Virtue and Vice: The world according to Shane Smith

Vice Media co-founder and chief executive Shane Smith set a new standard for journalism when he turned an unknown local magazine into a multi-billion dollar millennial reporting empire.


Shane Smith

Shane Smith

Shane Smith wants to tell the truth. And it’s made him about a billion dollars so far.

The flamboyant “punk kid” turned award-winning journalist and co-founder of Vice Media shook reporting traditions when he turned a local youth magazine in Montreal into a global multimedia empire believed to be worth roughly the same as CNN and The New York Times combined.

Some call it “gonzo journalism for the YouTube generation”, but Smith likes to call it “centrist” truth telling.

His New York-based brainchild is as infamous as it is legendary for using unconventional reporting styles reminiscent of New Journalism and immersionism, where reporters immerse themselves in the stories, and emphasise “truth” over “facts”. While it started as a free magazine “for hipsters by hipsters”, Vice Media now includes multiple platforms covering everything from fashion to music and documentary-style news, with Smith reporting from some of the world’s most conflict-prone countries such as North Korea, Sudan and Yemen. Today, Vice has offices in more than 34 countries, including the United States, India, Russia and China.

What’s next on the hit list? Dubai, says the co-founder and chief executive.

Looking more administrative than hipster, Smith is dressed in a slick blue suit and sports a thick beard lined with streaks of white — a proud sign that being at the head of a company worth billions does not come without some cost. Sitting in the sumptuous Four Seasons Jumeirah, he says Dubai “has a pleasure centre” in his brain, before recounting a time he visited the city after shooting a piece on the Janjaweed militia in Sudan “where there was no food and you can’t eat anything”. Upon arrival, he ate a Kobe beef burger at the Burj Khalifa that made him cry.

“I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I have ever had in my life’,” he says.

It is no wonder, then, that a Dubai opening is in the cards for Smith. Given that he aims at attracting the millennial voice to journalism, Smith knows Dubai is the perfect location because 50 percent of the MENA region’s population is 24 or younger. Its fast growing digital market, which increases about 15 percent annually, makes it a bigger jackpot. But it is Dubai’s neighbouring areas of interest, such as Syria and Iraq, that Smith has undoubtedly measured.

The straight-talking Canadian announced Vice will be setting up headquarters in the Gulf city by the end of 2017 thanks to a partnership with Kabul-based Moby Media Group. The duo will launch a website and digital channel this summer and produce content in several languages including Arabic, English, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu.

US President Trump’s policies and unpredictable comments generate a considerable amount of content for Vice Media, according to Smith.

But is the media-restrictive region the place for an outspoken and provocative media group? It might not be, but it is a question Smith takes seriously.

“I had this discussion a lot. I think Vice, even in America, we’re not a political entity. So we don’t comment on day-to-day policy or political parties or anything like that. We follow stories that are political. We’re always going to do environmental stories or social justice stories. So we work on those and those are sort of long-held documentary format. Countries generally get nervous when you’re going to criticise individual politicians or policies, which we don’t do — not that we don’t criticise things, we criticise a lot of things — [but] because that’s a political game,” he says.

“This is the problem with media. It’s happening in American right now. But you can put it into any country. What happens in media is people start out to report the facts, but then what happens is one side starts attacking the other and the other starts attacking. Then you have opinion editorial, where everyone is just fighting with each other. So in America, we have no centrist news or media. We have either left media, democratic; or right media, republican. So we said we’re going to be centrist.

“My example for that is commenting on Trump and Trump’s tweets and this and that, whereas we would say okay what does the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] look like with someone who wants to disband the EPA running it? What does the department of energy look like with someone whose presidential campaign was based on dismantling the energy department? And while everyone else is throwing shade about Trump, we’re like, ‘that doesn’t matter’. What matters is the policy that’s being implemented while he’s doing all his tweets,” says Smith, comparing media to “kindergartners playing football”.

Ever the observer, Smith may choose to stay out of the probable media game, but perhaps it is because he’s built a new playing field of his own. Trump’s tweets, for example, “were good for business”, he says. Trump is for media “what the [1991] Gulf war was for CNN”, Smith says.

“You have a tremendous amount of content being generated, because of what he’s doing and his policies and his international gaffes and things. It gives us unlimited stories and an audience that really wants to hear what our take is or what the well-researched take is. No one in America really ever [looks into things]. Someone just says, ‘Trump said this or the President said this’ and they just take it. Nobody says, ‘Oh let’s go talk to the other guy who was there and see what he has to say’.”

Vice Media produced the ‘Vice Guide to North Korea’ documentary.

Nobody except Smith and his entourage of diehard Vice devotees. It is Smith’s no-nonsense attitude that got him a reputable (though at times notorious) name in the world of journalism, but does the centrist front play out with Vice’s investors, including 20th Century Fox? (Rupert Murdoch’s company invested $70m in the summer of 2013.)

