- - Wednesday, September 17, 2014



If you want to see the future of news, take a look at Vice.com, a media conglomerate aimed at millennials. It is brash, in your face and unabashedly liberal on topics such as the environment.

But Vice Media also has provided some of the best coverage of the Islamic State, Syria and Ukraine. In a five-part series broadcast last month, Vice gave an inside look at the Islamic State — a chilling view of what the fundamentalists are all about. That includes placing the heads of victims on poles in Syria, training young children to fight against the world and providing propaganda to those who want to join. Vice started 20 years ago as a free magazine in Montreal, focusing basically on drugs and sex. Now the company, which still includes the magazine with an estimated run of 1 million copies, a creative services enterprise, a record label and a variety of other multimedia operations, is worth an estimated $2.5 billion.

What is clear is that Vice Media goes to the front lines and behind the scenes to provide interesting and eclectic views of the world. The journalists call their brand of reporting “immersionism,” an updated form of personal involvement and news drawn from Rolling Stone gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson.

“From the perspective of established media companies, Vice’s biggest novelty is not its unruly journalistic techniques but its ability to make money in the Internet age. That, along with its young audience, has made Vice an object of industry fascination,” The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe recently wrote.

As a result, investors including Rupert Murdoch and HBO have pushed millions of dollars into the enterprise, hoping this operation will attract more young viewers while television audiences become older.

So what’s wrong with the scenario? In February, for example, Vice persuaded basketball stars to go to North Korea (dictator Kim Jong-un apparently loves the sport), and brought along cameras to record the event as “basketball diplomacy.” A short time later, North Korea threatened to attack the United States. I guess basketball diplomacy didn’t work too well. Moreover, the reports tend to be sensationalistic and often are laced with profanity.

Here is how Shane Smith, the 44-year-old CEO and one of the founders of Vice Media, describes what he does. “Bon vivant, storyteller, drunk. Let’s have 14 bottles of wine at dinner, roast suckling pig and a story about chopping a dude’s head off in the desert,” he told The New Yorker.

Despite his wealth, Mr. Smith still serves as one of the main reporters for a weekly program on HBO. Vice provides information about topics that few U.S. news outlets cover, such as political violence in the Philippines, children used as suicide bombers in Afghanistan and policing the streets of Camden, New Jersey, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Although the HBO series requires a subscription, most of the other videos appear on the website, Vice.com, or YouTube. The organization also produces programming about music and technology.

The Daily Caller has raised questions about whether Mr. Smith actually reported for Reuters in Bosnia as he claims, and there are significant disputes about the company’s reach. Although Vice Media estimates its monthly viewership at 150 million, the Web analytics firm comScore places the figure at about 10 million.

Vice Media representatives did not respond to requests for an interview about these and other discrepancies.

Whatever the case, Mr. Smith told a recent conference that he would like to create a Vice channel and become 10 times bigger than CNN. That may sound like a lofty goal, but he and his colleagues already have gone from publishing a free magazine in Montreal to a multibillion-dollar company.

Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @charper51.

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