Vice is a media group known for its flashy, provocative multimedia coverage of news and is highly popular among young people.
Starting out as a skateboard mag, it was founded in 1994 through a welfare pay program. Vice now encompasses numerous specialist online platforms and a TV channel, and is currently valued at more than $4 billion. It has drawn funding from high-profile donors such as Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, A&E and Technology Crossover Ventures and Disney.
Observers say Vice’s main feat is less its bold coverage than its transition from a playful alternative site to a cultural heavyweight that’s moving in on the mainstream.
The group’s chief executive Shane Smith talked to Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, about why he would like to meet the IS caliphate, competitors like the New York Times and his news show that focuses solely on marijuana.
DIE ZEIT: You are 46 years old, married with two children, but with your media company, Vice, you are the voice of youth. How is that possible?
Shane Smith: I founded Vice magazine in Canada in 1994. But then we entered the digital world, that is where Generation Y lives – born in the ’80s and ’90s – and we became a brand for Generation Y. It’s not me who attracts the young people. It is our writers and film makers, who are a lot younger than me. They are working on topics that interest them. That’s it.
What is the average age at Vice?
But how can you sustain that? Your staff must get older every year just like everyone else.
At the moment we are expanding fast and we are employing a lot of new staff, and the new employees are always young which keeps us young at the moment. But you’re right. As Generation Y grows up, we will grow up with them.
You are known for complaining about the fact that baby boomers control the traditional media. What is so bad about that?
Baby boomers are dominant because they are the biggest demographic. They don’t just dominate the media, they also dominate politics, the economy. Donald Trump is one of the last of these fearful baby boomers in politics. They say things like, “Oh, the world is changing. But we don’t want change.” But now there is Bernie Sanders, who’s calling for a 75 percent tax.
Bernie Sanders isn’t Generation Y either.
Yes, but he stands for political change, a change driven by a younger generation that’s interested in different topics. Baby boomers believe that the world is f**ed. But in fact, the world is getting better. If you look at poverty, or health or education – it’s all getting better. This is the time that we decide on which side of history we want to stand on. Social justice, the environment – all of these topics are being reevaluated. And we want to be right there.
Another thing that Generation Y is known for is political correctness. Doesn’t that annoy you?
We call it “woke.” Even if you don’t believe in that yourself, you have to admit that young people believe in it. If you ask them what they are interested in then there is music in first place and partying is also important, but then comes the environment and social justice. And somewhere in the Top Ten there’s also gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. If you want to reach the younger generation you have to do exactly those things. It’s not only about changing the world. It’s also good business.
You have a show called “Weediquette” on Vice TV and online that is only about marijuana. What is the point of such a show?
This is a subject that really moves young people. A lot of them believe that marijuana should be legalized. It’s like the Prohibition now. But baby boomers are thinking, “Oh, drugs, oh my God.” It’s like this: A large percentage of our prisoners are in jail because of non-violent drug crimes. They’re there because of something that will probably be legal in the future. That is absurd.
I'd like to see the ISIS caliphate but they would probably kill me.
Employing young people and focus on these kinds of subjects: Is it that easy to reach young readers?
There is another thing that the mainstream media doesn’t do: Being on all screens. TV, computer, mobile, phone – and doing that with new ideas to make money. Everybody knows that, but nobody’s really doing it.
The story that made Vice famous was a trip with basketballers, including Dennis Rodman, to North Korea, to play a friendly match. Whose idea was that?
That was my idea. I had made two documentaries about North Korea, the country fascinates me. After that I couldn’t travel there anymore. But I knew that North Koreans really liked basketball and that they loved the Chicago Bulls. What we didn’t take into account was that Dennis Rodman is crazy.
Dennis Rodman described the North Korean dictator after the meeting as “a friend for life” and “a great guy.” He’s visited him several times since.
Rodman stayed for two days and made a big stir. We stayed for ten days and made a good documentary. Before it came out there was a lot of discussion about whether this was just stunt journalism, if we were journalists or just hipsters. But when the documentary came out it showed a side of North Korea that nobody had shown until then.
Did that story help Vice?
At that time I was really worried. But in the end it went well for us because people got to know us better.
Why are you so fascinated by North Korea?
