A decade ago, as a young war reporter for Vice News, I had the nagging feeling that one day I’d find my wizened older self, like an old NME journalist droning on about punk, reminiscing about the time when we brash millennial upstarts had the world of TV newsgathering at our feet. But I never expected it to be so soon.
The young get old and revolutions end up eating their own: and the death of the flagship Vice News Tonight show and drastic downsizing of the Vice News platform, just days after the closing of Buzzfeed News, heralds the closing of the era when the New York new media giants bestrode the news world like strutting conquerors. With the heavily indebted Vice empire reportedly circling on the edge of bankruptcy, and struggling to find a buyer, the media landscape of the 2010s already looks like history. As Ben Judah observed: “The early 2010s were a moment where Buzzfeed News and Vice News gave you the impression you didn’t have to do journalism like the New York Times or the BBC. Them shuttering is telling us, actually, there’s only the way they do it at the New York Times and the BBC.”
Back then, the world looked very different. When the Vice News channel launched on YouTube in 2014, its parent company’s reputation for achingly arch and semi-ironically offensive content aimed at jaded hipsters caused legacy broadcasters to scoff at the idea of their cocky, inexperienced journalists challenging them on their own turf. Within months, their laughter stopped: networks such as the BBC and CNN were now terrified that Vice held the key to the future of news. Vice News went where no one else would go, gaining access to the most difficult stories, and throwing itself into the thickest action with studied indifference. Young people, who had always been disregarded as news consumers, were enraptured by the hard-edged, thrilling content from the worst places on earth; elderly execs and money men threw sponsorship at the company in an attempt to capture some of the magic for their own ailing brands. The future of news was young and online, and there was no going back.
Historians of the craft of newsgathering will record that Vice News changed the visual grammar of the medium. By marrying a cinematic visual style with the tempo and immediacy of breaking stories, and pioneering the use of handheld DSLR cameras, Vice News re-aestheticised TV news. And by having its young reporters talk casually to the audience, like friends, in the middle of the world’s worst chaos, the old world of buttoned-up correspondents stiffly lecturing the camera suddenly looked like a relic from the age of black and white. But while the big networks quickly learned to copy Vice’s style to the point it has become the norm, the fundamental challenge of all news broadcasting — how to make the most difficult and expensive content on earth pay for itself — had still not been solved. In the end, it was all a mirage.
As is the nature of the trade, it was always a source of pride, and of glittering awards, to obtain better combat footage than anyone else: always getting closer to the action, dancing at the edge of death like a gladiator in the amphitheatre for the audience’s thrill and delectation. The highest word of praise from an exec was “gnarly”. But what neither fans nor critics of what they saw as our recklessness understood was that the “bang-bang” was merely a vehicle with which to smuggle in serious analytical reportage of poorly-understood conflicts and revolutions. Vice’s central insight was that if you framed the story right, and shot it well enough, you could persuade teens and early twentysomethings to watch in-depth explorations of Syrian rebel justice systems, or the intricacies of South Sudan’s civil war. Middle-aged execs from traditional networks had always claimed young people didn’t care about granular detail, or distant wars in Africa: but this (apart from stories about drugs) was always by far the most popular content, judging from YouTube views and comments. The audience never demands dumbing-down: viewers want nuance, shades of grey, and moral ambiguity. They want to see the world as it is, not as it ought to be.