Its latest #Charlottesville video— how VICE became the voice of a generation


Its latest #Charlottesville video — how VICE became the voice of a generation

Media commentator and top medium writer Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah, a former reporter on the BBC’s cutting edge youth programme REPORTAGE, and an award-winning videojournalist, deconstructs what’s behind VICE


VICE’s latest video on #Charlottesviille is a lesson for traditional media in storytelling and structure. There’s a logic behind their approach which I wrote about this time last year. I’ve modified this post slightly towards their latest work.


The camera is mightier than the…

Ominous cinematic scape music drapes their film to heighten its reception, pictures are cut at a fast rate — a style called intense continuity (the king of this is Paul Greengrass 1.8 seconds) — and then there’s post-human editing. Vice rules. Indeed. But to get a sense of their style I need to take you to the UK circa 1990s. Hold on!

The authorities did not have a clue.

Secondary school (High School) students in Manchester, UK, were swapping computer discs with hard core porn right under their teachers’ nose who were oblivious to its content. It was the new trend usurping the somewhat sedate practice of football match card swapping.

One of the most amazing revelations — nuclear to the banking industry was how you could take a normal piece of plastic, place it in the bank’s money dispenser and so long as you had a legitimate pin number and a common device used by architects, you could withdraw as much money as possible.

Stories like these were not uncommon, from a prototype bitcoin, to a network of mercenaries unveiled by young non-BBC types in London. The voice over proclaimed London had become mercenary capital of the world. ‘Dark London’, the script continued uncovered undesirables stashing shed loads of dirty money through the system, which was being rinsed through the economy to become legitimate dosh.

These were the stories slamming across the screen, produced for the BBC’s 18–35 year-old audience by 18–35 year old producers, writers and journalists.

The programme was called REPORTAGE. The most unBBC type programme made by the BBC. It seems radical now; it was radical then in the early 1990s. Phrases like ‘fucked’ were permissible on air, though the editors had to weigh up its context. Interviewees with beards weren’t, apparently it turned off young people then.

If you worked at REPORTAGE or you knew the programme in the days of the Hacienda, Happy Mondays and ‘Aceeed’, you really thought you were the dog’s bo**ocks . Me, I hung out with my producer looking for youth criminals, reported on reforms from toddler James Bulger’s murder (see video below), and later flew off to report on South Africa’s Apartheid townships where I’d bump into figures like Quincy Jones in Soweto.

BBC Reportage, slick; sometimes too slick for its own good, spoke for disenfranchised Thatcher’s ‘bastard’ children. The then Prime Minister claimed inclusivity — one nation torryism. The NUS (National Union of Students) positively loathed her. This was an era of the trench politics often seen now at Occupy demos.

Aired on a Tuesday around 7.00 pm, the programme’s uber staff reads like a who’s who in media. It included: Sankha Guha, Esther McVey (now, a Tory politician. I sat opposite her), Hardeep Singh Kohli, and Director Bruce Goodison, currently behind BBC3’s Our World War.

As trendy as it was, Reportage peaked around 1m viewers on its lucky days; 1.5 on exceptions and around 700,000 on average. It was a flop in rating terms, but it served a constituent, the grandees of the BBC, it was perceived, seldom gave a xxxx about. By the early 90s it had had its fill, but as magazines like the Face and ID soldiered on, somewhere in Canada, a movement was starting, that 20-odd years later would be the daddy of youth productions. A discombobulated reportage, apt for a new generation crying out for their own voice against the p**s poor stuff that wants to pass for cool in journalistic terms on television.

VICE grip on Youth

Today, the mantle of the dispossessed, the champion of presumed lost causes is occupied by a magazine, with a global reach and $2.5bn worth from a 20 year life-span.

The Net, where content and language style has no fixed boundaries has enabled the 1994 Canadian startup VICE Magazine to successfully self-proclaim itself as the voice of a generation.

A measure of how important it’s become to politicians is its access to potential prime ministers news briefings during the UK general election. You’ll have read any number of articles about VICE, and the prognosis by journalists and commentators of the secret to its success.

Even its architects, such as head of new business Michael Derkits crack the odd dissonant line, we are “platform agnostic”. Explaining to media briefing that a story is given space and that there is a non-commercial value exchange.

Er, (wink) No! VICE are about to launch soon on television (they have now on HBO), where the statement ‘platform agnostic’ will take a MMA smack from stakeholders wanting to equate television’s form and stories to commercialism. That much Current TV can tell you.

At the Re-inventing TV — a gathering of experts at City University New York, in which I was invited to present, VICE News Editor-In-Chief Jason Mojica speaking to Jeff Jarvis offered his take on a prototype VICE story.

Mojica mentioned the Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan and that immediacy and the untidiness of the story were important.

VICE’s success is built on some straight forward fundamentals and that it is using the web for exactly the common sense reasons a non-traditional media entity ought to use it, when there are no regulatory constraints [read my 2006 article for UK Press Gazette.]

In Mediabriefing’s article, Vice talks about experimenting. Yes! And it’s paid off handsomely, but terms such as ‘authentic’ require more decoding. What do they mean by authentic?