It’s the weirdest place on earth. It’s like going back to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. It’s a total cult of personality. As someone interested in politics, you ask yourself: How could the world ever have been like that? There you see how it was total control over the media, total control over the justice system, the police, the economy, everything. It’s sad because the place is lost in time and a lot of people are suffering there. But it’s like a theme park for political economists.
Is there anywhere else you’d still like to go?
I’d like to see the ISIS caliphate but they would probably kill me, so I won’t go there. We went “Inside the Islamic State” once, we did a great story, but it is very dangerous. The unfortunate thing about American politics at the moment is that the presidential campaign is so crazy, so strange and so combative that it makes good material. And Trump is so crazy, he makes great TV. It’s the same problem with the Islamic State. They have one of the strongest brands in the world.
Excuse me, ISIS – a brand?
Yes. If someone was to say, “come and fight for me, come and die for me,” the we would all say, “you’re crazy, no!” But when Islamic State says that, people come, they have that appeal. Nobody is asking the really important question: Why is Islamic State so popular?
And why is that? Is it a kind of youth movement, a little bit like Vice?
If you look at it from a marketing perspective, then they have done something right, yes. You can’t fight a movement if you don’t understand it first.
Vice is an anti-capitalist, left-wing media outlet. But you’re a rich man, living in a $23 million villa, a capitalist…
Yes, I’m a capitalist.
How does that fit together?
Vice began in Canada during the recession. We learned capitalism from experience. In order for our magazine to survive, we needed one page of advertisement for every page of content. Everything we did had to make money – because we didn’t have rich parents or savings. So we created a system in which everything had business model.
So what is different between you and, say, the New York Times?
I have to come back to your description of me as a capitalist. I love the New York Times. But at the moment we are worth $4.5 billion, the New York Times under $2 billion. Even if you’re the very best in the worldIf you have the wrong business model, things will go down.
What is the New York Times doing wrong?
They did not focus on young people early enough. They did not go digital fast enough. They’re doing all that now, but it is late. The owners are slow.
At Vice there’s no strong separation between editorial and advertising. Isn’t that the reason that Vice is so valuable?
It’s more about the fact that we are a voice for Generation Y. Apart from that, if you lose money, then you won’t be around for long. And that’s bad. The New York Times should continue to exist.
At Vice in Brooklyn you have events regularly where companies provide their new beer, or a new ice cream, to the staff, free of charge. The New York Times wouldn’t do that.
It is surely better if you earn media coverage than if you buy it. If somebody has a beer, brings it to Vice and people like it, then they’ll drink it and they will write about it. You can also buy advertising space. But that’s not as effective. Anyway, while the New York Times won’t take the beer, they would definitely take the advertising.
Yes, because the journalists don’t want to look as though they were bribed.
OK, let’s talk about something else. Vice was very much in love with the socialist politician Bernie Sanders – do you also like him?
Yes, I don’t mind paying taxes. I grew up in Canada so I am used to that. My first job after university was with Greenpeace. I joined the Partito Comunista Italiano, the Italian Communist Party, while I was in college.
Why did you do that?
Because I was a f**ing Red. For a long time, I had little money. I have money now, but I give most of it to a foundation. I’m the newest in the top 1 percent of the richest. I’m the last one in and I’ll be the first one out again. If Bernie would become president, I’d like that.
And Trump? He’s the devil?
Today Vice in America doesn’t just have a magazine and make documentaries, you also have your own TV channel. When is that coming to Germany?
Germany is a unique market, powerful, intelligent. That’s why we are taking our time. But we will have our own channel in Germany within the next 12 months.
Disney has bought 18 percent of Vice. Will you be taking Mickey Mouse to North Korea next?
No, for Disney I’m a laboratory, a motor for experiments. If I fail, it’s not so bad. Disney gives us a strategic advantage. Disney is the only media company that’s taken over brands and actually made them more successful.
Why not Facebook, for example?
Facebook and Google are run by engineers. I am interested in content. It is difficult to have an engineer for a boss or a partner, if you are interested in content.
There are rumors that you’re considering selling Vice completely…
Every major media company has been here. At the moment most of the shares still belong to the staff and management. But it’s hard to buy a cup of coffee with a share. At some point you have to say, we’re millionaires but we’re living in a shack.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org