A Lesson from the Decline of Vice

Revisiting what David Carr saw, and why it may have been lost.

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One the same day last month that Politico found its publishing strategy vindicated by a billion dollar sale price, the much larger Vice suffered through a new round of layoffs, what its union ruefully called a “macabre annual ritual” at the company. A lot was written about the Politico move, but I think the problems at Vice deserve more attention.

If you, like me, are not in Vice’s target market (it refers to itself as a “youth media brand”), your strongest memories of attention to the company may come back to the late, great New York Times media columnist David Carr. If you Google “David Carr and Vice,” you’ll see any number of referrals to a 2010 video of Carr chastising the Vice leadership team for denigrating the Times’s news efforts in Liberia, where Vice had focused its own attention on episodes of cannibalism.

But Carr, whom I knew a bit and enormously admired, was probably Vice’s greatest booster in the mainstream press. He wrote two major columns on Vice, the first in 2010 at around the time of the video confrontation. In it, Carr compared Vice, favorably, to “Playboy in its prime,” and described “some pretty rugged, pretty wonderful television work.” Vice co-founder Shane Smith was quoted in the conclusion of the piece that, “We are building the next MTV.”

The video, which was part of the 2011 documentary “Page One” on the Times, included a Vice executive explaining to Carr, “We know how to speak to young people,” and asserting that their then partnership with CNN resulted after a CNN executive told them, “49 year olds are watching CNN right now; we’re fucked.”

In 2014, about six months before his sudden and terribly untimely death, Carr returned to the subject of Vice. He reflected on the video that, “Being the crusty old-media scold felt good at the time, but recent events suggest that Vice is deadly serious about doing real news.” He noted that he had successfully encouraged his daughter to work there, and praised Vice for “bearing witness” in its distribution of a documentary on ISIS that included the terrorists’ execution of journalist James Foley.

What’s happened since

I rehearse all of this not because I think Carr was wrong, but because I think he was on to something at the time, something that has since been lost.

Vice had 560 employees when Carr first wrote about them; today it has perhaps five times that many. The company was valued at nearly $6 billion in 2017, and had a news show on HBO. Much more recently, its valuation has fallen by more than half, and that price has seemed to be unobtainable, even through the dubious vehicle of a SPAC. In 2019, it was producing a torrent of an average of 50 pieces of content every day, then this volume of production more than doubled, but earlier this summer, management said content output would be stemmed by half. Significant layoffs were imposed last year, and smaller layoffs last month.

Today, Vice says it is reaching its largest audiences ever, and perhaps it is, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it has the influence, on either its audience or the news industry, that it attained at the time of its stories on North Korea or ISIS or Charlottesville.

The decline in importance of Vice suggests that my friend Jill Abramson may have been on to more than she was generally given credit for in her book Merchants of Truth. Abramson launched a significant critique of Vice, including for rampant misogyny and excessive coziness with advertisers, but much of that got lost in disputes about her insufficient crediting of sources (her subjects at Vice and some others called it “plagiarism.”) The deepest of these criticisms was summed up this way in the Times review of Abramson’s book:

The company created branded content for giant advertisers — and killed stories that criticized them — at the same time that it cultivated an image of rebellion. It was giving the Man the finger while simultaneously massaging his back.

Yet, if Vice ostensibly rejected Abramson’s critique, it also responded, at least to the misogyny charge. The company is now led by a woman, and other women play key roles as well. The bad boys from Montreal who ran the business have been supplanted by a crew led by a Rupert Murdoch protégé and 20 year veteran of the New York Post.

Just a business now?

With all of this, however, one cannot help but feel that Vice has lost its way. The note on last month’s layoffs bragged on all sorts of traffic figures, but didn’t mention a single memorable story. That is the key point. Vice, as noted, had always identified its commercial appeal as rooted in demographics, but there was also a guiding sensibility, an editorial vision that was edgy and purposeful.

Now Vice feels and sounds mostly like a business, delivering to advertisers eyeballs from a niche audience. That is almost never the route to success in publishing. If you don’t begin with editorial vision, and maintain it, you eventually go astray.

It all brings me back, yet again, to David Carr. In his first column on the upstart news organization, he had the prescience to quote Shane Smith: “I don’t want us to get hot and die.”  Last week, Smith agreed to give up voting control of the company. What he worried about in 2010 may be precisely what is unfolding.

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