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29 February 2024

How Vice lost the future

The media company seemed too good to be true. It was.

By Clive Martin

When I first started working for Vice, back in 2012, telling somebody you worked there was an exciting revelation, loaded with kudos and intrigue. It was akin to saying you worked for Fiorucci in 1977 or Death Row Records in 1994 – a company that operated in a Scarface-style montage sequence at all times. A business that was entirely of its time, carried in a great wind of hype. 

Yet, by 2019 or so, working for Vice felt like something you ought to keep to yourself. It became an admission that would elicit raised eyebrows and bitten lips, like saying you worked for the Landlord Association or in Nestlé’s legal department. The company’s reputation had gone from impressive, to borderline antisocial, in less than a decade. 

The collapse of Vice is a dizzying one, a free-fall tandem skydive towards a muddy internet landscape where brand names barely matter anymore, where “socials” are king and websites are scarred with desperate pleas for donations. If anyone had the minerals to survive this fall, it was probably Vice, but now, after a top-brass-implicating #MeToo scandal, a Saudi-relationship exposé (in which the company was accused of blocking negative stories about the kingdom), the infamous “pivot to video of 2015”, and endless, miserable rounds of redundancies, the company seems to have finally reached the end of days.  

Late last Thursday afternoon, rumours started spreading that, the heartbeat of operations for many a year, was about to be shuttered, possibly within the day. I found out this news in the most jarring possible way; waiting for a delayed train on a freezing, packed District Line platform. 

Within seconds of the “anonymous tip” leaking to X/Twitter, my inboxes started filling with friends and ex-colleagues screaming “download everything” and “fffffuuucccck”. After several false scares, it appeared the shit was hitting the Dyson Pure Cool in a swift, brutal, and very Vice kind of way.

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As I ran back home to get on with archiving a decade’s worth of work, so did a global network of staffers, freelancers, or just those who got £50 for a funny mephedrone anecdote back in 2013, all wondering if the fruits of their labour were about to be thrown into the internet dustbin. 

Eventually, some clarification came from Vice’s latest interim hatchetman, CEO Bruce Dixon, who issued a memo declaring that it was “no longer cost-effective for us to distribute our digital content the way we have done previously”, as well as some guff about a “full transition to a studio model”. As ever, the company was clinging on, but the implication was clear: a lot of people were going to be fired, and Vice as we know it was dead. 

The arc of Vice is a fascinating, but entirely predictable bit of media mythology. One that would seem too broad, too parroted from The Wolf of Wall Street and Boogie Nights if it were fiction. It was the Canadian skate magazine that moved to New York, and then to London and Paris and everywhere else, becoming a bona fide empire, while refusing to pull up its Carhartt jeans.

It would be a nice story, had the ownership been clueless, idealistic kids who never reneged on their ideals. But, alas, it isn’t that story at all. It’s one of greed and mistreatment and sheer, astonishing idiocy, the kind only seen at WeWork and Peter Ridsdale’s Leeds United.

The demise of the company can be attributed to its founders, Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, and later, its chief creative officer Eddy Moretti – a kind of “guru” figure, fond of a pork pie hat and taking his shoes off in the office. Together, they presided over Vice with all the foresight of a baby tree shrew.

Many Vice contributors have published their version of events. And no doubt, some serious writer is working on the tell-all, Orwell Prize-nominated doorstep hardback version of it. The crescendo of many of those accounts will be the moment when Smith and Alvi turned down a reported multibillion-dollar acquisition deal with Disney in 2016 (though the corporation had already invested hundreds of millions). Business Insider cites their reasoning as the company having “more room to grow”, but I heard they were after incredible amounts of money.

Throughout my three years on staff at Vice, and the others I spent in and around the office in a freelance capacity, the company was always in a “sale cycle”, taking investments from ever-more dubious media characters, including the Murdochs. The staff knew it couldn’t keep going the way it was, and often it felt like working in a youth centre that was earmarked to become a Westfield shopping centre. Yet this innate sense of futility didn’t stop it from being a pretty incredible place to work – albeit one that could never exist today. 

