VICE Media has become a global media empire, but what makes them so unique?
EAST LANSING – Immersive, in-depth reporting. Raw, offbeat topics. Not giving a sh*t. These are three things that define VICE Media. Since its birth in 1994 as a small, free punk magazine called Voice of Montreal, VICE has grown to be a colossal presence in the media. Their ability to push boundaries within reason has gained the admiration of fans from all around the globe; they currently operate out of 36 offices worldwide. VICE didn’t get where it is today by abiding by traditional media tactics. They are constantly innovating and looking for new ways to create, distribute and monetize their premium content.
VICE was founded by Shane Smith, Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi, and since then, its multimedia presence has erupted. The company currently boasts a network of digital channels, a television and film production studio, a record label, a book publishing center, a newly-launched television channel called VICELAND and VICE.com, a major producer of online original content. With so many moving parts, keeping everything integrated can be an issue.
Keeping it all connected
Throughout his seven years as executive editor of VICE.com, Jonathan Smith has played a major part in the maturation of the site. “VICE.com was just me and one other guy,” said Smith. “It was what we found interesting or funny or stupid that day. We kind of operated inside of a vacuum, in the sense that we didn’t pay attention to what other companies were doing.” As the brand evolved and resources became more plentiful, Smith saw a need to incorporate more mainstream news coverage in their daily content.
“As we’ve grown we’ve had to branch out and commission things that pertain to what is on the Internet on any given day,” said Smith. “We want to make sure we still really care about what we’re covering.” Sometimes it’s difficult to bring that certain “Vice-ness” to topics being covered by every major publication. “We always try to find a unique angle, like an original interview with a source no one else has spoken to, or take a completely different angle altogether on those stories everyone is covering.”
The launch of VICELAND has presented several hurdles for VICE.com to overcome. “We are in a very unique position as a company with so many different platforms,” said Smith. “Our challenge for 2016 is how to integrate our departments in ways no other company has done before, because no other company has been as connected as we are.” The channel officially began broadcasting on February 29, and since then, VICE.com has been shifting how it operates. They are working towards a more defined partnership between the editorial and video production sectors. Before, there were stories that worked with text and those that worked for video; it was rare that a topic would be covered in both forms. Now, each new episode that premieres on VICELAND will be accompanied by an article on the site that will incorporate the same themes. “The way forward in the future for our company is figuring out more effective ways to distribute across different platforms and make them play off each other.”
It’s not just about desktop visits
VICE has also made strides to deliver their content through mobile applications. Two free iPhone apps, “VICE” and “VICE NEWS”, deliver content available on VICE.com and subchannels, and the free iPad app “VICE MAGAZINE” provides a paperless copy of the print magazine. The Pew Research Center reports 15 million unique visitors to VICE.com and its corresponding app in January 2015 alone. VICE NEWS saw 1.1 million subscribers combined with 175 million video views in early 2015.
The company also has a presence on another social network whose tremendous growth shows no signs of slowing down any time soon: Snapchat. There are 20 publications on the “Discover” page of the app, and VICE publishes quick-read stories on their channel on a daily basis. Roughly 100 million Snapchatters use the app every single day, with over 8 billion daily video views. The majority of these users fall within the 13-34 age group, which is a demographic whose attention is not always held by traditional media tactics. As one of just 20 brands on the Discover page, VICE has opened the door to an enormous audience that may not have been exposed to their content through other delivery systems.
No one enjoys waiting for the ad to finish
VICE favors sponsored content for the majority of their longer pieces, where a brief “brought to you by…” plays right before the video, rather than full video ads or commercial breaks. Traditional ad techniques are invasive and deter viewers by forcing them to wait until they can skip the ad or watch it all the way through. Their approach allows the sponsor to still get their name out there, without the annoyance of an irrelevant video to watch. According to the Pew Research Center, $50.7 billion was spent on digital advertisements in 2014, up 18 percent from 2013. Of that $50.7 billion, $19 billion was spent on mobile ads, equalling roughly 37 percent of all ads that ran in 2014. Banner ads have always dominated, bringing in 49 percent of all digital ad revenue in 2014. Surprisingly, the types of sponsorships that VICE holds so dear rank last among digital categories, bringing in only $2 billion in 2014. The fact that VICE has had such success with this type of advertising shows how they are able to constantly differentiate themselves from their competitors, and are experts at monetizing their content in ways that keep both sponsors and consumers happy.
Is Virtual Reality our future reality?
Virtual reality (VR) has been on the brink of a major breakthrough into mainstream media for a while now. Everyone knows that it’s the logical next step for the future of journalism, but many organizations are afraid to make that landmark investment in the technology. “It reminds me of people in the 1960s thinking new technology is bullsh*t”, said Smith. “It’s not gonna catch on until there’s a way to make people look less stupid with the goggles.”
VICE partnered with the VR tech company Vrse to create the first VR news feature, called Vice News VR: Millions March. The film documented the Black Lives Matter march on December 13, 2014, called the “Millions March”. Over 25,000 people gathered at Washington Square Park in New York City and marched up Fifth Avenue in protest of the killings of African Americans Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and Akai Gurley at the hands of police officers. The film places the viewer right in the middle of all the action. “I was there when it happened,” said Smith. “Weeks later I put on the VR goggles and watched it. I felt like I was there again, it was wild. My immediate thought was that this is not only the future of journalism, but the future of everything.”
Journalism’s future has been cloudy for quite some time now. It’s evident that the “death” of the field is no longer looming, but no one has the answers to what comes next. VICE has been constantly evolving since its Voice of Montreal days, and is a perfect example of a publication that enjoys facing risk head-on. Shane Smith and other executives are constantly looking for new ways to innovate both within the company itself and how the company interacts with the world. By integrating their incredible variety of departments, they will undoubtedly maintain their elite status in every field they are a part of.
Jonathan Smith, Executive Editor at VICE.com