Vice unveils dedicated news site (fact-checkers and all) for Generation Y
FORTUNE — Before it even launched out of private beta, Vice’s new news channel has been winning accolades for its on-the-ground coverage of the Ukraine revolution. Vice CEO Shane Smith boasts that his news site had the first — and best — Ukraine coverage, while noting in the same breath that the hype worries him. “I’m like, hold on a second,” he says. “Let’s let this thing launch and breathe before we’re thrust into it.”
“Are we going to be perfect?” he asks. “No. Are we going to fuck some shit up? Probably. If you’re going to do news, you’re going to fuck stuff up.”
That’s where the fact-checkers come in. Vice has hired the company’s first set of fact-checkers for Vice News and intends to add more as the operation expands. Vice News formalizes a lot of the content and coverage that Vice has been doing on YouTube, at Vice.com, in its print magazine, and on its HBO show, for years now.
Started 1994 as a magazine, Vice established a reputation for bombastic, controversial, bad-boy-style coverage of drugs, music, fashion, and culture. It’s evolved into an international media conglomerate worth $1.4 billion.
In a blog post announcing Vice News’ public beta release yesterday, Smith noted that the ramp-up will happen gradually:
Soon, there will be enough in there to get lost in, bathe in, and fall down 100 different newsy rabbit holes.
The new site, available at Vicenews.com, will include around 50 posts a day, mixing livestreaming, long form text, photos and videos, on topics like “cloak and dagger” Swiss bank accounts, a “rural Berlin Wall” that Russia is building through Georgia, and unrest in Venezuela. The site will include coverage from the 35 countries where Vice has offices, such as Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico, the UK and Spain. (Update: A prior version of this story mentioned that Vice has offices in Venezuela, Ukraine, Syria, and Central African Republic — the company covers those regions but does not have offices there). Vice’s audience is larger outside of the U.S., especially in China, Western Europe, Mexico. and Brazil, than it is inside the U.S., Smith notes.
And yes, Vice News will cover business news. Smith says traditional publications (including Fortune) “have business locked down,” but cover the topic “for your people.” True to form, Vice News will look at business news from its audience’s point of view, embedding reporters with anarchists or socialists, and focusing on consumer advocacy topics like the carbon footprint of vehicles or whether certain toothpaste contains harmful ingredients. “It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but when you look at how much business reporting is going on from a 24-year-old’s standpoint, it’s nearly zero,” he says.
Vice is often pitted against established media organizations because of its irreverent approach to newsgathering. But Smith sees the debate as a natural evolution in the industry. “What I really think is happening is a changing of the guard in a generation of media,” he says. “Woodward and Bernstein used to be the punks, and now they’re the status quo.”
“[Traditional media people are] saying we’re not news, and we’re saying we are, but we don’t really care what they’re calling us anymore because of our audience. None of Generation Y is watching TV or watching the news. There’s no battle, there’s no fight. You lost. You guys have the boomers and we have Gen Y,” he says.
That much is clear: Between its HBO show, TV licensing deals, website, magazine, app, and YouTube channel, Vice reaches 129 million uniques a month, averaging 77 million monthly video views. The market share has caught the attention of traditional media groups, to the point where they wanted a piece of the action. In 2013, 21st Century Fox FOX invested $70 million for a 5% stake in Vice. In 2011, ad agency WPP, alongside former Viacom VIA head Tom Freston and The Raine Group, a boutique merchant bank, invested a “high eight-figure” sum of money into the company.
Vice’s loyal audience is also its best source of stories, Smith says. When asked why sources approached Vice with their stories and not a major media organization, Smith says people respond, “We love Vice, we trust you guys, and we want you to tell our story.” When Vice did a call for stories for its HBO show, it needed 40 and got 3,800 submissions, he says.
Vice will continue its relationship with YouTube, even as many of the site’s partners have struggled with the relationship. Last year, entrepreneur Jason Calcanis publicly declared that YouTube’s onerous terms, which include a 45% revenue cut, were not fair to content creators. Other large multi-channel networks on YouTube, like Machinima, have struggled, and it’s raised questions about the viability of running a business on YouTube.
Not the case here. “Not to sound like a suck-up,” Smith says, “but I love YouTube.” (Already Vice News’ YouTube channel has 145,000 followers.) Vice earns money via YouTube ads, but the majority of its revenue comes from sponsorships it sells before it even makes a video, and from licensing that same content to TV networks around the world. “A lot of the frustration with YouTube is probably the same frustration people used to have with TV or other sites. It’s, ‘Hey I made great content, where’s my money please?’” he says. “That’s been the gripe of a lot of these channels, but when they complain, I’m like, ‘It’s time to put your big-boy pants on because [monetizing your own content] has always been your responsibility.”