You take something important, something that has urgency to it, but it still feels like there’s something that’s missing in the debate, and you go and try and find it. And you do it in a way that you try to make interesting, not boring, you’re in it, you’re actually where it happens, and you talk to the people who are experiencing it,”
Milene Larsson, producer and correspondent, Vice News
Vice is notorious for many things. It’s known for its irreverent, provocative roots, first launching as a print mag in the US in the 1990s before spreading all over the world, and expanding into online, film production, and publishing, a media empire. It’s infamous for its skill at ‘immersive’ journalism, a style much copied and occasionally mocked (articles such as ‘I got buzzed on killer Japanese hornet cocktails’ and ‘I visited America’s first poop bank’, both published this month online, make for classic Vice fare). And it’s renowned for its popularity amongst ‘millennials’, a demographic much in demand but famously hard to reach.
With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising to discover that in less than a year, Vice News – the company’s foray into serious news journalism, which launched last March – is already proving a disruptive force. The channel began with the intention of serving up a different style of reporting to traditional television news or current affairs shows, and judging by a recent BBC report titled The Future of News, it is already making some of the more established networks nervous. The report acknowledges Vice News’ “remarkable” success – over 190 million views and 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube – alongside an observation that its looser style is more appealing to young audiences than the conventional BBC news approach.
It is this formality that the Vice News team was determined to avoid from the outset. “What we noticed about American news in particular, but also television news formatting, is that it’s not changed for a very long time,” says Kevin Sutcliffe, head of news programming EU at Vice News, who previously worked as an editor and producer on programmes at the BBC and Channel 4 including Dispatches, Panorama, Unreported World, and Louis Theroux. “The reason it doesn’t speak to a young audience is obvious – it’s middle-aged journalists in suits and ties talking to middle-aged journalists in suits and ties in studios. Or out on live links in front of something going-on – it feels formal, it feels mediated, it feels talked-down-to. And I think that too, and I’m slightly out of the millennial audience…. We’ve been trying to keep that in mind as we’ve gone forward. We’re trying to produce immersive, raw, authentic storytelling.”
If you’ve only heard of one story that’s come out of Vice News in the past year, it is likely to be its film about Islamic State. Released online last August, this documentary arrived when interest in the militant group was rising yet confusion around it was rife. The film offers a candid insight into IS via reporter Medyan Dairieh, who spent three weeks embedded with the group in Raqqa, Syria.
Appearing just months after the launch of the channel, the film was an “announcement”, says Sutcliffe. “We showed we know how to manage that and get that and handle it properly.” The film’s release led to (possibly envious) speculation in other news publications on how Vice News had managed to land such a scoop.
Yet talking to Sutcliffe, it appears that it was simply old-fashioned, thorough journalism, mixed with a bit of luck. Dairieh has a long track record and contacts in Syria, so was already a safe pair of hands, plus “we were able to satisfy ourselves after quite a bit of work that it was a trip that we could manage,” continues Sutcliffe. “It’s worth bearing in mind this was before what appears to be the planned theatre of cruelty…. It was a very different moment to now. “It also came for us at a moment when we’d been in and got something and then Obama decided to bomb so all of a sudden [we’re] holding this thing that everybody wants.”
While securing a film about IS at a time when everyone in the world suddenly wanted to know who they are was an impressive coup, Sutcliffe stresses that Vice News would never take risks with its journalists and that the channel always follows correct protocol. The team regularly has to pass on stories, or put them on hold until circumstances might change, because “journalists are targets now,” says Sutcliffe. “It’s changed considerably, they’ve got value now. Either they’ve got value or they’re a target, one of the two.”
What makes the IS film particularly unusual is its style – loose, fast-paced and occasionally graphic – and its length. Running at 43 minutes, it is far longer than a standard news report would – or could – ever be. Sutcliffe acknowledges that the ability to make lengthier films, with more graphic material, is an option not available to most television channels.
“The restrictions on a terrestrial television news package from a war mean that package is sort of the package for all war, and I would say that means it never really impacts on me,” he says. “There are watershed issues, there are real issues that actually make the form the form it is – that’s the system they’re working within. But we’re able to say ‘well, actually, we’ve gone to this place, there’s been this car bomb, this is what it looks like. This is it.’ It’s not gratuitous, it’s in context, it’s in the reporting, but it’s important for you to know this is what war looks like.