Smith smirks. He doesn’t wait to answer nor does he mince his words.

“Fox is a perfect example. I vote 95 per cent of the board. Fox owns less than 3 percent of the company. So, 3 percent doesn’t get to say anything. Disney [invested $200m in 2014] owns much more than Fox. The truth of the matter is, they don’t want to invest in us to tell us what to do, because we’re the laboratory. We’re the experiment. So I can fall on my face and fail and get the learnings from those failures and hopefully succeed. But Disney and Fox can’t make those failures otherwise their shareholders freak out and their stock plummets. So basically, they invest in us so they can put their toes in the pool.”

It’s the same with advertisers, according to Smith. Much like Disney or Fox want Vice to be the experiment, brands turn to the firm to “try something different”. Luckily for Smith, it works.

“If they’re coming to me instead of one of the big agencies, then it’s not working. So by the time they come to me they realise: ‘Oh okay, let’s try something different. We have to experiment. We have to try something different. These guys seem to know what they’re doing.’ If that’s the case, why would they tell me what to do? And generally, if they do tell us what to do, which is very rare, we’ll say, ‘It’s not worth it. Because it’s just not going to work. So you’re going to spend money for nothing. We’re not going to be happy, so why don’t we just call it a day?’

“The good news is we make enough money that we can do that. There are a lot of companies out there who don’t because they don’t have enough cash,” Smith says.

He can say that again. The 47-year-old hipster at heart reveals Vice doubled its revenue and more than doubled its matrix since 2016, putting its worth “theoretically” somewhere around $9.2bn. So what’s next for Smith’s brainchild? Very probably, an Initial Public Offering (IPO).

President Obama explains his views during his interview with Smith in 2015.

“Not necessarily that I personally want to go public, because it’s less fun for me as CEO, but at some point you have to say, ‘Okay well, we have to take care of our people and our further growth and also have more stock to offer new people who come in.’ So if our valuation keeps rising then there is no choice but to go public.”

While an IPO remains enigmatic in the unforeseeable future, one thing is unmistakeable in Vice’s history. Smith likes to take care of his people.

To celebrate his company’s 20th anniversary in December 2015, the unpredictable wildcard reportedly distributed a total of $1m in bonus cheques to his 700 employees. And that was just the beginning. The party followed a celebrity line up featuring rapper Lil Wayne and singer Karen O, to name a few. Smith likes to mix business and pleasure. After several accounts of life-threatening reporting jobs, he’s earned it. But does he blur the lines of entertainment and news when it comes to Vice?

Smith laughs off the question. But he does not dodge an answer.

“If you’re trying to be polite and say we’re sensationalist, I don’t think so. If anything, we believe in immersionism, because we go to the place, press record and let the story unveil itself,” he says of Vice’s video-heavy, documentary-style news reporting.

“However, if something is scary, you can say it’s scary. If something is sad, or makes you sad, you know we’re human beings. We’re regular people. We’re going to a place to grab human reactions. Video is a visual medium, so 50 percent of it is how does it look? It has to be interesting. It has to be visually captivating. I do a lot of interviews, because everybody wants to do interviews now with me. The terrible thing about interviews is they’re boring. I hate talking heads. I hate interviews,” the journalist says.

“Even with President Obama, we did two features with him and [he was] the most eloquent guy ever, but just two dudes talking for two hours. Are you kidding me? So you have to find things to interstitch.”

Features with heads of states and a $9bn valuation is a long way for Smith’s Vice considering it was once called nothing but “hipsters with tattoos and beards high-fiving themselves in war zones” by The New York Times.

But the joke was and remains on media’s long-standing veteran — or in this case, bully.

Smith is known for being unconventional.

“If [The New York Times] had attacked our facts, if they had attacked our stories… that would have been bad. But if they’re attacking our fashion, then we’ve won. Because what they’re saying is, unless you’re an old, white man who sits in an office in New York, what you’re doing isn’t right. What you’re doing isn’t journalism. And that’s not true. Their way of ‘our way is the only way’ was actually their downfall, because you have to be dynamic and change.

“Our show that year ended up winning the Emmy, beating 60 Minutes and everybody else. The New York Times doesn’t even have a TV show. And we won two [Peabody Awards] out of eight, which is the hardest thing to win in news,” he says, with a mix of pride and anger.

“If you look at the reason why Vice is popular, and especially in news, is because in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN colluded with the government to say things they knew were not true. So if that’s the gold standard of journalism, then don’t call me a journalist.”

Twenty-three years since the inception of Vice, Smith’s once-ridiculed creation has built a standard of journalism that has earned its master the title “larger than life”.

It is safe to say, that with or without the approving eyes of the industry’s biggest players, telling the truth has served Shane Smith well.

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