media

Vice’s Next Pivot

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

On the third Friday in August, Jesse Angelo, the longtime News Corp executive hired in June as president of global news and entertainment at Vice Media, gathered the staff of the company’s nightly news show to deliver their fate. Vice News Tonight had run on HBO for three years, until the network canceled it this spring — the final episode aired last Friday — and the 200-person Vice News staff had spent the summer waiting to see if another premium platform (Hulu? Amazon? Showtime?) might pick up the show. Angelo told the staff that he and Nancy Dubuc, Vice’s CEO, had just returned from a company board meeting in Los Angeles with news of the show’s destination: They’d been given orders to bring it home. VNT would now air on Viceland, the company’s cable channel.

The switch to basic cable was better than the total dissolution of the show and everyone losing their jobs, but since Viceland’s inception in 2016, it has struggled to find a meaningful audience (it averages under 100,000 viewers), and the news was met with skepticism. “The commonly held assumption is that this was the last resort,” one Vice News employee told me. “This is what everybody was afraid of.”

HBO’s cancellation hadn’t come as a shock, especially after AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, the network’s parent company, and the subsequent departure of CEO Richard Plepler. VNT won awards — it was nominated for 19 Emmys this year, more than any other nightly news broadcast — and had steady, if modest, ratings on HBO. But the show had been unable to break through the noise with its fresh take on the nightly news, aside from a viral segment covering the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, hosted by the Peabody Award–winning reporter Elle Reeve. The show’s exit from its prestige-network host was disappointing to journalists and producers who had come onboard as much to work for HBO as for Vice. Dubuc had kept the cancellation news from the VNT staff, including Josh Tyrangiel, who ran the show, for several weeks; Tyrangiel resigned a few days later, and a trickle of other employees have left since. Earlier this week, Reeve announced she was leaving to join CNN — the very network Shane Smith, Vice’s boisterous co-founder, had long insisted that Vice would someday replace.

Those who remained were now learning that the show would be fundamentally changing, and Angelo did his best to temper the disappointment. HBO had been a “lovely garden,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting shared with New York, but “it was an extremely walled garden,” and they would now be able to share their content more easily online. Most significantly, the team would no longer be producing just a half-hour show: All three hours of the network’s prime-time block, from 8–11 p.m., would now be built by the Vice News team.

What three hours a day of Vice News will look like remains a question. (Getting the essentials out of the way, one employee asked Angelo whether they could still say “fuck” on basic cable.) Angelo presented the unfilled airtime as an opportunity for creative thinking, and said he expected it to be made up of pretaped shows and live reports, which generated murmurs and questions about whether this meant an investment in the infrastructure required to do that. Earlier this year, Viceland tried to fill two of its prime-time hours with Vice Live, a nightly live variety show shot in the lobby of its Williamsburg office; the show lasted just six weeks. One employee asked Angelo if this meant Vice was trying to compete directly with the prime-time talking heads on CNN or MSNBC. “We’re not gonna look like anybody else,” Angelo said. “But all of those people, in my book, are on notice that Vice News is coming.”

Angelo said the new plan would require “a lot more people,” while deflecting a question about who would pay for it all. According to multiple people with knowledge of the show’s budget, HBO had spent $42 million a year on VNT, while A&E, which co-owns Viceland, is planning to allocate roughly $56 million for the new three-hour block. While VNT employees admit that the show was sometimes more expensive than it needed to be, it was unclear how a 33 percent bump in resources would cover a 500 percent increase in airtime. “Even in some Mxyzptlk alternate universe where AT&T didn’t buy Time Warner, and Richard was still running HBO, and the show was renewed on HBO, here’s a newsflash for everybody: It was gonna be renewed at a much lower price point. Period,” Angelo told the staff. “There is no universe where the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket that was given to this newsroom was ever gonna happen again.”

“Making do with less” has become a theme not just at Vice News, but across the company. (As it has across the news industry in general.) Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Vice was on track to lose $50 million and to post revenues of between $600 and $650 million — less than it made two years earlier, and far less than the $1 billion Shane Smith, the company’s co-founder, had promised it would be making by now. In February, Vice laid off 10 percent of its employees. (Tyrangiel told his staff at the time, “The pursuit of growth was everything for the previous ten years and on Friday we closed offices that — I gotta be honest — I did not know existed.”) In April, the company’s reported web traffic dropped 49 percent when it stopped counting traffic generated by an affiliate network that included low-rent sites like Ranker.com. In May, Disney wrote down its entire $400 million investment in Vice — a declaration that it believed its investment to be worthless.

That month, Vice also raised $250 million in debt from investors. Paying freelancers and fixers on time has long been a problem at Vice, but employees in various departments say the cash-flow issues became more prevalent this year. Producers found themselves unable to take out petty cash for video shoots. Several senior employees had charges to their corporate credit cards inexplicably declined; one employee who left Vice this spring is still being hounded by debt collectors because Vice has not settled the roughly $3,000 left on a corporate card assigned to their name. Many current employees I spoke to lamented the diminishing quality and quantity of the in-office snacks — soda had disappeared, donuts were no longer included in Bagel Fridays — with opinion split on whether this was a budgetary issue or an attempt at improving employee health. (“People are saying things like, ‘This is sugar shaming,’” one employee told me.) “I was told by the accounting department that we couldn’t pay all of our bills,” a senior employee who left Vice earlier this year said. “I would get emails from businesses we had partnered with saying they hadn’t been paid, and the accounting department would say, ‘We don’t have the cash, and we have to decide who to pay.’” In one instance, a stock-photo company complained that Vice owed it tens of thousands of dollars.

All of this was happening as the company worked to consolidate itself into “One Vice,” as the internal corporate-speak goes. Earlier this year, Vice combined its various digital brands (Noisey, Broadly, Munchies, Motherboard, and so on) under the umbrella of Vice.com. Tyrangiel had walled off Vice News from the rest of the company, to the happiness of his employees and the frustration of people elsewhere in the company; Vice.com has a “News & Issues” desk that has operated separately from the Vice News team.

This departmental consolidation is occurring under Angelo, a seasoned news executive — if not, precisely, in the Vice mold. Before his current position, Angelo was best known for working throughout various parts of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire, as a reporter and editor at the New York Post, then editor of The Daily — not the New York Times podcast, but Murdoch’s failed early-2010s attempt to create a newspaper exclusively for the iPad — and most recently back at the Post, as publisher, until leaving the company in January. In his meeting with the Vice News staff, Angelo talked about “leveraging across multiple platforms and products” and said he’d be thrilled if Vice News reporters started contributing to, say, a podcast in another part of the company. (Angelo, like every other media executive, has expressed a particular eagerness for podcast ideas.)

The Vice News integration into the rest of the company began just before Labor Day, with roughly 15 layoffs of Viceland employees in preparation for the network’s pivot to news. The company is now unrecognizable to many of the people who joined in the 2000s, the vast majority of whom are gone. In July, a few months after Vice folded Broadly, its women’s site focused on gender and identity, into Vice.com, the Wall Street Journal reported that Vice was in talks to acquire Refinery29, a women’s site whose tone and audience could hardly be more different from the one Vice employees thought they were targeting. Katie Drummond, who joined Vice from Medium in March to run its digital operation, including the consolidated Vice.com, told a group of Vice.com employees shortly after she arrived that she didn’t really like Vice.com, and rarely read it before joining the company.

As many have observed, the lawlessness that characterized an earlier era of Vice, which remains a key component of the brand’s appeal, has also given way behind the scenes to the kind of rigid human-resources apparatus of a company looking to be taken seriously. This spring, as part of Vice’s annual Weed Week around 4/20, a Vice producer came up with the idea to make a video in which Lil Yachty, the rapper, would try to set the Guinness World Record for rolling the world’s heaviest blunt. The idea was approved, but the amount of weed that was purchased and sent to the Vice office was enough to qualify them as a marijuana distributor. Two senior employees were fired as a result.

