How VICE Magazine has become the voice of a generation
Media commentator 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
The authorities did not have a clue.
Secondary school (High School) students in Manchester were swapping discs with hard core porn right under the noses of teachers, who were oblivious to its content.
It was the new trend usurping the somewhat sedate practice of match card swapping with football stars.
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. One journalist unveiled a network of mercenaries in London, stating from his research that London had become mercenary capital of the world.
In ‘Dark London’, he uncovered undesirables who said they were stashing shed loads of dirty money through the system, which was being rinsed through the economy to become legitimate dosh.
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.
That these stories were on the BBC, touted by 18–35 year-old seems radical now; it was radical then in the early 1990s. Phrases like ‘fucked’ were allowed on air, though the editors had to weigh up its context. Interviewees with beards weren’t, apparently it turned young people off then.
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 changing 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 1–2m viewers; at its start combined with Behind the Beat it pulled in 10m plus. Towards the end of its run it averaged 1.5 to 700,000 on average. Newsnight got around the same figures. To television audiences at large its influences waned, to younger audience it was an influencer. It served a constituent, the grandees of the BBC, it was perceived, seldom gave a xxxx about.
You could say the same thing now as a you scour its schedules and as the network gets ready to park BBC 3 on the inter-highway.
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 the 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 mediabriefing 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, 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 CUNY, 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 you mean by authentic?
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 became rich themselves.
In BBC Reportage, a young woman says it should be her choice to have a baby when she wants. (see the opening credits to BBC Reportage below).
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
- Take its story on Ebola
The production has 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.
The style and cinematography is based on cinematic style constructs — as opposed to the traditional television documentary.
VICE don’t use conventional reporters — so the voice and language doesn’t follow the normal trope. 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 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 reporter on VICE therefore speaks to you as an ordinary person would. In fact, you could be the reporter.
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.
Traditional news and media play to their responsive demographic, whoever they may be, but it’s clear it’s not the youth.
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.
VICE’s 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 several years 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 Dunkley Gyimah is a creative who has worked in various roles in journalism for the BBC/Channel 4 News and ABC News. He is a senior lecturer, an artist in residence at the SouthBank centre, and is part of the jury for the RTS’ Innovatory broadcasts. His doctorate examines the philosophy and psychology of film and its primacy as a new form of journalism. He is the founder behind viewmagazine.tv -which won a Knight Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, and codes in his spare time. He’s next speaking at the Business Intelligence Summit for the UK’s B2B publishers on November 19th at the Intercontinental Park Hotel in London.
He’s currently re-editing his film We, Are, SYRIA, which took him to near the border of Turkey and Syria.
His post CitizenFour reflects on the cinemacity of innovative video, as he reflects on his own film and interview some years ago with the former head of the CIA.
His film Hashtag. Student You is a psychological short film featuring former Masters students going through the process of their final project. It reflects the style of cinematic videojournalism.