Youth Media

The history of media and youth has consistently shown how youth culture continually pushes at tradition. Takes James Dean’s angst; Anti-Vietnam demos; MTV; the emergence of Hip Hop; The Face Magazine and YBA who said fuck the British art establishment and eventually became rich themselves.

In BBC Reportage, a young woman says it should be her choice to have a baby when she wants and no one else. (see the opening credits to BBC Reportage below).

David reporting on BBC 2’s Reportage

Programmes like Channel 4’s Passenger, and more recently Al Jazeera’s The Stream (see my blogpost here) have all fought for that youth market. The Stream actually won an RTS Award, then the next year ruined a winning formula by changing the format. Why!?

So just how could a media replicate VICE’s success? An analysis of its contents provides obvious clues. There are connected technological issues to do with access-always and mobility, which I’ll write about in a future post.

The Secret of VICE’s success

  1. Take its story on Ebola
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AZidJ36nA0

The production is an iteration of what Robert Drew achieved with Cinema verite. Not unusually Vice taps into the most enticing form of media to its generation — cinema. In a PhD, I undertook cognitively and critically examining the work of award winning factual filmmakers, it became evident they were adopting a style of documentary either referred to as documentary-cinema or as I have mentioned cinema journalism’.

In the Ebola film, there is a sense of urgency, ominous music is used to heighten the film effect, the pictures are cut at a nominally faster rate than traditional mainstream TV docs — what film scholar David Bordwell refers to as intense continuity. The style and cinematography is based on cinematic style constructs — as opposed to the traditional television documentary.

With their #Charlottesviille video, the use of intertitles, and what academics call post-human editing is prominent. We take it for granted watching a feature film that the shot cuts from one point of view to another, but we couldn’t physically do that in real life. As a grammar it works in cinema because there’s more than one camera. In traditional news, only one camera — a legacy of television news’ start-up in the 1950s — is deployed.

VICE don’t use conventional reporters — so the voice and language doesn’t follow the normal trope. This is a strong source of its authenticity. Professional reporters are invariably trained to sound metronomically the same and use media-language to explain issues.

In the late 1990s, Channel 4’s Commissioners tried an experiment. They dumped the idea of traditional reporters for its documentary reportage strand, preferring people with gumshon and a knack for being nosey. Unreported World was a huge beneficiary of this approach.

The reporters on VICE therefore speak to you as an ordinary person would. In fact, you could be the reporter. In its #Charlottesviille video, the onscreen journalist is not so much reporting, let alone grandstanding for attention seen in traditional news and docs, but having a conversation. Her tone or projected voice ( taught in traditional journalism schools) does not change.

VICE is also popularising the serial, so its docs are episodic. This does a number of things. They can pack a punch into relatively shorter items and leave an arc (cliffhanger) at the end. The schema also guarantees them more bang for their bucks because the content can be spread across three showings and pages.

Their items thwart the traditional news/ doc agenda. They pick from a wider pool of stories, and when they do adopt similar items as traditional media, their angle is skewed towards what they consider their target audience wants to hear. There is no falling in line on what is the media narrative. I used to work at one of the world’s largest news agencies. You’d be surprised how rival networks monitor each others output to fashion a similar story.

Traditional news and media play to their responsive demographic, whoever they may be, but it’s clear it’s not the youth.

2. The Pessimist’s guide to David Cameron’s big Conference Speech by Simon Childs offers another style guide.

This opening sentence sets the tone that ingratiates itself into youth speech.

Speaking about David Cameron Child’s says.

A man who’s spent his term in government enacting policies that have repeatedly fucked over the poor, the young and the vulnerable is now patting all of those people on the head and going, “Just kidding, mate,” making out like he’s suddenly a friend of the working man. And he did that very convincingly.

The use of the word, ‘fucked’ — yes you won’t see that in that the quality press — or even the turn of phrase ‘Just kidding mate’. The tone throughout reflects more closer to the nonchalance associated with 18–35 year old than traditional/ magazine news print.

‘Authentic’ then becomes knowing your audience and talking to them in language they would use.

VICE uses Jakob Nielsen’s style for web text presentation, paying attention to scannable text and sub headings. Its popularity means it has the market place to itself, so that it’s a repository of youth-driven stories and can curate its pitches from multiple sources.

So unlike BBC Reportage that still depended on a fixed number of reporters, VICE has a wider pool of contributors. Its ISIS story is typical of this. VICE was approached by a journalist about the story and ran with it.

There have been several other online publications who’ve been after the elusive, but lucrative youth market. Speaking at Apple store in London severalyears ago, I mentioned Heavy.com,which has since radically changed its format, and F1 — a Flash/music based site which has since folded.

Ultimately, the secret to VICE’s successes is its staying power; to keep on doing what it’s done and slowly and methodically grow its audience — with a little help from the web.

To replicate that takes time — something not easily obtainable today. To replicate VICE means paying attention to the demands of its target audience. That is something traditional media find more difficult to do.

*David, named one of the leading writers in journalism on @Medium, is an international award winning videojournalist and Knight Batten innovator in journalism. A doctorate of philosophy focusing on cognitivism in media, he leads the digital and interactive storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster. Here for more on Cinema Journalism .

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