But the remnants of Old Vice linger, and many employees I spoke to found themselves asking: Where’s Shane? Smith has been largely quiet since handing over the reins to Dubuc last spring and elevating himself to executive chairman, although in May, at the prompting of the Vice News team, he held several off-the-record dinners with congressmen and staffers in D.C., hoping the same charm that wooed countless media executives and chief marketing officers would work on a political world the Vice News staff has had difficulty reaching.

One thing that’s certain is that Smith never planned to still be looking for someone to cash him out of his company. In 2015, he told one of his employees that the company would be sold before VNT ever aired on HBO in the fall of 2016 — three years ago. A once-floated IPO now seems out of the question, leaving Dubuc, whose contract reportedly rewards her in the event of a sale, to try to find a buyer. In February, Tyrangiel told his staff that Vice’s investors were demanding that it become profitable this year, and a person with knowledge of the company’s business strategy said Dubuc hopes to find a buyer by the end of next year. In August, Vanity Fair reported that Dubuc had been trying to woo CBS-Viacom, deploying the same logic that had led so many investors, media companies, and brands to Vice: You know old people, we know the youth. (Among the problems with the idea is that Bob Bakish, Viacom’s CEO, said in 2016, “Unequivocally, I have no interest in buying a stake in Vice, and we are not going to do it.”) Some employees have noted the fact that Jesse Angelo is childhood friends with James Murdoch, Rupert’s progressive-ish son,who has been on Vice’s board since News Corp’s 2013 investment in the company. Murdoch received $2 billion last year from News Corp’s sale of 21st Century Fox, and is said to be interested in making his own mark. In April, the Financial Times reported that Murdoch planned to use his spoils “to assemble a new portfolio of media companies that could include a liberal-leaning news outlet.”

Vice does have assets to offer a potential buyer. Despite Viceland’s poor ratings it remains a nicely profitable business thanks to the carriage fees from cable providers. (In his Q&A with the Vice News staff, Angelo avoided saying the name Viceland, and several employees told me they expected the channel’s name to be rebranded.) Spotify is paying Vice to make podcasts, and a documentary series with Hulu has been in the works for months without being officially announced. Vice Studios produced the Netflix Fyre Festival documentary and has a movie out this fall with Adam Driver. Employees on the digital side say traffic has stabilized, and the company is hiring. Vice has a popular astrology app. And the world’s largest companies and organizations, from Marriott and Sephora to Philip Morris and the Saudi Arabian government, still see Vice as a way to reach young people. The Journal has reported — in a story about the Viceland layoffs — that the company exceeded its decreased revenue goals in the first half of this year.

But it’s unclear how much all that is actually worth. In 2017, Vice was valued at $5.7 billion, an implausible number then that seems laughable now. Citing a company insider, Vanity Fair reported that the valuation is now closer to $1.5 billion. (In 2016, Smith told the Journal that by 2020, Vice could be worth $50 billion.) Whatever the price, the clock is ticking. Vice’s deal with TPG, the private-equity firm that poured $450 million into the company in 2017, includes a clause that allows TPG’s stake to grow until the company is sold. In 2016, Smith declared that by distributing stock to employees, Vice saw itself “as a tech company,” boasting that, on paper, Vice had minted 250 millionaires, with 2,000 more on the way. While some early employees have been able to cash out some of their options, the vast majority — who arrived more recently and purchased their options at an inflated valuation —are likely to see almost no return at anything close to a $1.5 billion valuation. “I’m pretty sure that my shares are worthless,” one employee told me.

For now, the company is “doubling down” on news, as Angelo put it to the staff. The new slate of programming is expected to launch later this year, and after two days off following Friday’s HBO finale, the Vice News team is returning to the working groups established to brainstorm what exactly they should do with three hours of nightly news. The Vice News employees I spoke to were largely apprehensive about what it would take to build three hours of nightly TV. Some were intrigued by the possibilities — including the idea of getting their own shows and becoming the Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, or Anderson Cooper of Vice. All of them described VNT as the most diverse, creative newsroom they had ever been a part of, with award-winning journalists covering stories that didn’t get much play on the cable-news networks they were now going directly up against, and none of them wanted to see it go away. But pretty much all of them were entertaining other job opportunities.

Vice’s Race to Save Itself