RIP Vice: A Good Website Killed by Incompetent, Overpaid Bosses

‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word.

by Simon Childs

27 February 2024

Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice. REUTERS/Mike Blake

With grim inevitability, the final nail in the coffin of Vice, the formerly massive youth media company loved and hated by millennials in equal measure, came in the form of a confusing email announcing a bonfire of jobs.

Last week company CEO Bruce Dixon told staff that “after careful consideration and discussion” the company had “decided to make some fundamental changes to our strategic vision”. The company will “fully transition to a studio model”, whatever that is, in order to “position the company for long-term creative and financial success”.

Amid the word-salad, the hard truths couldn’t be hidden. The company would be “eliminating several hundred positions” – seemingly the majority of its remaining workforce – and ceasing to publish on altogether.

Having just told most of the people reading the email that they are to become unemployed, Dixon signed off with: “Thank you for your continued dedication to Vice and support during this time of transition. Together, I am confident that we will overcome any challenges and achieve our shared goals.”

It’s a sad end for a company once valued at $5.7bn, a cultural powerhouse which could also claim to have conquered news coverage of the Middle East, but by its death had become a pale imitation of its former self, bankrupt and in hock to an absolutist Saudi monarchy that deals with dissident journalists by killing them.

As someone who worked for Vice for about a decade, surviving more rounds of redundancy than I care to remember, reading Dixon’s email felt like catching a whiff of a cheap spirit which you once got paralytically drunk on and never want to encounter ever again.

As the 2010s new media era comes to an end, the mass-redundancy corporate email, with its tenuous grip on reality, disregard for staff and basic contempt for people’s intelligence, gives a clue as to what went wrong.

These emails always follow the same formula. The layoffs are usually a force of nature, perhaps a result of “difficult headwinds” of a “challenging business environment”. The person making the cuts is always personally saddened, sharing in the feelings of devastated staff – a form of corporate trauma bonding.

They never, ever say the word “sorry”.

And why should they? The redundancies, while “difficult and overwhelming”, are in fact part of an exciting new chapter – even when you are all but ending the existence of a hugely influential media brand.

In the new media post-mortem, questions will rightly be asked about Facebook and Google squeezing advertising revenues, making it extremely difficult for competitors to exist. These questions shouldn’t obscure the role of the company’s executives, who consistently pursued strategies that ultimately failed, while patting themselves on the back and massively enriching themselves in the process – even awarding themselves six-figure retention bonuses after making redundancies.

Vice was always built on quicksand. In its desperation to make good on the massive investments that its outlandish claims of world domination managed to attract, the company pursued all kinds of confusing and capricious business strategies.

As an anonymous writer remembered in the Fence magazine: “We were pivoting to video, pivoting away from video, pivoting to a digital-first strategy, pivoting to a multi-platform strategy, consolidating our brands under one brand, unconsolidating them again.” Then there was the launch of a linear TV channel in 2015 – a bit like launching a range of stone tablets after the invention of the printing press.

Nearly every “pivot” was accompanied by another round of unsustainable, ballooning expansion. Then, when profit targets hadn’t been reached, and another round of capital investment was needed, Vice executives generally valued their staff’s careers with the same sentimentality as WW1 generals planning their next attack.

In November 2023, after Vice enacted yet another mass redundancy, Vice Union, a branch of the Writers Guild of America East, said it could “no longer express shock and surprise”, but stood “in solidarity with our laid off colleagues, who helped make this company what it was, but no longer is”.

In the end, whether through mass sackings, or a disdainful attitude towards staff, the company had become completely unmoored from the people who had made it a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps this was inevitable for a company whose founder Shane Smith owned a mountain in Costa Rica, while many staff worried about paying the rent.

One former Vice staffer told Novara Media of an attempt to attract a Gen Z audience in 2022. Rather than hiring young journalists and backing their work, the company contracted Cultique, a “boutique” consultancy, which after poring over the data and spending hours on calls with staff, filed a report recommending, “you should post more memes and do more stuff about drugs, sex and music,” said the staffer. “Insightful!”

Ultimately, however, seeing any kind of return on an investment in journalism was becoming a futile endeavour anyway: “They did such a good job of wrecking the brand’s image that advertisers were seemingly increasingly unwilling to work with us,” the staffer said.

In December, Vice staffers were told by outgoing co-CEO Hozefa Lokhandwala: “The best days are ahead of you”. Delirious, boosterish bullshit was baked into the corporate culture – right to the death.

Vice and its counterpart Buzzfeed – which last week announced that it would be cutting 16% of its remaining staff – were by no means perfect, but they were at least media companies aimed at an underserved and broadly progressive young audience. As they kick the bucket, the newest kids on the block, Talk TV and GB News, mainly cater to the worst instincts of ageing reactionaries. It’s not a great picture out there.

It has been both heartening and depressing to see former contributors – many of them now established media voices – take to social media to say that they got their start at Vice with a story which simply wouldn’t have been published elsewhere.

If there’s anything positive to be dragged from the wreckage, it’s that there is now a chance for journalists to put their energies into something other than a company that is fatally undermined by a worthless business model devised by feckless, overpaid executives.

Simon Childs is a commissioning editor and reporter for Novara Media.

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