The heavy metal band that was on stage playing when madmen murdered 89 fans at the Bataclan could have given the exclusive to any news organization. But they selected Vice, not “Good Morning America,” “The Today Show” or “60 Minutes.”
Shane Smith and his Vice cohorts represent a sea change in news on the tube. That much was abundantly clear when I saw Smith interviewing Jesse Hughes and Joshua Homme from Eagles of Death Metal in a short clip on the “NBC Nightly News,” released wide to tease the full interview that will air on Vice.com next week.
Clearly, the news establishment that has bet so heavily on Vice (HBO with its weekly news magazine and a nightly newscast launching in January; Hearst- and Disney-backed A&E transforming the network H2 to Viceland early next year; and News Corp and JWT, each with minority stakes in Vice, respectively) is putting serious money behind the New News Order. And, without a great deal of subtlety, they’re also hoping the connection makes them cool in the eyes of cord-cutting millennials. They’re not dumb.
Last week, Shane Smith was awarded the Frank N. Stanton Award for Excellence by the Center for Communication, the nonprofit where I toil as executive director when I’m not writing this column. [Full disclosure: Vice is partnering with the Center and funding a journalism fellowship program, our Next Generation Portal, and a series of forums.]
At the raucous (call that an understatement) award luncheon, Smith was toasted and roasted by a Who’s Who of industry heavyweights. Predictably, the roster of roasters that included HBO CEO Richard Plepler (working very blue), Johnny Knoxville and Fred Armisen took shameless aim at Smith for his larger-than-life appetites.
But the afternoon had its heap of sincerity as well. The luncheon’s chairman, Tom Freston, an early investor in Vice and a board member as well, may have take aim at Smith’s notorious bad-boy past, but he also noted his brilliance, fearlessness and commitment to covering the under-covered.
Listening to Freston, I remembered back when he was running MTV Networks, during the heyday of MTV News in the ‘90s. Periodically, there would be discussion of an MTV News channel -- a hipster CNN, if you will. The conventional wisdom you would hear inside the MTV corridors was that the young audience, whom we refer to as millennials today, wouldn’t be there, nor would advertisers to support such a venture.
The success Vice has had with its digital channels and the warm welcome in cash and distribution it’s receiving from media-established royalty tell a different story. All it needed was someone at the top who had the yin of Hunter S. Thompson and the yang of Ted Turner.
Also necessary was the existence of a young, incredibly diverse audience that cares not only about style, but the substance of what’s going on at home and abroad.
As the Web continues to shrink an expanding world, and kids note how much is at stake (and how much adults muck things up), Vice, for all its impropriety, has become -- for both millennials and news suits -- that most necessary of resources: the young Turks who keep the other guys honest.