Shane Smith is the 42 year-old (b. 1970) co-founder and CEO of Vice, the international media company. In March, he also began serving as one of the three lead correspondents of Vice, the new HBO news magazine series, a show that aims, as he says, “to be more provocative, more aggrressive and more daring than any other news program on TV. ‘’ A native of Ottowa, Smith and partners Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes started Vice in 1994 as a monthly magazine that focused on youth culture, fashion, interests, issues. With a distinct and voice and view that appealed to young people, the magazine rapidly grew and expanded. Eventually the company moved to New York, extended the magazine into 34 countries, built a monthly readership of 900,000, created a huge internet presence, and moved into television; in other words, during a period of traumatic media turmoil and contraction, Vice has enjoyed singular success. At the same time the company expanded its media range, it enlarged its editorial scope, and moved dramatically into the coverage of hard news, presented in a distinctively aggressive, hard-edged perspective. Last November (on election day, actually), I had the opportunity to go to Brooklyn and visit the office of Vice media, and talk to Smith, who has been described by The New York Times as “a cross between a punk rocker and Fortune 500 executive,’’ about his rapidly growing media company he’s running, his new show, and his adventuresome, gonzo, sensationalistic, funny/scary approach to the news. Here is my interview:
HOW DID VICE BEGIN?
We began in Montreal in the mid-nineties, covering youth culture. We were very fortunate, because nobody else was speaking to that group, at least not in the same way, and we caught on quickly. That was very cool–nothing beats being a hit in your on home town, because then when you do a good job, the people who are saying “Wow! Your last issue was amazing!’’ are your peers, and people you actually like, and the girl you want to screw, and you actually feel good and give a shit. After that, all fame is narcissism. Soon we had an international phenomenon on our hands, because kids in Stockholm and Singapore and Shanghai all knew the same thing about news and fashion and culture at the same time, but no one else was the voice of that universality of the youth subculture. So soon we were that voice in 34 countries, and with more than 3000 people around the globe contributing stories and pictures and video to our magazine and websites, we had a newsgathering operation second to none. These people are giving us stories before anyone else is on to them, and the best of these stories are going to be on HBO.
HOW DID YOU MOVE INTO TELEVISION?
As our internet presence expanded around the world, we got the idea that all our correspondents should shoot video for the stories they were filing. As a result, we soon had tons of footage, about all sorts of things, which we were able to adapt and repackage in all sorts of ways. But it also created a news organization that was feeding us thousands of stories. Eventually it became clear that the stories we did best, that we liked best, involved this process we call immersionism, a documentary style where we just go in and live with the people, and just watch them as the story unfolds. We get tipped to an idea, and if it seems intriguing, then we just go in and watch it. But we’re not political and we don’t try to shoehorn a story into a preconception of what we thought the story was. For example, we were pitched a story about a group in India called the Naxalites, who were supposedly these Robin Hood types who were saving the rain forests. Once we got there, we learned that they were just as bad as the army, and even worse. So we have to go with the story. We can’t just sit there and say `Well, this is what they told us in New York.’ ‘
HOW DID VICE GET INTO HARD NEWS?
It’s a matter of growing up with our demo. We were originally focused on music, but as we went into different countries, we saw that music meant different things, and a lot of it had to do with political or social issues. One of the first things we did on video was Heavy Metal of Baghdad, in which we followed a heavy metal band around in Baghdad. It began as a music story, but as we followed them for three years, we saw the whole arc of the war in Iraq through the point of view of an Iraqi kid who’s not political but just gets off on Slipknot. We see that the band wants to practice, but it can’t, because their practice space had been hit by a SCUD missile, or can’t play because some mullah wants to chop off their heads for headbanging. We had footage of US officials in the Green Zone saying `The war is over,’ while the band is over in the Red Zone dodging bullets. Everywhere we went we saw things like that, things that just weren’t right, and we were always kind of shocked. We wanted to say “Hold on, this isn’t right.’ We joked about doing a show called Where Are the Adults? Instead, we began to cover these things, and our audience responded.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY FOR VICE?
Three things: It has to be simple, it has to have a hook, and it has to have punch in the face. A perfect example is the story of General Butt Naked and the Tupac Army. General Butt Naked of Liberia is a cannibal and rapist and murderer and a warlord who led an army of naked warriors into battle against the Tupac Army, which was a group of fighters from Sierra Leone who all wore Tupac Shakur T-shirts that they got from a container on a cargo ship they hijacked. Thousands were killed in the fighting. It’s a terrible story, but what makes it right for us is that it starts out as a story about the absurdity of the modern condition, and ends up talking about the role the US government played in creating the conditions over there. That’s a perfect story for us, for us because it’s cultural, it’s got a hook, it’s got a punch in the face, and it forces people to pay attention. It’s true of all our stories. Look at our report on Pakistan’s nuclear missiles, and how much Pakistan hates India over Kashmir. We have video of people training to conduct the next terrorist attack on Mumbai. Now that’s a punch in the face. We ‘reworking on a story where we’re trying to get some old Chicago Bulls to go and play basketball with Kim Jong Un because he’s such a huge fan. Offbeat, but with impact.
