LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 23: A VICE Media Group location is seen on February 23, 2024 in the Venice section of Los Angeles, California. Vice Media announced plans to lay off several hundred employees and no longer publish material on its website. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Go woke, go broke?

The collapse of Vice Media is a story of an American left — aggressive, iconoclastic, irreverent — that no longer exists

Artillery Row

It’s official: Vice Media is shutting its doors, closing down its flagship website, and laying off hundreds of staff. One never wishes to celebrate another media outlet closing, especially at a time when the sector is struggling and jobs fast disappearing. But there was an inescapable feeling, even amongst many on the left, that Vice had become a shadow of its former self.

Founded in Montreal in 1994, it was once an iconoclastic brand. It employed legions of talented young writers, and a cheerful indifference against anyone who might be offended. You may not have approved of everything Vice put out (indeed, it would be statically impossible to do so), but it had the clearly-identifiable virtues of a creative-led organisation — it took risks, it was original, and even at its silliest, was rarely boring. 

30 years on, the brand has changed beyond all recognition. The once anarchic publication became sternly moralistic, offering po-faced sermons denouncing the sort of content that could once be found in the Vice articles as problematic, offensive and harmful. Apart from anything else, the gloriously mad stories of old, fizzing with gonzo energy, have been replaced with trivial, Buzzfeed-style, pap. The quality of the writing nosedived along with the content. 

Vice sent its top reporters to Brazil in 2012 to find “the Watermelon Woman, who has arguably the largest and most impressive ass on the planet”

Is it a case of go woke, go broke? You can certainly make a compelling case for it when it comes to Vice. Its colourful co-founder and former CEO Shane Smith turned a quaint alternative Canadian magazine, initially called “Voice of Montreal”, into a media empire that expanded into film, TV, and digital streaming, added hundreds of employees, and at its 2017 peak was valued at 5.7 billion dollars. Smith’s tenure at the helm came to an abrupt end the same year, following mounting allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace. There was no suggestion that Smith was guilty of any personal misconduct, but it had happened on his watch. 

Things went off the rails fast. Editorially, the magazine meekly capitulated, in turn, to MeToo, the racial reckoning and Covid restrictions. They became the Huffington Post with more swear words. Suddenly, Vice Media went from being the company that could do no wrong, to one that could do no right. An ambitious $400 million acquisition of Refinery29, an online media outlet aimed at young women, seemed to tick all the right boxes — another ambitious partnership, a youthful progressive audience, and perhaps, a penance for their MeToo crimes. But shortly after acquiring Refinery29, George Floyd was killed by police, and the wildfire political revolution in American liberal spaces – the “racial reckoning” –saw black employees and writers accusing the company of a toxic, racist culture. Vice launched an official investigation, and Refinery29 editor-in-chief Christene Barberich was pushed out on a wave of hysteria and recrimination. The following unhappy years saw further controversies, ever more politically correct content, and a failed bid to take the company public. Bankruptcy came in 2023, and despite massive layoffs, a new CEO and a Soros-funded bailout, this week saw the end finally arrive for one of the defining media outlets of the digital age. 

Yes, go woke, go broke seems to describe it. But the story isn’t quite so simple. It’s not as if the world of digital media is an easy place to make it — in fact it’s brutally hard, and it was even in the halcyon days of the 2000s. The real question isn’t how Vice went broke, but how it managed to grow so fast and so large for so long, in an industry where sustained growth is almost unknown. It did so by relentlessly chasing the zeitgeist — producing quality, original content, yes — cashing in on shameless shock value, that too — but also by knowing and catering to their young, progressive audience. What other outlet was producing documentaries like “The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia”? It wasn’t just Vice’s writers and editors who changed. It was their audience, and the wider culture.

When Vice started out in 1994, some millennials hadn’t even been conceived yet. In 2008 as its digital expansion was in full swing, and co-founder Gavin Mcinnes (now prominent alt-right founder of the Proud Boys) was leaving over “creative differences”, Gen Z were mostly in nappies. The passage of time often feels shocking — in 2017, when the media group ran into trouble, 23 years already separated the angry young men who founded a dissident magazine in Montreal from their middle-aged selves. For much of Vice’s rise, iconoclasm, offence and free speech absolutism were the calling cards of the progressive left, and enemies like the religious right were the censorious, moralistic, sexually prudish tribe in need of some especially inventive outraging of their delicate sensibilities. Men’s favourite film was Fight Club. Stoned college students and children past their bedtimes giggled along to South Park. New Atheists directed bile and blasphemy at Islam with the same cheerful abandon as they did Christianity. It was the heydey of lipstick feminism, reality TV, American Apparel and shamelessly sexualised celebrity. Vice sent its top reporters to Brazil in 2012 to find “the Watermelon Woman, who has arguably the largest and most impressive ass on the planet.” Comedians blacked up on TV, and the election of Obama saw discussions of a post-racial America. It was a different time. Vice may have been especially outrageous, and especially innovative, but it had a real feeling for what its audience felt, believed and desired. 

Vice’s golden age of being offensive, effortlessly cool and still courted by legacy media is never coming back, and was never going to

But those feelings, beliefs and desires changed, both due to the events of 2016 onwards and the simple reality of younger generations becoming adults. Donald Trump’s election sent the American media into a fever pitch of fear, anger and self-importance that destroyed the editorial integrity of much bigger and older fish than Vice. Uncomfortable questions about the human suffering ignored by the hedonistic anarchism of an older dissident left finally broke through, and swiftly metamorphosed into witch hunts and show trials. Younger employees of media companies had new sensitivities and expectations, and weren’t shy about articulating them, especially on corporate America’s infamous Slack channels. 

Though a generational shift was underway, it happened in fast-forward. In 1994, the same year Vice was stirring things up in Montreal, its spiritual opposite — the aggressively innocuous TV series Friends — was hitting the airwaves. But when it returned to screens, via Netflix, in 2018, its old audience expressed disbelieving horror that they’d ever enjoyed something so reactionary. One typical comment read “I was a uni student in the 90s so looked forward to rewatching Friends on Netflix over New Year. But I agree – the ‘fat Monica’ and ‘gay Chandler’ ‘jokes’ feel very out of place now. And was Joey *always* that bit creepy? Disappointing.” A Vice article at the time describes Ross as an “emotional incel”. Things that were not even on the radar in 2015 were firing offences in 2017, and the pace would only accelerate.

The simple fact is that Vice, once an effective and witty member of the alternative media, ran up against an epochal change it was never destined to survive. The audience for alternative media still exists, but the progressive audience for alternative media does not. The dissident energy, for good or ill, has gone over to the right, where audiences, commentators and provocateurs from a wildly dissonant series of belief systems share a rather confused exile. Some dissident leftists forced out of their old niche simply go full tilt to the other extreme, some stand in proud isolation, most end up, uneasily, somewhere in the middle. But even the most principled progressive dissidents have woken up to a drastically changed audience, with very different interests and demands. Vice’s golden age of being offensive, effortlessly cool and still courted by legacy media is never coming back, and was never going to. 

What comes next is anyone’s guess. There’s evidence that the wave of hysteria that has rocked American media since 2016 may finally be breaking. Biden’s election has lowered the temperature, and the New York Times is back to reporting and investigating trans issues with real seriousness. But with Trump possibly back in the White House, you’d be a fool to think “normality” (whatever that looks like) is on its way back for the American media. 

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