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New media sites are like London buses. You wait ages for one to come along, and then two get cancelled at once.
Last week I was writing about BuzzFeed News and how, even after changing so many of the default assumptions of modern journalism, the model they pioneered appears to be on the edge of ruin. This week it’s the turn of Vice Media, the America-Canadian lifestyle, culture and politics magazine-turned-website that will long be held up as a pillar of hipster culture. The New York Times reported last week that the company — once valued at $5.7bn after investments from Disney and Rupert Murdoch — was on the brink of bankruptcy.
I’m not going to leave myself a hostage to fortune on the outcome of Vice’s current travails. The cultural penetration of the Vice name has been on the wane for several years, and the origins of the brand have been mired in controversy. Instead, I want to talk a little about what Vice is, was, and what the future for alt-media looks like.
Vice was, in fact, pretty much the first publication that ever hired me to write for them (excepting the Oxford Times, where I had a column for my final year at university). They paid me real money when I was a 21-year-old know-nothing aspirant hack, and at a rate of something like 30p a word (I’ve not been offered many more lucrative freelance deals). The first piece I ever wrote for them was a love letter to London’s Trocadero, a rundown arcade in the West End which is now a boutique cinema and retail complex. It’s still one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever written. Over the next couple of years, I wrote an array of features for Vice, covering topics ranging from homelessness to Scientology, child geniuses to air pollution.
I remember (though I can’t find the exact quote) that one of the first edits that happened to my copy at Vice was changing “backpacked German tourists” to “backpacked German dickheads”. Of all the places that I’ve written for, Vice comes the closest to speaking with a single voice. They certainly had the power to create star columnists like Clive Martin and Joel Golby, but there was still a baked-in form of witty cynicism. They liked to say things that wouldn’t be printed in the mainstream press, and they liked them to be spoken with the singular Great Vice Voice.
The story of Vice, the trajectory that the brand has been on, has basically been the story of cool. In the idea of cool, indeed in its very nature, is the idea of impermanence. Cool is not presupposed or inherited; it’s earned. Things must become cool. Stasis is fundamentally uncool, only change can generated new trends, new preferences, new fashions.
That is why fashion is fashion, why it changes with the seasons. What was worn by high status Victorians is no more similar to what was worn by high status Milan cat-walkers in the early 00s, than the rags worn by cavemen. And because things must, definitionally, become cool, things must also, definitionally, become uncool. And for a bright, shining moment, Vice was unequivocally cool. Our of its origins as a skater magazine distributed in Canadian punk cafes, it became a recognised arbiter of mainstream good taste.
I would say that, from an investment perspective, it’s bad to bet on fashion. Except that LVMH (the parent company of brands including Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Tiffany, Bulgari, Fendi…etc) has been one of the most bankable stock picks of the last 40 years. With a valuation of $500bn, it’s the most valuable company in Europe. So the most valuable company in Europe is not one that pipes natural gas or sells family cars or manufactures insulin, it’s one that flogs $1,000 handbags. How did LVMH escape the ruins of fashion?
It’s simple: fashion understands its inherent mutability, where the media has been predicated on brand stability and reputation. Vice never iterated away from its early image, one that was pro sex and drugs, anti-establishment with a libertarian streak and broadly leftist in its obsession with social and identity politics. The Vice headlines of the past year have read like bad parodies of the Vice headlines of a decade ago. “How Cocaine Influenced the Work of Sigmund Freud,” reads one. “A Guide to the Best Sex Pillows for Humping and Grinding,” proclaims another.
Vice stopped being cool as its native generation — millennials — became boring homeowners whose interest in pot was mainly pension related. They were not helped by the emergence of Gen Z — the Zoomers — a chaste generation of sun-dodging, home-schooled kids, who vape and watch anime and generally avoid bodily contact. But really this is just tidal, and would be a less existential threat if Vice had ever generated a revenue model based on anything other than being cool. Instead they expanded rapidly worldwide on the back of investment capital, and bought up (or created) adjacent real estate based on the nebulous association of this cool brand. They had their own beer (and a pub in a trendy part of London), they started two different video production companies, Vice Films and Pulse Films, to produce specialist content, and they invested in virtual reality (VRSE.farm) and experimental events (Villain) in moves that made no clear financial sense.
Like many new media companies they also tied themselves into major real estate deals during the pre-covid era, and were rocked by staff unionisation in the US, Canada and UK. These are all issues that you’d think a company playing with Disney and Murdoch cash might’ve foreseen, and yet part of keeping Vice cool meant giving them a bit of free rein. Letting them hire young, inexperienced journalists, keeping the headcount high and the brand saturation strong. It meant investing in socials at the rate that the sector was expanding (and, like BuzzFeed, the history of social media could be plotted on a pretty similar timeline to the history of Vice Media). In 2021, when the writing might have seemed on the wall, they attempted to go public via a SPAC but ended up in another investment round. None of this was addressing the core issue: Vice had gone out of fashion.
Part of that unfashioning might’ve been the fact that co-founder Gavin McInnes had left Vice and gone on to be a founder of the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist organisation. Equally damaging was the launch of Viceland, a linear TV channel, which immediately bombed, and the disintegration of a long-term deal to supply content for HBO. For the past few years, the company has been failing a lot in public, and the bankruptcy news has caught few by surprise.
Despite this (and I appreciate this is a facile thing to say) it’s hard to see what Vice could’ve done differently. The currency of cool is a fickle master, and there was a time, from about 2010 to 2015, where Vice had a, ahem, vicelike grip on the discourse of a generation. It was natural that investment firms and media moguls would want a slice of that pie, and the founders got rich off that fact. Everyone involved was probably aware that Vice’s success was heavily staked to a very present tense notion of cool, but what can you do? You don’t make bets on uncool brands in the hope they’ll become cool. You buy this season’s Louis Vuitton handbag and worry about its value retention later.
What Vice did was to make big financial gambles on the longevity of their brand. I’ve long advocated for more media to involve themselves in direct sales, whether that’s charging for content (ideal, but hard, especially in a digital first environment) or selling things like events or products. Vice was brilliant at this; it just couldn’t keep costs down. And the gambles were too unevenly made — starting their own TV channel and record label felt like vanity projects, where canning a cheap lager and selling it at extortionate prices could, actually, have been a profitable exercise. In the fat times, they believed that ubiquity would be their brand’s saviour, but, when the lean times came, they were left with a smorgasbord of unprofitable extras. Easy to cut (and the cuts began in earnest back in 2019) but once you’ve hacked away at your workforce and shuttered failing projects (Viceland was shuffled offstage in 2020) and are still haemorrhaging cash, it’s harder to present a coherent path to investors.
Reports are suggesting that the company could be saved from bankruptcy by a $400m deal from Fortress Investment Group and Soros Fund Management. This is obviously a big drop from that mythical $5.7bn valuation, but it does suggest that people — George Soros included, perhaps — believe there’s life, and value, in the brand. If they do takeover and steer the next phase for Vice Media, it would be worth remembering how times have changed. If Vice is to be competitive in the youth media space, it needs to be as effective in keeping face with cultural shifts as Luis Vuitton or Christian Dior.