Hailed for their ballsy journalistic tactics and brash, non-apologetic approach to all things content, it’s no wonder VICE now sits comfortably as the self-made kings of the digital media space. Birthed by a few Gen-Xers back in the mid-90s, the international news organization first saw the light of day as a good ol’ fashioned paper-and-ink magazine.
They’ve come a long way: from an online presence in the late 90s, a record label in ’01 and for the last decade, creating and distributing digital content along various verticals — VICE has managed to evolve seamlessly alongside technological advancements. And their ever-growing audience remains tuned in for the ride.
As partners who share VICE’s broadcasting passion, Skype in Media sat down with Sterling Proffer, GM of VICE News, recently for a chat on digital media, millennials and a more seamless means of assembling and allocating content.
“We have a conversation with our audience,” states Sterling, point blank. “We make them feel welcome in the story.” He continues, “It’s not about speaking to them like some omniscient narrator, commanding down the laws of the land. We give them ways to relate to our stories, which help make these incredibly complex, seemingly distant issues really immediate and personal.”
“Millennials are consuming news in highly networked landscapes, reading news next to entertainment content, next to content from their family and friends.”
Perhaps equally vital as the way in which VICE’s audience is addressed, is where they’re being reached. “Millennials are consuming news in highly networked landscapes,” Sterling explains. “They’re reading news next to entertainment content, next to content from their family and friends. It’s alongside sports, food, fashion, music—you name it. So it’s important to think about how you present or introduce content to them, in a way that feels natural, while at the same time commands their attention.”
The media giant’s latest means of connecting content to viewers is linear television. While other competitors are scrambling to assemble more a la carte, subscription-based broadcasts, VICE is making a move back towards what some would deem the traditional. Sterling explains:
“Linear broadcast content is a developing part of VICE’s distribution strategy. It’s an important piece, but it’s one of many points of distribution that we have for our content.” He continues, “Ultimately, what we want to do is create the best experience for our users, anywhere that they want to interact with VICE. And the best way for us to serve them is to be everywhere.”With VICE News specifically, a lot of the content we were making was getting attention from linear television around the world, whether it was highlighted clips in news broadcasts, or full, licensed episodes or documentaries of ours.”
Sterling continues, “And as we were able to ramp up the volume of production of what we were creating, it led us to some really incredible opportunities to approach linear television in a more holistic way.”
While VICE has already been getting their feet wet with traditional television — for example, their long form news program in partnership with HBO — the success that’s sprung from it has seemingly cemented the runway for future broadcast takeoffs. “The HBO show we launched a couple of years ago has been an incredible experience,” he explains. “And coming off the heels of that success, we are extending that relationship significantly as we head into 2016. We’re going to be doing about three times the number of episodes of the weekly news magazine format that we have, we’ll be dramatically increasing the number of specials that we do for HBO, and in addition to that we’ll be launching the daily 30-minute news show.”
On top of all of this, VICE announced late last year that A&E Network was also joining forces. After several months shopping around for the perfect fit, VICE and A&E finally shook hands (or rather, high-fived) over a long-awaited deal for VICE to take over H2, an A&E Networks channel. Slated to launch later this month, Viceland will feature entertainment and lifestyle programing, with a focus on music, food, travel and sports.
“I like to think of digital news as four buckets,” Sterling explains. “Firstly is the legacy news organizations. Secondly are legacy news organizations that are going through some kind of reinvention — so the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian. Then there’s what I like to consider the first-wave of digital news startups — those would be the Huffington Posts and Politicos of the world. And fourth, I’d say there’s a new wave of digital news startups.”
Sterling adds, “We’ve always focused on a certain style of storytelling which is really immersive, candid, and personal. And a lot of those things are really human-driven, personal-driven stories, set against the real world. And as a result, a lot of times, those stories that we thought were just really interesting personal stories wound up being considered news stories by a lot of others.”
When “news” coverage continually climbed to the company’s most popular stories, VICE acted fast. “We understood that there was an incredible demand for the type of reporting and storytelling that we were doing,” Sterling explains. “We’ve been able to be a global news voice — benefiting from the fact that we have offices in over 30 countries around the world — with local teams producing amazing content. It’s been a natural part of the growth of VICE over the past years, and it finally got to the point where in March of 2014, we were able to give our news coverage its own dedicated home.”
Given VICE’s upwards and onwards trajectory so far, it remains to be said that we at Skype couldn’t be more excited to be on board. “Skype is helping us break down the fourth wall between ourselves and our audience,” Sterling states. “Making it easier for them to become active participants in the ever-evolving stories that we cover,” he pauses, “in the social world, the release of any piece of content is not one-sided, and Skype TX technology allows us to take that further than we would otherwise be able to do.” Sterling adds, “We’ve really enjoyed learning and understanding how we can leverage the technology to build better, deeper relationships with our users.”