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When former basketball pro Dennis Rodman showed up recently in North Korea, plenty of people were scratching their heads. It turns out the trip was the brainchild of Vice Media, which has grown from a counterculture magazine into a full-fledged, youth media conglomerate. Tonight, Vice premiers a documentary series on HBO, a sort of debut in the mainstream. As NPR's Dan Bobkoff reports, Vice is succeeding where other media companies have failed.
DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: Vice Media's contradictions smack you in the face as soon as you step into its Brooklyn headquarters. You're just as likely to see rapper Snoop Lion walking in as you are journalist Fareed Zakaria. In its glass conference rooms, you might see corporate-looking PowerPoints or staff looking earnestly at pictures of nude, tattooed women. I found a team from its tech website having a serious meeting about reporting on the Cannabis Cup in Colorado.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The new economy that comes from a post-Prohibition era.
SHANE SMITH: I mean, everyone says - like, Vice is so weird, and it's so - and I'm like, look, I wish we were weirder.
BOBKOFF: Shane Smith is Vice's CEO and co-founder. He's a burly, bearded Canadian who's built Vice into a hipper version of a big, media conglomerate.
SMITH: We do music, we do books, we do magazines, we do online, we do mobile, we do television, we do film. We do what everybody else does; we do it weirder, and we do it younger, and we do it in a different voice.
BOBKOFF: In its nearly 20 years, Vice has gone from a small, Canadian magazine to figuring out the holy grail of media - how to capture an international audience of aloof 18-to-24-year-olds.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How's it going? Nice to meet you.
BOBKOFF: In the office's edit rooms, young producers work on everything from a food series to a film about Somali pirates, to interviews about electronic dance music.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And we interviewed this artist Pretty Lights and...
BOBKOFF: And these projects violate all the rules of what's supposed to make money on the Web. Articles can approach New Yorker length. Videos can last an hour, covering topics both serious and salacious. They attract millions of views, as do the ads that accompany each video. Vice's secret sauce has attracted big-name investors like Tom Freston, who ran old media conglomerate Viacom after helping found MTV in the '80s. He's pushed Vice to expand to reach urban youth around the world.
TOM FRESTON: People in Cape Town, people in Moscow, people in Berlin, people in New York - they all sort of share a certain sensibility.
BOBKOFF: Vice now employs a thousand people across 34 countries, producing dozens of stories and videos a day. This narrow focus on millennials has had big results. Vice's 28 percent profit margins blow away old-line media companies - all by knowing what youth want, and what advertisers want.
DEBORAH CONRAD: Vice is very, very, very well-known in the marketing circles for being able to reach that demographic, and to create programs that are exciting.
BOBKOFF: Deborah Conrad is the chief marketing officer at Intel, which has spent millions trying to get some of that Vice cool to rub off on the chipmaker's brand, even if it means being near some edgy content that would scare other companies away.
CONRAD: We're a brand that is PG-13. We're not a rated-R brand.
BOBKOFF: The two companies came up with an unusual joint venture of sorts, a site about art and design where both companies contribute content. It's the kind of cozy relationship that blurs the line between editorial and advertising. But perhaps the core of the Vice brand has become a kind of gritty, on-the-ground reporting from some of the roughest parts of the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY TRAILER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: This is the problem with suicide bombing - is the kids are just kids.
BOBKOFF: The HBO series has lots of stories like this, from Afghanistan to Kashmir to the Philippines.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY TRAILER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: This is the world through our eyes...this is the world of Vice.
BOBKOFF: It's hosted by CEO Shane Smith, who also moonlights as a Vice journalist. He says Vice never set out to be a news source, but its audience began considering it one. But later, when I suggested their nonfiction has a kind of jaded, world-is-ending feel, Smith said Vice is moving beyond that. And he started to sound like the editor-in-chief of an august publication.
SMITH: Look, we're going to turn our cameras on something that we think is important. Why? Because we're part of the fourth estate, and that's our job.
BOBKOFF: That doesn't mean he'll play by the rules of old-school journalism. After all, using Dennis Rodman as a pawn to get access to North Korea, was his idea.
DAVID CARR: I like Vice more than I trust them.
BOBKOFF: David Carr is the New York Times media columnist. He wonders if Vice can stay true to its roots and keep growing. And he marvels at the scale it's already achieved. His own daughter is now a rising star at Vice's tech site, and a recent video she produced got more than 10 million views on YouTube.
CARR: I've gone from patronizing her, to wishing to emulate her.
BOBKOFF: And with Vice on track to expand to more countries and launch a news channel for young people, perhaps it inadvertently built the future of media. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News, New York.
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