To many, Vice is a salacious, youth-oriented magazine focused on sex, drugs and hard-partying that anyone can pick up for free at American Apparel. And they’re not wrong. but Vice has also been not-so-quietly building a digital news empire, covering everything from illegal escape attempts from North Korea to the epidemic of unsafe butt enhancement procedures in the United States.
It’s stories like these that don’t get much coverage from mainstream outlets -- stories that Vice goes after because they're what young people care about.
“When we first started doing news everyone told us, in established media and legacy media, ‘Young people don’t care about news. American youth don’t care about international news,'” founder Shane Smith said yesterday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City. “We didn’t believe that.”
Before diving head first into building out what Smith refers to as a “platform agnostic” news network, Vice simply asked its audience what kind of coverage it wanted through a Twitter hashtag campaign. What it found seemed to contradict everything everyone else was saying. Readers from all over the world replied, hungry for reports from war and disaster zones, on humanitarian issues and climate change.
Its bold move is paying off. Smith says Vice is one of the most successful brands on YouTube with the highest engagement time, highest watch time, best subscription rates and video completion rates.
“What we found is Gen Y is absolutely consumed with news. They love news. It’s one of their biggest passion points. The problem is they’ve been disenfranchised by traditional media. If the fourth estate was doing its job, Vice would not be purveying news, Vice would not be one of the fastest growing news companies in the world. Why? Because they should be good at doing what they’re doing,” Smith said. “People are watching 28 minutes on YouTube, all on our news stuff.”
When asked, Smith, said he would like to be the Rupert Murdoch of his generation, but added he'd "do things differently,” garnering chuckles from the audience. “Whenever I view success, I’m dressed as Mozart on an island.”
While Smith gleefully pokes fun at the aging media empires, he’ll also happily take their money. Vice recently sold a five percent stake to 21st Century Fox for $70 million.
Vice isn’t planning on giving up any of its hard-partying image anytime soon, but it’s clear that Smith is serious about growing his digital media empire into the world’s leading source for news. It's that counterculture image and straightforward heir of authenticity that has brought Vice the success its enjoyed so far and it will likely continue to work so well for the foreseeable future.
Smith says Vice averages roughly 165 million video views each month but he wants to see that number skyrocket into the billions.
"We won't be the next ESPN or CNN or MTV. We'll be 10 times that size," he said.
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Smith, 43 founded Vice with two partners in 1994 as a local Montreal magazine. Twenty years later, he’s got a considerable amount of gray in his beard but he says he isn’t even close to tired. If anything, it’s more fun than it’s ever been.
“When you’re a younger company you struggle, struggle, struggle with how are we going to pay the bills, and how are we going to hire people, and how are we going to get a bigger office. Just managing the company is so hard," he said. "Spike Jonze said, 'Take money out of the equation. What would you do if you didn’t care about the money?’ This is what I would do."
More than anything, Smith wants to keep Vice sharp and evolving.
“I hope young people come up and try to eat my lunch because that means there's going to be a frothy beautiful contentious platform where everybody’s going after each other, which I believe leads to honest and a better quality product. The problem that we’ve had is four media companies run media, globally. And some say they’re on the right and some say they’re on the left; look, they’re all afraid of losing Ford as a client. So they’re all, by definition, huge companies that are going to be inherently conservative.”