Media Group Evolves From Covering Vice To War Zones Steve Inskeep talks to Vice Media founder and CEO Shane Smith about the reasons behind the rapid growth of his news and entertainment firm. Vice magazine migrated to videos, the Web and documentaries.
NPR logo

Media Group Evolves From Covering Vice To War Zones

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351074951/351074952" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Media Group Evolves From Covering Vice To War Zones

Media Group Evolves From Covering Vice To War Zones

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351074951/351074952" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have the story of the evolution of a news organization called Vice. Its stories are published online and aired on HBO. Years ago, Vice didn't really cover news. It covered Vice.

SHANE SMITH: All we had been sort of really concerned about was, you know, rare denim, rare sneakers and supermodels.

INSKEEP: That's Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice Magazine. The magazine has migrated to video on the web and by chance began covering war zones.

SMITH: When we first started doing video online, we followed the only heavy metal band around Baghdad. And, you know, while everyone was saying, oh, the war is over, everything's great, we were getting shot at in the Red Zone.

INSKEEP: These days, Vice is producing documentaries from Ukraine and North Korea and South Sudan and even embedded a filmmaker with ISIS in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Raqqah, the capital of the world's newest declared state.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

INSKEEP: Vice is expected to expand its television offerings because it's newest investors include Disney-owned A&E networks. It has become, in part, a news organization. Although it still covers plenty of Vice.

SMITH: We look at the news cycle is a dangerous game to play. It's like kindergartners playing soccer, you know? The ball goes over here; everyone runs over there. The ball goes over there, everyone runs over there. And we famously go into places, you know, before things kick off - or after things. I mean, we started documenting Iraq, you know, mostly after the war. You know, and everyone had left. And we went in and said, hold on a second. There's all these stories that are going on, and no one cares. There's Iraq fatigue. So that's how we got in with ISIS.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to talk about this a little more. We, of course, have had plenty of occasion to think about this. A lot of news organizations have responded to the spread of the Internet by saying that they need to be everywhere all the time, that reporters need to blog all day, that they need to update constantly, that you need to be on top of stories. But, of course, that means that any breaking news story is instantly a commodity. Everybody has it as soon as somebody tweets it. You seem to be arguing for a different approach, to take your time and get something that's really distinctive and hard for someone else to repeat.

SMITH: Exactly. You should come work for Vice. (Laughter). That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: (Laughter). I'm doing OK where I am, but thank you very much.

SMITH: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, look. when we started doing online - and especially with YouTube - you know, people would say young people don't care about international news. And, you know, they don't have an attention span, so keep it short. Of course, that was all wrong. We average about 28 minutes per video - time on-site versus, you know, two or three minutes is standard on YouTube. We have the highest video completion rate, the best like versus dislike ratio - all on our news stuff. So I think, you know, you have to look at it and say, everybody has their opinions about how everything should be or has to be. And generally, if everybody else is doing it that way, we do it another way because everybody else is already doing it that way. And we're not going to go in and fight CNN on, you know, the 24-hour news cycle because it's already been proven that's not necessarily the best way to do news.

INSKEEP: Do you, to some extent, finance the content you're proud of by putting out a lot of content you're not as proud of?

SMITH: (Laughter). No. Look, there's a lot of content, like, you know - we're Gen Y, you know, sort of 18 to 34. But 18 is different than 34. And, you know, obviously I'm older. So I prefer the news stuff. But some of our fastest-growing stuff is on THUMP or Noisy, you know, which is our music and EDM channels.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about, I went on your - just shortly before we talked, I went to vice.com. And, of course, you can easily find serious news stuff there. But if you look at the most viewed items - just at the moment I was looking there were stories like, "How To Have A Non-monogamous Relationship."

SMITH: Sure.

INSKEEP: Weediquette, "Stoned Moms." I mean, is the situation on your site, like any number of others news sites, that what seems serious is not the same as what seems to get a lot of clicks?

SMITH: Vice.com is an omnibus. So we have everything, you know, on there. Vice News, you won't see any of that. Vice news is just straight news.

INSKEEP: OK.

SMITH: And the reason why is precisely because people go there, and if they want serious news, they feel that somehow, our news stories are not taken with the gravity that they should be if you have Weediquette next to it. But we're a media company, you know, we create media. You know, we sat out there and said, you know, the number one consumer of going out and purchasing food in the world is Gen Y. Name one TV show that's geared towards food for Gen Y. There isn't one.

INSKEEP: I was going to say, it's going to be a long pause, here.

SMITH: So we made the show called, "[Bleep] That's Delicious," with Action Bronson, who's a chef and a rapper. But people who see our embed with ISIS and then come in and see, "[Bleep] That's Delicious," you know, they say, well, who cares about that? Well, the people who care about food and the revolution going on in food care about that.

INSKEEP: And there may well be some of us who would be interested in both of those products, I suggest.

SMITH: There you go.

INSKEEP: I want to come back to this documentary about the so-called Islamic State. You got somebody into Raqqah, the capital of this would-be state. The man who went in to take the footage, was he a full-time person on your staff?

SMITH: No, we had worked with him in Gaza on a lot of things that we had done there. He's a Palestinian kid, and he works for Al Jazeera. He works for us. He works for a couple of other people. You know, he's a freelancer. And basically, what happened is we said, why don't you ask these guys? See if you can go embed. And everyone says, how did you get it? How did you get it? Well, I believe we were the only people that asked.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess that's what I'm wondering about because the beheadings in Syria have underlined the dangers for journalists generally, and especially the dangers for freelancers in a war zone who may not have the full support of a company behind them.

SMITH: Sure.

INSKEEP: Are you absolutely and fully supporting in every way the freelancers you may hire?

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, you know - look, we - in Ukraine Simon Ostrovsky was kidnapped along with 12 other journalists and not only...

INSKEEP: Your filmmaker there, right?

SMITH: Our filmmaker, Simon - and we not only had an action team on the ground in eight hours. We got him out within 48 hours. So look, the safety of our people is of paramount importance to us. But a lot of these stories were embedded with the Taliban - right now, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

And, you know, we think that it's important to understand where these political movements are coming from because, look, there's a lot of propaganda on both sides. And, you know, how do these people - how do they gain so much support so quickly?

INSKEEP: Well, that's another thing that's worth bringing up when you talk about the propaganda on both sides. I'm constantly mindful of the difficulty of just keeping up with all the people in the world at home or abroad who have an agenda - who want to play you in some fashion - who want to take advantage of the attention they can get from you, or who don't want to tell you the full story. Are you confident you have an organization - as you grow in news importance - an organization that can keep up with the world and not get played?

SMITH: No, I think it's impossible (Laughter). I think you do your best. And we believe in full transparency. And that's why we sort of adopted a documentary-immersionism style - because the fact that we don't have to follow the news cycle gives us the time to double check and triple check what's going on. And, by the way, stories morph. I mean, you have to be dynamic, and you have to be sort of open-minded when you go into these things.

INSKEEP: Shane Smith, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: That's Shane Smith, CEO of Vice Media.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.