Stop comparing your new media venture to Vice

Photo: AP

It sounds like a bad joke. Hearst and Verizon, two from the old guard, are teaming up to launch a mobile video channel that will act as a “Vice for the red states.” The Wall Street Journal reports that the project aims to produce “heartland-focused content” for—skip the drum roll—millennials.

Is there any other target audience these days?

Vice Media is the edgy, left-tilting global video empire that, in its evolution from a Canadian counterculture magazine to a $4 billion conglomerate, has built alliances with major institutions like HBO, Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, and YouTube. Along the way, Vice’s name has become code for all things millennial. But there are two problems for anyone trying to mimic the Vice approach. First, no brand, even Vice, can speak for the largest and most diverse group in the US. More humorous is that just saying you plan to replicate Vice doesn’t make it so. Whatever journalistic shortcomings Vice has, they know something about branding, and it’s not easily duplicated.

That doesn’t stop media startups from trying.

When former Slate editor David Plotz was courting investors for Atlas Obscura, he billed the eccentric travel guide as a sort of “Nice Vice” in an email soliciting support. Plotz, the website’s CEO, was referring to Atlas Obscura’s mission to unearth curious stories outside the mainstream, a hallmark of Vice’s coverage. Worn Creative, an ad agency that began as a fashion magazine in 2009, positioned itself as a contender to become the next Vice. Both companies started in print, morphed into multi-pronged companies, and now specialize in reaching younger audiences. Even WorldStarHipHop, which is best known for hosting user-submitted videos of brawls and police brutality, credited Vice as an inspiration.

Journalists are eager to take part in dispersing the Vice label. The 2013 birth of Vocativ, which mines stories from the deep web for a 20- and 30-something audience, spurred Mashable to label it a data-driven Vice. A handful of other news outlets agreed. Then there’s OZY Media, whose website and distribution deals are reeling in 20 million monthly unique visitors amid similar claims of Viceness. Mic, BuzzFeed, The Economist (“Vice for the high-brow crowd”), and Netflix have also been reported to either be mirroring, or taking on, the Brooklyn media giant.

Each of these organizations’ common link to Vice is, of course, the desire to grab millennials. But it’s hard to imagine a media company that wouldn’t want to charm a group of 83 million people—any American born between 1982 and 2000.

Some of the Vice copycats adopt the video company’s outlandish editorial sensibility. That works quite well for Vice, but there’s no evidence that millennials want the same kind of content from newcomers.

Take Great Big Story. The CNN-funded video network went live last fall, touting its “awesome, untold and inspirational stories about new frontiers, the human condition, planet earth, tastes and flavors.” It wasn’t hard to miss the similarity to Vice’s tagline: “Exposing the absurdity of the modern condition.” One of Great Big Story’s videos, “History Will Remember Liquid Ass,” for instance, details the rise of a strange “prank product company.” And you can’t forget the videos that play to ‘90s kid nostalgia.

This gonzo-chic journalism is becoming a prime target for parody. Both The Onion and IFC Channel’s Documentary Now! have poked fun at Vice, portraying its young reporters as cellphone-obsessed, oblivious journo-tourists. Vice’s seven Emmy nominations and one winner speak for themselves. But, more than anything, this brand of satire mocks those who believe the millennial generation buys into whatever is sold as “cool” or “edgy.”

It turns out, young people don’t only seek out the bizarre and frivolous. More than half of Vice’s digital audience was millennial in July 2014, yet The New York Times drew three million more visitors from that demographic. An American Press Institute study found last year that 85 percent of millennials find it at least “somewhat important” to keep up with hard news. Nearly half of those polled claimed to regularly keep tabs on five hard-news stories. Vice, too, recognized this trend with the launch of its buttoned-down Vice News vertical.

Yet here we are: Hearst and Verizon—two mega-corporations—appear willing to bet on a “Vice for the red states.” The phrase warrants a thorough head-scratching. Will the first video tell the story of a farmer who loves Donald Trump as much as the local indie-rock scene? A midwestern woman who’s out to prove that fracking dollars are financing French classes at the local library? How about a profile of a rodeo clown? 

No one knows. It’s fair to guess the content will be provocative in its pursuit of a younger audience. Whether it will satisfy demand is unclear.

But before the partnership starts spending money to lure its audience, it’s worth noting that most millennials reject the catchall label given to them by journalists and marketers. Maybe that’s because—now cue the drum roll—no one wants to be pandered to, stereotyped, or squeezed into some mainstream media outlet’s preferred demographic.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha