Television journalism reshaped for the Vice generation
Brash outsiders are increasingly becoming insiders, if not institutions in their own right
An odd thing happened on Newsnight recently and it didn’t involve either an interview with the Cookie Monster or Kirsty Wark doing the zombie dance from Thriller (although both of these things have also occurred).
The BBC’s current affairs flagship show ran a story about a herbal stimulant called khat, which is being banned in the UK. However, rather than burden any of the broadcaster’s 8,000-strong army of journalists with the task of covering the issue, editor Ian Katz commissioned the report from online video-producer Vice, for which Alex Miller, editor-in-chief of Vice UK, hung out in the khat cafés of East Africa, digging its vibe.
A collaboration between Newsnight and Vice would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In the US, however, established media institutions were succumbing to Vice as far back as 2010. This was when CNN. com showed the cannibalism- themed Vice Guide to Liberia and New York Times journalist David Carr was filmed pointedly asking Vice chief executive Shane Smith: “What the f**k is going on that you’re doing business with CNN?”
A version of this question may now be on the lips of axed or sidelined BBC journalists. Much has changed in the interim and, with even tanker-sized organisations like the BBC experimenting in a bid to maintain relevance, change is set to be the news media’s one constant.
At an investigative journalism conference in Belfast last month, London-based media professor George Brock made the following prediction: one of three existing “laboratories” of journalism – Vice, Vox or Buzzfeed – will in a decade be regarded as a fully respectable “media institution”.
Certainly, Vice has the ambition. Smith doesn’t just want to do content deals with CNN – he wants Vice to be “the next MTV, ESPN and CNN rolled into one”.
The most interesting aspect of the media landscape over the next decade, though, won’t be finding out which, if any, can reach the point that they become non- faddish, money-making, employer-of- choice “media institutions”. It will be watching how their strategies for expansion will affect the market as a whole.
Two obvious ruptures to date are partnerships and poaching. Vox Media, the owner of technology site the Verge and sports site SB Nation, has just persuaded journalist Ezra Klein, previously of the Washington Post, to join its ranks. At the Post, Klein managed Wonkblog, one of its most well-read blogs, but he has now taken his skills and those of a clutch of Post colleagues to launch a new venture for Vox.
Like Vox Media, Buzzfeed is no stranger to raising venture capital. Run by Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti, it is the archetypal clickbait aggregator, as well as being the most dedicated purveyor of the picture-punchline “listicle” and the holder of a significant amount of brand traction.
Its tone is most readily defined by its invitation for readers to click reaction buttons such as “lol”, “omg”, “win”, “cute”, “trashy”and “fail” or, if you’re on Buzzfeed UK, “blimey”. But, omg, Buzzfeed is occasionally pushing out headlines less trivial than these two classics from yesterday, This Goat Simulator Video Game Looks Amazing and Meanwhile, in Dorset, a Wave Shaped Like a Face.
In January, it used its trademark picture and video sequences to curate the story of a violent day in Kiev. Although its account was told in fragments, the captions on the 30-plus images and clips added up to the length of a typical newspaper despatch, Brock noted. Oh yes, and Buzzfeed is reportedly forecasting revenue of $120 million this year.
The “establishment” now has a choice to make. They can continue to be themselves, they can “borrow” some of the upstarts’ appeal to younger consumers by importing their style, either through imitation or partnership or, if they still have enough money, they can acquire the competition. Vice, once dubbed the “brash outsider”, last year sold 21st Century Fox a 5 per cent stake, not long after Rupert Murdoch called the former music magazine a “wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media”.
But “cool” is not immutable. Vice’s gonzo, hipster-bloke style may be diluted by the media groups with which it gets into bed, while at the same time, institutions that seek to incorporate the edge of superficially radical rivals risk throwing the baby out with the branded bathwater.
Back in his confrontational 2010 interview with the Vice guys, Carr pondered the impact of the new order on CNN viewers. He surmised they might watch the Vice Guide to Liberia and think, “hmmm, I’m looking at human shit on the beach”.
Some Newsnight viewers will be experiencing similar sensations as its journalism is reshaped for the Vice generation.