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Media Group Evolves From Covering Vice To War Zones

Shane Smith, founder and CEO of Vice Media.
Shane Smith, founder and CEO of Vice Media.

This is the story of the evolution of a news organization called Vice. Its stories are published online and aired on HBO.

Years ago, it didn't really cover news. "All we had been really concerned about was rare denim, rare sneakers and supermodels," Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice magazine, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

The magazine has migrated to video and the Web, and by chance began covering war zones. Vice is producing documentaries from Ukraine, North Korea and South Sudan, and even embedded a filmmaker with ISIS in Syria.

Vice is expected to expand its TV offerings because its newest investors include Disney-owned A&E Networks. It has become, in part, a news organization, though it still covers plenty of vice.

(If you listen to the audio above, Smith even tries to recruit Inskeep.)

Interview Highlights

On where its news coverage fits in

We look at the news cycle as a dangerous game to play — like kindergartners playing soccer. The ball goes over here, everyone runs over there, the ball goes over there, everyone runs over there. We famously go into places before things kick off or after things. We started documenting Iraq mostly after the war and everyone had left, and we went in and said, "Hold on a second, there's all these stories that are going on and no one cares. There's Iraq fatigue." And that's how we got into ISIS.

On Vice's approach to trying to create a voice in the midst of a constant news coverage climate

When we started doing online and especially with YouTube, people would say, "Young people don't care about international news. They don't have an attention span, so keep it short." Of course, that was all wrong. ....

I think you have to look at it and say everybody has their opinions about how everything should be or has to be, and generally if everybody else is doing it that way, we do it another way, because everybody else is already doing it that way. We're not going to go in and fight CNN on the 24-hour news cycle, because it's already been proven that's not necessarily the best way to do news.

On how Vice's documentary on ISIS was filmed

We had worked with [filmmaker Medyan Dairieh] in Gaza, on a lot of things that we had done there. He's a Palestinian kid, he works for Al-Jazeera, he works for us, he works for a couple of other people; he's a freelancer. And basically what happened is we said, "Why don't you ask these guys? See if you can go embed." And everyone says, "How'd you get it? How'd you get it?" I believe we were the only people who asked.

On how, in light of how the beheadings in Syria highlight the dangers for unaffiliated journalists in the region, Vice supports its freelancers

In Ukraine, [Vice filmmaker] Simon Ostrovsky was kidnapped along with 12 other journalists, and ... we not only had an action team on the ground in eight hours, we got him out within 48 hours. The safety of our people is of paramount importance to us. ... We're embedded with the Taliban right now in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and we think that it's important to understand where these political movements are coming from because there's a lot of propaganda on both sides.

On whether Vice can keep up with a world filled with players with agendas and not get played

No, I think it's impossible. I think you do your best, and we believe in full transparency, and that's why we sort of adopted the documentary immersionism style, because the fact that we don't have to follow the news cycle gives us the time to double-check and triple-check what's going on. And by the way, stories morph. You have to be dynamic and sort of open-minded when you go into these things.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.