ink-stained wretches

Is Vice Getting Nice?

Ellis Jones. Photo: Bobby Doherty

When Ellis Jones was named editor-in-chief of Vice magazine in February, she received a flood of emails from aspiring contributors who opened their pitches with a crucial error. “They were all like, “Dear Mr. Jones …,” she says between sips of a Narragansett poured from the steady-flowing tap at the Gutter, a divey Williamsburg bowling alley just a few convenient blocks from the Vice headquarters. Here, Jones partakes in a weekly bowling league with a group of dude friends. They’re fresh off a big loss. “People who haven’t met me always assume I’m a dude,” she says.

One could be forgiven for assuming the name Ellis (she chose her middle over her first name, Lauren, as a kid) belongs to a man. One could also be forgiven for assuming that the new editor-in-chief of Vice, a publication historically characterized by a lewd masculinity, would be a guy. As the first female editor-in-chief in Vice magazine’s two decades, the 30-year-old Jones will be forced to shake off some other less literal misconceptions about her gender and her employer. Like the idea that the company is a hedonistic fun-house for alt bros in the mold of its long-departed co-founder, Gavin McInnes (who’s known for things like “The Vice Guide to Eating Pussy,” along with some post-Vice charges of white supremacy and transphobia). Vice has undergone a slow but dramatic maturation: The company’s current COO Alyssa Mastromonaco is not only a woman, but a former White House staffer. “I’m trying to figure out how to bring in an audience we never had before,” Jones says. “To make them realize that it’s not a lad’s mag, and that we don’t just do dick and fart jokes.”

But even more than that, Jones’s mission is to preserve the prestige of a print magazine that now threatens to become a vestigial organ within a company full of lucrative digital and video properties. Vice recently announced it’ll begin airing a daily news show on HBO, and some speculators think the company could go public at a valuation of more than a billion dollars. To make the magazine stand out, Jones is focused on adding more literary and capital-J Journalistic weight to Vice’s pages. When she took the reins, she made an executive decision to do away with the magazine’s fashion coverage, opting instead to use those pages for photojournalistic spreads. In her first issue atop the masthead, Vice ran a 6,500-word investigation into the killing of a transgender Filipina woman by a U.S. marine, along with a new piece of fiction by ex-Believer editor Heidi Julavits. She has signed up a number of new contributing editors, among them novelist and Guggenheim fellow Clancy Martin and investigative reporters Ken Silverstein (of Harper’s and the Intercept) and Jean Friedman-Rudovsky. She’s also recruited young literary talent — upcoming issues will include a new “gonzo self-improvement” column by ex-Hairpin editor Edith Zimmerman and a feature on the extinction of starfish by Nathaniel Rich. And like any good old-guard print-magazine editor, Jones has a meager 19 tweets to her name.

If Jones does her job the way she bowls, then she’s a sneakily effective leader. She carries a ten-pound ball up to our lane calmly, and throws it so lackadaisically that it’s surprising it ever arrives at the pins. When it does, most of them always topple in near slow-motion, like a group of wobbly toddlers in snowsuits. She trounces me 115 to 69 our first game, then opens up the second round with a strike and walks back to our seats a bit sheepishly, already smelling a second victory. “I can’t beat you twice,” she says. “Because then you’ll write mean things about me. You’ll change everything I said. You’ll be like, ‘Ellis hates women. She hates people of color.’”

Jones worshipped the magazine as a college kid in her native Atlanta, thanks to a crew of older friends. After reading girly glossies like YM and Seventeen as a teenager, Vice felt like like “the total opposite of what I was used to … nothing like what you would have seen in more popular magazines back then.” She liked the magazine’s anti-mainstream sensibility so much that she got an internship, thanks to the connections of one of the aforementioned older pals. At that point, Vice was still primarily a print magazine with a fledgling website. Jones climbed the editorial ladder quickly. She left the magazine for a brief stint as chief of staff at the Daily Mail’s online U.S. offices, but found it unsatisfying and returned to an executive editor’s job at Vice. When her predecessor, Rocco Castoro, left Vice after abruptly announcing his departure at a media panel, Jones was tapped to replace him. (“I wasn’t part of that conversation,” says Jones, who’s still friendly with Castoro.) His duties were essentially split into two parts: digital and print. Vice U.K.’s Alex Miller took on the new, grandiose, digital-focused title of Global Head of Content, but Ellis’s appointment garnered the news headlines: “Jones will be the first female editor-in-chief in VICE’s 20 year history,” the press release announced.

Jones realizes that she’ll be looked to as a spokesmodel for the company’s gender politics. “People love to hate Vice,” she says. “If something wrong came out about women, everyone would look at me and be like, ‘Well … Vice has a female editor-in-chief — what does she think about it?’” She admits that from a PR standpoint, “it’s a bonus” for Vice to be able to claim a female editor-in-chief, but she also defends against charges that Vice has grown boring as it’s grown up. “People still have beers on their desks at 6:30.”

Toward the middle of our second game, after I’ve thrown a couple of hopeless gutter balls, Jones imparts some friendly wisdom, sharing a trick about where to place the feet to achieve the optimal throwing angle. She gently encourages me to keep using the ten-pound ball instead of the eight-pounder I’m accustomed to. And thanks to her instruction, I finish at a slightly more respectable 78 to her 113 this time. She seems a bit relieved not to have demolished me entirely. I ask her to sum up her management style. “Ideally, I would hope people think I’m really fair,” she says. “I’ve never been one of those people who sits behind a closed door and says, only email me.”

As for Ellis’s ambitions for Vice, she’s mostly concerned with making a product that resembles the magazine that drew her in when she was younger — a magazine that “covers stories that people don’t cover enough,” and finds splashy approaches to popular topics. She’s not openly worried that the evolution of the broader company threatens to undermine that goal. “Obviously, as the company gets bigger, things shift and change,” she admits, sounding a bit nostalgic. “But I don’t think it’s becoming some corporate machine. It still feels normal.”

Is Vice Getting Nice?