Sprawling online media firm on charm campaign to create relationships in gov’t
WASHINGTON — Perhaps the most anti-anti-establishment thing for a punk like Shane Smith to do is to walk the halls of Congress, rapping on the doors of senators for a few minutes of their time. But that was precisely what the founder of alternative magazine Vice was doing on a cold and dreary day in Washington this past week. In a light grey suit and charcoal overcoat, the tattooed and biker-bearded media executive was doing his best to fit in with the clean-cut, lanyard-wearing regulars of the Dirksen Senate building.
It’s a scene that was probably unimaginable 20 years ago, when Smith started the counterculture magazine that viewed government, mainstream media and Wall Street with suspicion. But those assumptions have changed with the rapid growth of Vice into a sprawling global news and entertainment online media firm favoured by millennials and valued at US$2.5 billion. Now, as Smith plans an aggressive slate of news projects ahead of the 2016 campaign, he’s on a charm campaign to create relationships in the biggest bureaucracy of all: the US government.
Smith, Vice’s foul-mouthed and hard-partying 45-year-old chief executive, is still more likely to be seen in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers most days. But he’s evolving with the maturation of his company — based in the hip Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn — and is mingling more these days with politicians, media titans of Time Warner and Viacom and Silicon Valley financiers. And the most significant sign of that evolution is a new drive to inhabit the orbits of the world’s most powerful institutional centres rather than dissing them from the outside.
“Cool by definition is small. So we can stay in Williamsburg and be the cool guys, or we can attempt to do something more,” Smith said between marathon meetings with senators last week. “Why would I be doing this if I didn’t think I could displace the status quo of the largest platforms? As Gen Y moves into general media, I should move with them.”
Vice doesn’t have a corner on the millennial media market. Competition is clipping at its heels, with Buzzfeed, Business Insider and Fusion pushing aggressively into news and politics with the same fast, edgy and whimsical sensibilities that appear to appeal to younger audiences. And Vice will have to work hard to get interviews and build credibility among Washington’s political leaders. Its gonzo-style journalism tests boundaries. In 2013, *Vice travelled to North Korea with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, capturing his interaction with the Great Leader Kim Jong Un and sidestepping US diplomatic channels.
Vice also fiercely defends its impartiality but has drawn criticism for staking positions on the issues it covers, like environmentalism and geopolitics. Smith is the lead reporter in many Vice news pieces, and he pursues subjects he personally cares about most.
“To say that I’m an environmentalist doesn’t mean that I am right or left. That means I care about the planet (…) Every scientist we meet said you are idiots to say melting in Antarctica isn’t real. It’s like saying gravity is not real.”
With an ambition to take on mainstream news giants, the connections Smith makes in Washington will be crucial. Ahead of the 2016 campaign, Vice aims to be the touchstone for youths on hot-button policy issues such as the environment, student debt, racial inequality and the criminal justice system.