“It’s not so much the body count stuff,” he continues. “It’s the grinding, gritty rawness of being somewhere. Or the ironic moments – one of our reporters was inside Syria and his phone bleeps and it’s a message from the Syrian tourist board, it’s an automatic message … it’s ironic, it’s funny, it’s also part of what goes on, so we kept it in the film.”
Another advantage that Vice News has over other news channels is they can be choosy about what they cover. Sutcliffe is rather scathing about the “over-heated media village world” of the terrestrial channels, but recognises that being a largely online channel (Vice News also produces various TV shows, which play out on networks including Sky), devoid of schedules, allows them to cover the ‘agenda’ stories in their own way.
The channel has made commitments to certain parts of the world, giving long-term, in-depth dispatches from Ukraine, for example, and also focuses on topics that it knows its core audience is particularly enthused about. The latter includes a film strand titled ‘Young and Gay’, and ongoing coverage about the environment. Vice News also allows its journalists to pursue stories they are personally passionate about – for example, producer and correspondent Milene Larsson, who has worked at Vice in various guises for over a decade, has recently completed a series of documentaries about migration in Europe, titled ‘Europe or Die’, which stemmed from personal interests.
With this editorial approach, Vice News appears to recognise that it is just one part of a wide and noisy news landscape, and as such is not necessarily obliged to be all things to all people. “We’re not in that business of saying when something big in the world happens they turn to Vice,” says Sutcliffe. “What I do think people turn to us for is to find out what we’re thinking or what our take on it is. They’re grazing. It used to be that you’d always switch on to the BBC but actually that’s just one thing now, and that’s an acclimatisation they have to deal with.”
While Vice News may be new, the Vice name is now almost two decades old, and brings with it certain understandings and expectations. This heritage can be advantageous – for example, a recent exclusive interview on the website with surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz was apparently granted to the news site in part because of Vice’s irreverent roots.
This reputation for rebelliousness appears to run contrary to much of the company’s backing however, which includes investments from media behemoths such as WPP, 21st Century Fox and Disney, names that couldn’t be further from an image of punk provocation. Yet, despite its exponential growth over the last two decades, Vice has managed to maintain its distinctive voice and this is something that Sutcliffe and the team have consciously continued in its news reporting, recognising that it is a prized asset. The company hasn’t acquired journalists from other broadcasters, preferring instead to nurture its own talent and encourging its presenters to speak in their own style, instead of using a specific approach.
“There are many different ways of approaching [a story],” says Milene Larsson of the Vice News voice. “For me it’s important to not limit, to say ‘this is what it is’, because I’ve worked for Vice for so many years and just the fact that we now have a news channel is something nobody would have imagined. When I started working there we did issues about hating your parents and about drugs.
It’s ever-changeable but I guess the thing that will always be Vice is that you try to say it in an honest, no-bullshit way, and it’s made by young people and it talks to young people.” Getting in amongst the action is also key, with Vice News using cameraphones and drone technology to show different sides of a story and also occasionally live streaming significant news events from around the world.
Still in its first year, Vice News is currently prioritising growing its audience over building the kind of commercial partnerships that are well-established in other areas of Vice, though Sutcliffe acknowledges that future ideas for this are bubbling under. “We’re keen to talk to lots of people and I think there’s a lot of interest in what we’re making and how it’s impacting. The interesting challenge is just around how those partnerships work, so that the content being made stands on its own merits,” he says.
The focus for now remains on making great films and dispelling some of the folklore around millennials – myths that they have no interest in current affairs and have limited attention spans, for example. The success of Vice News over this year – as well as previous long-form documentary films that have run online – proves both these notions wrong, and also shows that ‘old-fashioned’, in-depth reporting can still cut through the media noise.
“It’s amazing what you can find out when you actually want to leave the office,” says Sutcliffe. “There’s a certain sort of journalism that is just done through the internet, and then there’s what we try and do, which is go and find out. And find out the world’s a slightly more sketchy, complicated, muddy, messy place than you ever thought it was, or you might have suspected. I quite like that. Nothing’s ever quite as it seems.”