Vice CEO: Woodward and Bernstein used to be punks, too

I have not yet seen Vice News, the media conglomerate's expanded news operation, in all its glory. Shane Smith, the company's CEO, is trying to get me an invitation. "Our beta's oversubscribed," he said by phone from Brooklyn. "One of the biggest problems when you launch is making a site bulletproof."


But from Vice's own trailer for the expanded site and the videos it has posted on its YouTube channel, you can get a pretty good sense of the spirit of Vice News, at least -- its correspondents travel into dicey situations, say what they're thinking ("it even looks like a weird dictatorship theme park," Henry Langston says while touring Viktor Yanukovych's presidential mansion).

"I think there's a movement afoot that's a changing of the guard in media," Smith said. "I think the numbers are so staggering. Generation Y does not watch news on TV." Every generation sees the media flip to better represent them, Smith said: "Woodward and Bernstein are now the old men, but once they were the punks."

I asked him whether Millennials who have dozens of choices for news (and more outlets to publish themselves) really need a news source aimed at them. "They definitely have the ability to publish, they have the ability to go out there on the Internet and find information. But they don’t have media that’s catering specifically to them. I don’t mean a bunch of old farts in a room saying Put a skateboard in it."

Reviewing its HBO show last year, Mike Hale said most of Vice's reporting was at the "intersection of shallow and gullible." (I liked the HBO series a lot, even though you could probably make a supercut of Vice correspondents grinning as tear gas canisters sailed over their heads.) I asked Smith about how Vice planned to stay with stories after the riot police hang up their shields. "We definitely follow up," he said. "That's our whole thing."

A screenshot of Vice News, courtesy Vice.

Other news outlets remind him of "Kindergarten kids playing soccer," all running to the ball at once. "We go in before the news cycle," he said. "We're still there while everyone else is gone." He pointed to Vice's reporting on birth defects in Iraq, for example. Vice's daily news summary videos make a point of going "Beyond the Headlines," too:

Smith said Vice has about 65 news employees now, plans on having about 100 in the near term and imagines 200 to 300 "as we get rolling." Its 35 offices worldwide are already bureaus, and its news sites in each country will offer news in their respective languages. Those videos will all be translated for the global audience.

I asked him what he thought some of the big stories are that other outlets are missing. "From what I've reported on, people really underestimate the depth and breadth of young people's rage at this past economic crisis," he said. "God forbid, but when the next recession hits — which is not a question of if, it's a question of when — it's going to make what's happened to date look like a picnic. We're doing our best to embed with the Occupy movements, with the socialists, with the anarchists, with the youth groups in these countries. What they're gonna demand is total societal change."

Related: Vice Media cranks up news operations (USA Today) | Vice News, where video works (Politico) | The 60-Second Interview: Shane Smith, C.E.O. and Co-Founder of Vice Media (Capital)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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