Vice News: a distinctive voice but will it be heard?

The founder of Vice, Shane Smith, wants to build 'the next CNN'. Ambitious - but he might just do it

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:01 ON Fri 14 Mar 2014

A FEW years ago I spent a week being trained in the art of video journalism. The Times, my employer at the time, was trying to usher its hidebound print reporters into a bold new era of multimedia digital journalism. That's not quite how it worked out. 

Since our tutors were old hands from ITV and the BBC, they taught us to replicate the formats and cliches of those venerable old beasts. And since we’d all gone into print rather than broadcast for a reason, what we ended up producing was, for the most part, a decidedly inferior imitation.

If our goal was to re-imagine broadcast journalism for the digital age, we missed it by a mile.

Now it’s the turn of Vice News, and they look set to get much closer to the mark.

The Vice Media empire stated life 20 years ago as a low-budget magazine based in Montreal and partly funded by the Canadian government. It cultivated a young and culturally savvy audience, moved its offices to New York City and, having made a profitable transition to the web (the company is forecast to make a profit of $125m on revenues of half a billion dollars this year), is charging headlong into the video news market.

The company, which has been making feature-length video documentaries for some time, last week heralded the arrival of Vice News.

“Featuring the next generation of hosts, correspondents and producers from its 35 foreign bureaus, Vice News will report globally on issues such as war and conflict, crime and drugs, civil unrest and the environment,” it announced to the world.

“The channel will fill a void left by mainstream media and news aggregation websites struggling to engage youth audiences and offer high-quality compelling digital programming.”

If that sounds ambitious, then listen to the company’s founder, Shane Smith. “I want to build the next CNN," he says. "It’s within my grasp.”

Is it? Well, Vice TV certainly has a touch of the freshness and vitality that CNN injected into the broadcast news business back in the early 1990s - and which it has since lost.

Vice reporters are recognisably different from those on other video news channels. They’re much younger, for a start. More significantly, and unlike many digital video upstarts, they’re not trying to ape their TV network forbears.

Reports are longer and looser, without the scripted, choreographed feel of many news clips. At its best, for example in this dispatch from the Central African Republic, Vice News replaces the faux authority of traditional TV news with a refreshing curiosity and openness. At its worst it substitutes one form of ego with another. One trailer for the new service veers queasily close to treating news as a violent, real-world video game.

Vice has always flirted with self-parody and its news output is no different, but at least it has a distinctive voice.

Few big media companies produce more than a smattering of material intended specifically for online consumption. Newspaper sites still consist largely of text and images that could have appeared in print. Broadcasters fillet their bulletins and rolling news channels and populate their websites with second-hand clips.

By comparison, Vice News will be digital from the ground-up, built for a generation that watches video on a smartphone as often as on TV.

Smith has talked of becoming “the default source for news on YouTube”, attracting billions of viewers and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. So far, the Vice News YouTube channel has 200,000 subscribers - a healthy start, but a long way short of that goal.

Nevertheless, the old guard have taken note. CNN and HBO, the American pay-TV channel that brought us The Sopranos and The Wire, are both now carrying video made by Vice, and Smith says that mainstream media companies have queued up to invest in his company.

Rupert Murdoch is a fan. Perhaps he sees in Vice something of the spirit of News Corp in its early buccaneering days. Whatever the reason, last year he paid $70m for a five per cent stake in Vice Media, valuing the company at $1.4 billion - nearly six times what Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post.

Murdoch has stumbled before in the digital arena, buying MySpace just as it began to falter, for example, or - from a great remove - imagining that someone like me might contribute to the future of TV news. This time, though, he may have backed a winner.

Holden Frith tweets at @holdenfrith ·