WHAT NICHE IS VICE IS TRYING TO FILL?
I like to say that our show is 60 Minutes for young people. That’s not saying there’s anything wrong with 60 Minutes or that you have to talk down to young people. On the contrary. But lots of times, the mainstream media gets numb to a story, and young people are disappointed because they want so much more. If 60 Minutes would do a story about Kashmir, for example, where nuclear war could break out between India and Pakistan at any moment, 60 Minutes will be very staid. They’ll be fair, and balanced, and professional. We’ll have a different approach. We’ll do both sides of the story, too. But when we hear something crazy, we’re not just going to nod. When we hear the ex-head of the Pakistani secret service say “I will strap my body to a warhead if it’s going to be fired at India, ’’ then we’re willing to point a finger at him and say “If he’s allowed to keep doing what he’s doing, then Boom! That’s the end of the world!’’ Or climate change. They’ll debate climate change. We won’t. Or if we will, we’ll have the debate on Long Island after Hurricane Sandy, and everybody will be standing waist-deep in water. We’re not going to be even-handed when the world is sinking. Where are all the adults?
I have no partisan political agenda. The job of the fourth estate is to shine a spotlight. India and Pakistan are so close to going to war and destroying the rest of the world. Shouldn’t everyone pay attention to that? Pakistan has lost control of huge portions of its country to the Taliban. Shouldn’t we be worried about that? You hear so much about the liberal media, but the entirety of the news media is owned by four different companies, and they’re all afraid of Budweiser. So the media is very conservative, and they’re paying a price in credibility. We’re brash, and our audience is growing. Brashness, of course, isn’t enough. If we want to show that we can be a challenger to 60 Minutes, if not beat 60 Minutes, then we’re going to have better stories, better hosts, and high believability. If we’re going to challenge the best out there, we’re going to have to be better than them
WHO IS THE AUDIENCE FOR VICE?
We already own the 17 to 34 demographic. But for many stories, age is irrelevant. I don’t think you have to be Gen Y to be concerned about Pakistan and India, or to worry about the rise of youth-oriented fascist movements in Europe, or to be interested I the story of the Nigerian pirate who uses his gains to finance movies. We are now aiming at audiences a little younger and a little older. We might not be entirely successful. Older people might have a problem because the voice that we use is very street, and can be very ugly, and they may reject that.
WHY IS HBO A GOOD MATCH FOR VICE?
HBO is perfect for us because it’s intelligent, independent, and bold. We won’t want to dumb things down or put them in sound bites, and we won’t have to shy away from topics or modify our approach. They will allow us all the freedom and creativity we need. We don’t want to be derivative. We want to be that new thing that everybody else will copy, and HBO encourages that kind of thinking. HBO is the gold standard of TV, and we want to be the gold standard on HBO.
WHY SHOULD PEOPLE ACCEPT YOU AS A CREDIBLE NEWS SOURCE?
One reason is that we’ve been providing news of one kind or another for fifteen years, and plenty of people find us credible. Gen Y is the most sophisticated audience the world has ever known, because they’ve been bombarded with massive amounts of stuff for as long as they’ve lived, and they can tell what’s good and what isn’t, and we have credibility with them. Beyond that, people should just watch the show and decide for themselves whether or not we’re credible. Most of the time, all we’re doing is pressing the Record button, and let the people in these stories do their own talking. The credibility is theirs. Yes, we edit. But we can’t make stuff up.
YOU’VE BEEN TO SOME OF THE MOST REMOTE AND MOST DANGEROUS PLACES ON THE PLANET. HAVE YOU HAD CLOSE CALLS IN GETTING THESE STORIES?
Our last three shoots were dangerous. In India, we got arrested with the Naxalites. The headlines said that three American terrorists were arrested with the Naxalites, but when they realized we were journalists, they let us go. When we went to Kashmir, our guides gave me a flack jacket and an AK 47 and told me that if I ever felt in danger, I should just go ahead and shoot! Pakistan was also very dangerous, When we got there, the Taliban, which up until then had officially only been attacking police and military, decided to add journalists to their hit list, especially western journalists. The authorities then said that our personal safety, all the news people should go into the Serena hotel in Islamabad, so they could protect us. But then the State Department said that was crazy; it would like painting a big target on the hotel, so we got out. Then we flew up to Bagram province, a province in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, and we went Taliban hunting with the military. So yeah, it was dangerous.
[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]