I remember the London office as somewhere where almost anything could happen, where a young, hungry and experimental staff created a style of film-making and writing that bore little resemblance to co-founder Gavin McInnes’s “old Vice”, but would go on to influence much of contemporary British media. I am always watching and reading things that feel “a little bit Vice”, and when I look at the bylines and credits, there’s usually a name or ten I recognise from my days there.

The Vice UK office operated in a different universe to the stale, half-arsed, post-Covid work culture of today. It was a place where ideas were not thrashed out in “breakout rooms” and ambient Zoom calls, but in the boozer next door. Working relationships were forged not at speed mixers and paintball weekends, but on dancefloors and after-parties. I once played a game of football with a managing director of the company and a work-shy experimental music producer who was sleeping on my sofa. It was exactly how a “creative” company should be. 

If you had an idea at Vice, you could get it published, get it made, and get it out there, with few questions asked. People that had never written anything longer than a Ucas statement were given huge viral hits just because they had a story, an idea, something to show the world. Interns sometimes found themselves working – and sometimes leading on – documentaries that were primed to reach 30 million views. Writers were dispatched around the country and sometimes internationally, told to come back with something, and if it didn’t work, no worries. Documentary makers made ridiculous techno tracks and foley sounds for their films in the suites, and then got their friends to invoice for them. There were no tired old-media standards or practices. It was fluid, social, innately creative, almost DIY, but with the means to make things happen.

I started working there totally by accident, basically hired because I wrote a few funny Facebook statuses and knew an editor there from partying in Dalston. I started covering the “Kony 2012” rally for £40 a piece, and ended up with a TV series (and my face on a billboard on Hackney Road in east London). I was punched in the head by a trainee Royal Marine, stabbed with an epipen and accosted by armed militia in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The slight inkling that I might be able to write, that I had something to say, or that at least I could make people laugh, was realised with surreal efficiency. Vice took me from kicking my heels in a borderline squat, to being something resembling a journalist in a matter of weeks. It later transpired that I couldn’t quite handle this success – and its accompanying temptations – but in many ways it defined my young adulthood and set me on a career path, of sorts. Today, when I see young freelancers scrabbling around with their horribly formal pitches and dowdy, mass audience ideas, I feel slightly sorry they missed the optimistic chaos of the Vice era. 

The flipside to this is that, if you give a lot of youngsters (and not-so-youngsters) a lot of power, untoward things will happen. Much has been made of the inappropriate work culture at Vice and the resulting scandals. Certainly, some dubious things happened when I was there, and perhaps, I was a little bit incubated from it all on the top end of the editorial table. But I always felt that the real darkness, the heavy, sinister stuff had been largely ironed out by the time I got there. Most of the gravest revelations that came out in the press happened in New York, among the bigwigs, or in the Leonard Street office of the bad old days.

The notion that it wasn’t like other businesses didn’t hit us all until much later. Despite the ever-present, low hum of madness underpinning its work culture, the UK office reared an incredible roster of talent, most of whom are now shaping the things Britain reads and watches and buys. Almost all of the writers, editors, film-makers, technicians, marketing and sales people that worked there were preternaturally good at what they did (even the ones I didn’t particularly care for). Not only that, many of them DJ’d or ran parties in their spare time, which meant that work and life at Vice were often indistinct from each other. When Vice bought i-D, it introduced stylists, fashion writers and the occasional supermodel into the mix. Popping into work on stuff were everyone from celebrities to CEOs, and sometimes the Vice news team would come back covered in the blood and sand of distant conflicts.

At points, our intern table had more ideas than most broadsheet desks, with more than a few of those up-for-it youngsters carving out hugely successful careers for themselves. I can remember the young media mogul Alhan Gençay as a 16-year-old work experience boy, ripping the piss out of our millennial tendencies, and the journalist Matt Shea, now famed for his work exposing Andrew Tate, winging his way into a job by overplaying his understanding of the content management system. In 2015, when I was partying too hard and was sin-binned to the intern desk, the person sitting beside me turned out to be Amelia Dimoldenberg from Chicken Shop Date. It really felt like a stable of sorts, a new-media La Masia. 

