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How Vice Lost its Edge

How Vice Lost its Edge

It’s 1994 and the sound of a whirring Macintosh SE 20SC reverberates throughout Shane Smith’s Montreal apartment. Smith is joined by his childhood friend Suroosh Alvi and fellow journalist Gavin McInnes. Three men, in their late twenties, sitting sprawled out in various positions around the mismatched apartment. With a 16-page slightly stained zine laying open on the table titled “Voice – Hate literature + Beastie Boys + Peter Bagge”, Smith scooches his chair along the…. Yeah yeah, you get the picture. 

This isn’t an accurate reenactment of Vice’s humble beginnings. I frankly have no idea if now billionaire media tycoon and Vice co-founder Shane Smith owned a Mac, a Dell, or a typewriter for that matter. But what I do know (sort of) is that Vice has lost its edge.

What Vice is trying to do is to get a new audience interested in the world

Fareed Zakaria, Video Producer for VICE

Now before I delve into the details of this decaying media giant, a little context is required.

Starting out as a free magazine in the mid-nineties, Vice has always had a bit of a bad boy reputation. Think of it as the Hunter S. Thompson of the news media world – a bit rogue, very brash, and with a somewhat romanticised view of hard drug use. As you turned the pages of its early additions you could expect to find stories ranging from the First Chechen War to pseudo-intellectual pieces titled “The Vice Guide To Happiness”. It was where your Dick Cheney hate monologue rubbed shoulders with your post-punk revival piece.

The Canadian-born magazine, at its heart, offered an outlet for young people that had grown tired of the mainstream. And sometimes not always in the most tasteful ways: “The Vice Guide to Shagging Muslims”… more on this later. 

Its early success rested on one man’s ability to not only see how the dot-com bubble was going to redefine the news landscape, but to then carve out his own patch of this lucrative web equity. Described by fellow founder Gavin McInnes as Bullshitter Shane, Smith was one of the first to pursue two ideas that would come to redefine the media business.

In 2006, Vice started Virtue, a cleverly named ad agency that allowed the magazine to expand its creative talents on behalf of brands. A year later, Vice became one of the first digital-media outlets to get into online video. With the help of vbs.tv. Vice was granted a fund of $2 million courtesy of Viacom. It doesn’t exactly seem visionary these days, turning everything you’re doing in print into a digital format, but at the time (and given the magazine’s ability to tap into the youth zeitgeist) Smith and the boys were in the money.  

More ‘Jackass’ Than Journalism.

US News and World Report

What elevated Vice above its media publishing peers was its desire to tackle controversial subjects through innovative formats.

Basketball Diplomacy, the HBO/Vice mini series that saw notoriously ostentatious basketball legend Denis Rodman visit the shores of North Korea, perfectly encapsulates Smith’s digital vision for the company. Upon visiting the hermit kingdom during a propaganda tour, Smith laid eyes on a basketball, signed by Michael Jordan, that was given to Kim Jong-il by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. This was a ‘Eureka!’ moment in the company’s history. Smith quickly realised that he could use the Supreme Leader’s fondness of basketball to infiltrate the hermit kingdom and promote Vice.

He was later quoted in an interview with Adweek saying “if I could pull off a stunt where the most hermetic leader of the most hermetic fucking country in the world works with me to do a stunt to promote my TV show, then every TV fucking company in the world should hire me to work for them.” This unruly and socially provocative documentary helped pave the way for Vice’s future video ventures, giving Smith a huge share in the youth market and representing a cultural shift from the margins to the mainstream. 

Uganda’s Moonshine Epidemic

The early video production at Vice managed to capture its countercultural double-page spreads from the magazine and repackage them for the big screen. The founders had become friendly with filmmaker Spike Jonze, who helped develop the ‘Vice’ signature style: sending Smith, Alvi, or any other bearded New Yorker into some bombed-out armpit of the world to film a loosely connected story that somehow managed to tie in Uganda’s moonshine epidemic with the Detroit drift scene dripping in PCP.

This blend of Gonzo journalism and socially provocative content that is neither left nor right-leaning was one of the reasons Vice is the juggernaut it is today. But that’s just not really the case anymore… 

Detroit’s Illegal Car Meets

Everyone was caught up in the Obama afterglow for four months. Then they went back to the blow and the models.

Kate Albright-Hanna

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when Vice stopped delivering its side of the cultural bargain. Around 2013 Vice stuffed its proverbial pockets with about $70 million of Rupert Murdoch’s money, and since then the company’s history can be divided (as described by employees) into Old Vice and New Vice, with the only disagreement being the precise moment of the shift.

Yes, you could argue that Vice, like all of us, had to engage in the painful process of growing up, shedding its machismo pot-riddled frat boy undertones for good. But in doing so it lost something.

When Kate Albright-Hanna joined the company in the mid-2000s, Vice had its structural issues. The company was operating like a fraternity, where its longstanding (male) members were fitted with gold Vice signet rings for services to the cause and its other execs had little to show for their commitment. Vice employed a hiring strategy that revolved around the “22 rule”: “Hire 22-year-olds, pay them $22,000, and work them 22 hours a day.” Certainly not a commendable attribute. 

Shane would always say that young people are the No. 1 bullshit detector, which was annoying once you realized that the thing he mastered is getting young people to buy shit

Ex Senior Employee at VICE

It’s an Icarus-esque story of a magazine that flew too close to the multimedia sun. Smith had a vision that resulted in the company being overvalued and culturally bloated.

By 2014, Vice had outgrown its office and announced it was taking over space in South Williamsburg occupied in part by Death by Audio, a local music venue, which annoyed the very people who used to be Vice’s biggest fans. Alienating the original subscribers of Vice’s take on the world was possibly Smith’s greatest blunder.

Put aside the lavish personal spending, the $10 billion Disney deal that never materialised, and look at what Vice writes about now. Granted, its video content is still respectable, but it’s written pieces couldn’t hold a metaphorical candle to its original work. 

Vice was a whiskey on the rocks and now it’s an Innocent Smoothie        

The company went woke and stopped taking risks. Take its 2014 article titled “The 123 Worst Musicians of All Time” – it seems to fit squarely into the Vice tradition (“Jimi Hendrix: This guy could only play one instrument”). Yet the writer was criticised on the grounds that the article was “too mean”. It’s this lack of journalistic bravado that has finished Vice as a countercultural icon.

Long gone are the days of provocative and offensive writing from Vice: you won’t find a title like “The Vice Guide to Shagging Muslims” or “Gay or Girls” (in which two blindfolded men received oral sex from a man and woman and had to guess which was which) and that’s certainly a good thing. But what’s been lost in the magazines’ cultural cleansing is its bleak humour and its anarchistic soul.

There’s almost an irony in Vice’s fall from grace. Smith and his gang of literary renegades have tried to sustain the appearance of being both rebellious and dependable, only to have the credibility of The Times with the posture of a drinking buddy. 


Words by Charlie Castillo.

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