There’s only one man in the world who is in journalism to get rich. That man is Shane Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Vice Media, Inc. 20 years in the making, Smith’s growing media empire has amassed him an estimated $400 million fortune, and according to widespread reports earlier this week, Vice is planning a “deal spree” in 2015 to be possibly followed by an IPO.
With a $500 million “war chest,” Vice is looking to acquire “content, technology, and distribution deals” according to CNBC. The spending money comes from dual $250 million investments from A&E Networks, in part owned by Disney, and Technology Cross Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture firm with notable stakes in Netflix and Facebook. These investments brought Vice’s valuation to $2.5 billion, doubling the company’s valuation previous valuation of $1.4 billion back in late 2013 when Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox bought a 5% stake for $70 million.
This year, Vice is expected to report revenues of $500 million, and according to Smith that figure could reach $1 billion by 2016. Smith has also said that Vice’s profit margins are currently at 34%, though he wasn’t specific as to which measure this was (i.e. net income, pre-tax income, etc.). The New York Times, in comparison, has a net income margin of just 10%.
So what exactly is Vice?
What began as a small counter-cultural zine founded in Montreal in 1994 has grown leaps and bounds into a media powerhouse with a print circulation of over one million, 5 million YouTube subscribers, and an average monthly video watch time of 175 million minutes. Vice today is a magazine, a website, a YouTube channel, a record label, and an Emmy award-winning HBO series. Its revenue sources are online and print advertising, its record label, and making movies. The bulk of its money, though, comes from sponsored content. Notably, Vice has a multi-million dollar deal with Intel to make The Creators Project, a website (and possibly much more) dedicated to the intersection of art and technology.
But above all, Vice is a brand, one often characterized as “punk,” “indie,” and “hipster.” While those descriptors are pretty accurate, Vice is not about appealing to adolescent immaturity or click-baited, three-second attention spans. It’s no Buzzfeed, in other words. Chance are, however, if you’re over 30 the only time you might have heard of Vice is when it got American media into North Korea by making a documentary out of Dennis Rodman’s exhibition basketball game there (yes, Vice made that happen).
Vice’s appeal to the millennial generation is based primarily on its gripping visual content of places unseen, events unknown, and people unheard. The iconic short documentaries of 15 to 45 minutes are mostly exercises in what is known as gonzo journalism—wherein the reporter or documentarian immerses himself in the scene and the action, not only conducting research and interviews but also providing his own commentary in real-time. For example, in the video linked above about the North Korean exhibition basketball game, the Vice reporter not only conducts his reporter duties by narrating and commenting on what he did, saw, and experienced, he actually participates in the game and later becomes one of only a handful of Americans to meet Kim Jung Un.
Traditionalists out there might lament Vice’s preference for, well, vices: violence, sex, corruption, and drugs. It’s simply part of the appeal, and partially why the enterprise is so successful. So, one way to think of Vice is as a more dangerous, more profane, and more exhilarating version of 60 Minutes. Just take a look at its YouTube page; some of its most viewed videos are “The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia,”“Underground LSD Palace,” and “The Mexican Mormon War.”
Vice has uniquely captured the millennial audience in a way no other media or news enterprise has, and it’s not just because of its content. Vice reporters are young, like the viewer, and they speak and act as most of their viewers do. They are sometimes unprofessional, clumsy, make mistakes, and openly express emotions without filter. In this way, viewers can empathize with the Vice reporters, but more importantly they begin to think: Hey, he’s just like me. Cynical, ironic, witty. I could do this too. That could be me there reporting. And just like that, viewers become hooked.
The millennial generation, contrary to popular opinion, does indeed have a high demand for news—perhaps greater than any generation before it. Vice latched onto what this demand entails, and turned it from a niche specialty into a growing media conglomerate.
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