Yet, “the Yanks”, as we called them (who were actually Canadian), were never very interested in this. They were too busy shouting their mouths about their “very sexy” public listing prices at malevolent media conferences in Cannes, making boilerplate celebrity-led content and banging on about being “the new MTV” at every opportunity. Like all arch-capitalists, they worshipped only at the altar of “growth”, and operated the company like a busted concertina, endlessly expanding with new ventures, and contracting when they lost a shitload of money on those. We were always given irritating, schizophrenic edicts; “Be more like the New York Times”, “Be less like the New York Times”, “Be more like Vice”. It always seemed to me that the owners had no idea what they were actually good at, what people liked about their company or how to preserve any kind of legacy. They were master-alienators, grasping for every trend and destroying their goodwill in the process.

Today, the company’s trolls and detractors, including the alt-novelist Tao Lin, are bemoaning how the company “went woke”. But working there, it’s a testament to the young staff that they didn’t launch a full Leninist takeover, hoisting the red flag above its New North Place headquarters in London. Because by overpaying some and underpaying others, by Vice UK’s refusal to recognise a union (though it relented in 2019) and initiation of mass sackings every few months, Vice radicalised its own staff.

Vice always needed a certain amount of belief and trust from its employees to run smoothly, a sense of working for something bigger than itself. When I first started there, slagging it off was basically forbidden (whereas the Guardian apparently had an anonymous noteboard full of disgruntled staffers taking potshots at the company). Yet by the time Vice lost the trust of its workforce, it wouldn’t have been unfeasible for the website to post a hit piece on itself. Indeed, after Thursday’s D-Day event, a couple of staffers even posted a podcast about what was happening with the company, because while Vice froze its own content management system, they forgot about the podcast section. 

The owners, immersed in a world of long lunches, couldn’t keep up with the mutinous discontent that had been growing for years. They were pure Gen-X plutocrats, people who lived between tequila slammers, private jets and corporate mergers. They were the types that thought Barack Obama was “badass” and that socialism was a class you skipped at college – MTV dads in the TikTok age.

I was in the room when the head honchos at the UK office had to enact the initial refusal to recognise the union in the UK, and I’ll never forget the absolute stink in the wake of the statement; the mutterings, the shouting, the nervous looks on their faces. I’m sure that someone who worked on the Succession scene where Kendal decimates a new media company was in the room, or its American equivalent, that day.

This was possibly the last straw of morale or trust within the company – but still, what does it matter when you can sell $100m’s worth of shares, like Shane Smith did? Smith reportedly told a friend that after gaining this fortune he had become “post-economic”. It’s a bolshie, lite-libertarian, typically Vice bit of phrasing. Something, if true, he probably believed was impossibly cool. But, ultimately, Smith isn’t as rich as he could have been, and he’ll be lucky to get a job at the Ottawa Times when all the dust has settled. 

Perhaps, though, the ultimate outcome of the Vice debacle is how it cements the ephemeral nature of the internet. Alongside the death of Pitchfork, and several other millennial media outlets, it reinforces a feeling of impermanence at the heart of the world wide web. At Vice we were told all our work would last forever and take over the world; but actually, we were building ice sculptures in Death Valley.

As I spent Thursday evening looting my author page, downloading pieces like “Why I Hate the Smug Men Who Never Sleep” and “10 Ways to Make Clubbing Less Shit in 2013”, it felt very much like sifting through the mementoes of some terrible house fire, or reading the notes left under the seats before a generational plane crash.

Vice isn’t entirely dead, but it might as well be. Nobody on Earth, probably not even Mohammed bin Salman’s media team, really wants to see this “studio model” era, and Vice’s corporate resuscitation is arguably more depressing than its collapse. An ex-colleague of mine said he thought about doing a memorial post about it, but it was pointless, because he’s done so many already.

But for all Vice’s flaws, it was, for quite a long time, a different kind of voice. One that was rarely “right”, but one that sat aside from the world of columnists and “How is this going to affect me and my family?” Sunday supplement discourse. It was, quite likely, the last major outlet that could afford to take risks. Pitches that Vice could have turned into a broadcast-standard documentary, or a 12-page feature with full-bleed photos, now become 800-word blogs in the paywalled purgatory of establishment media.

And in the current landscape, the end of Vice does not create a hole that begs to be filled. Media is simply lesser for its loss.

[See also: Academics can no longer speak freely]

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain