-week traffic jams in China.
"When you're seeing these states failing and you see young people getting more and more militant, you're saying, well, you know, where's the media that covers this?," he said. "If we're the ones saying shit's fucked up, then you know we're in trouble. When you go out into the world and see what's happening now, you sit there and go, if fucking Vice is saying, hold on a minute people, we should fucking be doing something a lot more serious, then you know the world's fucked."
This was the same type of rhetoric that once earned Smith a scolding from Times writer David Carr, who, during a 2010 interview captured in the documentary Page One, responded thusly to Smith's dig at the paper of record's coverage of surfing in Liberia, where Vice had alternately gotten a tour of the country's feces-strewn shoreline from a local warlord called Buck Naked: "Before you ever went there," said Carr, "we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do."
But the truth is, Vice is good at what it does, too. Its current affairs coverage is idiosyncratic and bold, combining the curiosity and reporting muscle of traditional journalism with a willingness to break the rules and, above all, a sense of humor.
Watching a Vice segment, you have no trouble imagining how it will move media more in the direction young people want to see it move in, even if going off on rants about that movement kind of kills the romance.
"Young people are going to be activists," Smith told his audience, "and they are going to be activists with their money. And what we wanna do is say, OK, here's the information on what this actually really means."
That's anger worth paying for.