October 8, 2013

NG | The Vices of Old Media

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By KAI SAM NG

Vice, the media company whose primary demographic is drug-addled, male college-educated, East Coast fauxtellectuals, was recently bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $1.4 billion. Congratulations to Vice! It’s been a long trek from beginnings as a scrappy, free magazine in mid-90s Toronto — I remember the creepy magazine covers — to freaking out the mainstream media establishment 18 years later by sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea.

But at this point, should Vice still be thought of as an alternative publication, outside the “mainstream media establishment”? Vice has always bordered on apocalyptic journalism, erratically switching between reckless tastelessness and serious coverage on overlooked disastrous areas. Drugs have always held a special place in the magazine heart, and Vice’s aesthetic makes it possible to use drugs as a prop of “not giving a fuck” and to promote the ideal, “with the world’s problems, how could you not drug yourself?” This is something that every ostensible counterculture has done: Intentionally ignore mainstream cultural benefits, while being hyperaware of its problems. That’s how high-quality journalism on heroin-addicted deportees in Tijuana, an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and a report on “The Westminster Dog Show… On Acid!” can all coexist coherently on a single website. Whether its signature adolescent editorial voice makes the publication sound like it is written by a high schooler with some choice opinions, is up for debate, but the fact that these topics are covered at all is valuable. So yes, Vice at one point was “counterculture.” But now that it’s worth $1.4 billion, has a content deal with HBO and has corporate sponsors scrambling after it, Vice has lost rights to the title “counterculture.” Now Vice sells “counterculture” as a demographic that brings in advertising dollars.

Lots of people have already written about how Vice has “sold out,” and there is not much more to add to that conversation. De-bates over ideological purity have a short lifespan. What is more interesting is that a company with such a narrow demographic is worth more than a billion dollars. In spite of its sell-out status, Vice is riding the wave of change in media production. Media content was once expensive and needed broad audiences to harness economies of scale. Its subject matter was formulaic, and the talent behind it was skilled and non-replaceable. It followed the principles of Fordism.

We don’t live in that era anymore. Content production is now cheap and narrowly tailored, because audience loyalty is more valuable than mass appeal. Audiences are segmented and sub-segmented again to find the most consistent revenue line: Vice itself has seven different web brands on specific, niche subjects. Content is produced in small batches and it’s flexible: Vice offers an entire web series around the monetary contribution of a single sponsor. The talent behind the site  can be called semi-skilled rep-laceable: Vice’s correspondents are paid pittances, and, let’s face it, you don’t really need skills to attend dog shows on LSD. Vice, and similar media properties like Gawker and Xojane, are more like lean content manufacturing.

Vice’s success is proof that the medium in which content is delivered is not the source of hard times at traditional or old media companies — the source of the industry’s woes is how content is produced. It is true that the Internet plays a big role in how the industry is shifting, but it only plays the role of accelerating and prioritizing that shift by making content easier to narrow and target. The relative disappointment of this summer’s big blockbuster movies like Pacific Rim and Elysium because they failed to follow the trend of “bigger budget, bigger returns” illustrates this. The CGI battles might be the most realistic yet, but there was little else that could captivate an audience. In contrast, the low-budget Sharknado was so campy that it was considered a runaway success, even though its audience was tiny. Adbusters, another pseudo-samizdat magazine from Canada that sells counterculture to the fauxtellectual sort, still has huge success as a magazine. Cable networks like AMC and HBO pour huge amounts of money into high-quality movie-like television for relatively small audiences because they recognize that tailored notability is much more important than broad amusement. Everybody has a little something for themselves. Everybody is different.

The way forward for traditional media companies left in the dust is not to imitate, but synthesize new media practices: Sub-segmented audiences are not the sole future. Vice can’t just stay static forever and keep to one audience — they need a growth strategy too. Old media companies should copy new media’s means but create different ends. Above all, this means embracing new ideas and understanding that audiences will eventually wise up to your boring formula. Vice, in its constant bending of taste and subject as a startup and now as big media continues to understand this

Kai Sam Ng is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at kng@cornellsun.com. You’ve Got to be Kitsching Me runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.