Seven years ago the idea of Vice Magazine making earnest news stories would have struck most people as absurd, and still others as offensive. It’s hard to forget that the company virtually pioneered an anti-PC movement, much less forgive it. “Being a mag in New York, you kind of get lost in this vortex of parties and drugs and all this stuff,” says co-founder and company president Shane Smith, 37. “When we started traveling around more we started seeing that there are a lot of things happening that are important. I guess when we started going to gun markets and realizing you can buy dirty bombs on the black market we were like, ‘Well, it’s over. That’s the end of history. That’s the end of culture.’ It seemed that writing about denim and rare sneakers just didn’t measure up anymore.”
When the magazine began its expansion into 22 countries in 1999 – including Australia, Japan and Russia – Smith realized there were more story possibilities than any of the magazine’s editions could handle in print. So he started VBS.tv, a Web site of documentary-style video stories about music and culture, but predominantly (and perhaps most surprisingly) global politics. Smith leads quite a few of the shorts himself, traveling to divided regions like Darfur, Iraq or North Korea. You might take or leave his American-guy-abroad approach to reporting – walking through the desert in Sudan the realization strikes him on camera, “In the states you get so used to booze and food and coke and super models, and you come here and it’s like, water” – but at the very least it’s unsettlingly honest and sincere. And the stories are sound: They’re reported straightforwardly, and the producers travel to places they’re not supposed to go so the film shows footage you don’t normally get to see.
We caught up with the founder of the veritable hipster media empire to get the scoop on his new project, and what fueled the turnaround of the most drippingly sarcastic publication around.Can you begin by articulating the mission of VBS.tv?
It seems to me that modern media -- especially news media -- has sort of failed over the past five years, and admittedly so. We wanted to create something that could sort of be a bridge between creative people and the money to get what they want to say out. When we followed the only heavy metal band in Baghdad for three years you see as a backdrop what happened there because of the American presence. They can’t go outside. Their practice space is hit by a scud missile. Their friends were killed. But they’re guys that you can relate to. When kids turn on CNN -- if they even do which they don’t -- they sort of see, ‘Another hundred people killed in Baghdad,’ and they just turn it off again. Whereas when they watch something like heavy metal in Baghdad they say, ‘Oh, I’m in a band, I know someone in a band, I can relate to that. Oh, their practice space got blown up by us.’
Basically what we found is that there is a very limited counter cultural voice in America. Everyone talks about, ‘The liberal media, the liberal media’ -- there’s no such thing as liberal media here because there are four media companies that own everything and they’re all afraid of losing Budweiser as their advertiser. We wanted to make a countercultural voice that was bigger and you could have an alternative to Fox news.
Vice as an entity has gone from this kind of “I don’t give a fuck attitude” to tackling bigger issues quite a bit less sarcastically. Can you talk about that shift?
I think it came about with the expansion of the magazine into 22 other countries, because Europe’s [version of the magazine] was a bit more serious than us and I’d say, ‘Hey, this is a really great magazine that we’re doing here.’ Jesse Pearson and Eric Lavoi, who are both younger than (Vice co-founder) Suroosh Alvi and myself, they had different attitudes toward things and wanted to take it in a different direction. At the same time as Suroosh and I got older we got interested in different things. And the philosophy behind Vice magazine was always, ‘Well if we figure it’s interesting other people should figure it’s interesting.’ And in the 13 years we’ve been doing this we’ve never just said, ‘We’re this type of magazine and we’re gonna be like that.’ We’ve changed about 20 times. It just seemed that writing about denim and rare sneakers didn’t measure up anymore.
In one short you buy a dirty bomb with relative ease, and another takes audiences into a gun making market. It’s not like you just stumbled upon these really secret sorts of things. Can you talk about how you even get this information?
It came about from our expansion. We have 2,500 freelancers around the world in many countries, and we can only use so many articles for the mag. So a lot of content was just going by the wayside. Gun markets in Pakistan isn’t going to make it into the fashion issue but we should still go do something on it.
Because we’re a free mag distributed in local outlets, people feel that there’s a big interaction with us. So we get not only our freelancers but our audience says, “What about this? Have you heard about this thing?” So coming up with the stories isn’t the problem. Going out and shooting them is the problem.
You have an interesting personal reporting style. Can you talk a bit about the sort of travel guide approach you take in the pieces you lead?
I can’t really do it another way. To do so it would be fake. Young people have pretty sophisticated bullshit detectors. I’m not CNN, and I don’t really go crazy and research my pieces that much. I’m not there to solve the problems of the Middle East, but when some guy tells me they’re making 4 or 5 year old kids into transportation devices for dynamite I can say, “Look that’s an intrinsically bad thing. I don’t care who’s right or wrong that’s just an intrinsically bad thing.” I went into North Korea with these guys from Newsweek and Time and they’d already made up their minds. They were really sort of paradigmic, and they had all their questions made up before they went there. And I was like, “I don’t know anything about North Korea!” How am I supposed to know what questions to ask? I can base all my questions on things that I’ve read or researched from books by other people who have never been to North Korea. But it’s like – I’m gonna go there and it’s gonna affect me and how that affects me is the story. It’s the same thing with Sudan.
I always find that when you go to the places and talk to the people you’re going to get an interesting point of view on it rather than sort of just taking what the mainstream media is feeding you. I’m not trying to be Dan Rather. I’m just saying, hey I’m a regular guy just like you guys and I went there and this is what I saw. And you can take it or not take it, I don’t mind.