In an interview with Press Gazette nine years ago Vice’s then UK editor Andy Capper boasted of how Vice’s remit was to celebrate “the things we’re meant to be ashamed of” – namely, sex, drugs and bodily functions.
Back then you were likely to find an interview with an assistant nurse headlined, “The shit disturber: how to clean an old lady’s bum”, an article called “Bukkake On My Face: Welcome to the Ancient Tradition of the Japanese Facial”, or the now infamous “Vice guide to shagging a Muslim”.
How things have changed. While the magazine retains its reputation as a painfully cool hipster bible, it is also producing some outstanding pieces of journalism.
If the UK is slow to wake up to the fact, the same could not be said across the Atlantic where Vice was last year shortlisted alongside the likes of The New Yorker, GQ and Bloomberg Businessweek at the prestigious National Magazine Awards (it eventually lost out to Bloomberg).
In December 2012 Vice celebrated the tenth anniversary of its launch in Britain with its 29-year-old current UK editor-in-chief Alex Miller (below) keenly aware of how much the title had evolved since 2002.
“I think that one interesting thing over the last decade is how more traditional news organisations like broadsheets have veered toward lifestyle journalism,” he says.
“Yet we at Vice, who are supposed to just go to loads of parties, have actually gone in the other direction and become more serious and more interested in international news and politics.
“I think that we’re all as one in agreement that news is more interesting than frivolity, and that actually with the world as it is, and the way it has been for the last decade, it’s madness to turn away from current affairs.
“I think there’s a much needed role for us as an organisation that’s not bogged down in decades of bureaucracy and can actually speak to young people in an honest and interested manner.”
Where Vice excels is in the kind of long-form journalism that was once the domain of broadsheet Sunday magazines.
Take “Paintballing with the Hezbollah”, for instance. Behind the quirky headline is a gripping account of how the American reporter Mitchell Prothero spent a year arranging a paintball match between four Western journalists and a group of Hezbollah fighters.
This was no ironic gimmick: The aim was to get the Hezbollah fighters relaxed enough to reveal some kind of “fleeting truth or insight” that was beyond the scope of journalists observing the troubles from the sidelines.
And it worked. After befriending the boss of the cell, Prothero was told how Hezbollah rocket teams travel by bicycle to avoid detection along the heavily guarded Lebanon-Israeli border.
“It’s exactly the kind of detailed tactical description from a legitimate military source I’d hoped to obtain by setting up the paintball battle,” he wrote afterwards.
Miller says: “I think traditionally we have been associated with staying up late and making a lot of noise. Maybe we’ve grown up, or maybe the world’s changed to such a degree that we can’t ignore it.
“But the things that get our attention now are more serious than just sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
It helps that Vice also has youth on its side. Some of its best articles are written by journalists able to immerse themselves in sub-cultures and situations that more traditional media either wouldn’t dream of doing or else simply would not be able to pull off.
In September, for example, the journalist Rob Fisher wrote a feature on how the “Zombie apocalypse” drug known as ‘bath salts’ had ravaged a small town in Virginia after spending time with both users and suppliers of the drug.
October’s Science Issue featured an in-depth interview with an unnamed “clandestine chemist” who made the synthetic drugs MDMA and DMT in his home-made laboratory.
Similar pieces were produced by journalists able to infiltrate crowds at the London riots in 2011 and the mass student protests the year before, which Miller considers to be watershed moments for the UK team.
“While all other mainstream news outlets were escaping the kettles or being heckled by people, we looked young and just fitted in there and got the stories no one else could get,” he says. “We were out on the street while other journalists were at home.”
It is not the usual content ‘youth’ magazines usually serve up to teens and twenty-somethings, and that’s where Miller believes they’re missing a trick.
“I think the young audience, they’re just as interested in the world as us. I feel that for a long time, media that was aimed at young people was probably very condescending and lightweight – some kind of hangover from terrible 1970s light entertainment and 1990s cocaine grandiosity.
“These days, people want to be clever and want to know about the world and want to have opinions, and they need the facts there to help them. We can present them in a non-partisan, interesting, human way.
“When you watch a Vice documentary or read an article, it’s people that could be you out there doing these things.”
Vice was formed in the Canadian city of Montreal in 1994 as part of a Government-funded community-building welfare programme and was originally called the Voice. It dropped the ‘o’ two years later and in 1997 relocated to New York, where it remains headquartered.
'Our magazine is a beautiful, wonderful thing'
The magazine now claims a global circulation of 1,147,000 (100,000 in the UK) and has different editions in 24 countries, employing 800 staff worldwide, including 100 in London. Around 3,500 freelances contribute content to the magazine and website.
In December it acquired i-D magazine with the aim of becoming “the world’s leading online video-driven fashion channel”.
A report in the Financial Times last year noted how it has “become more successful than many magazine publishers in diversifying from its print roots, with revenues from other sources outstripping those of its physical product”.
These sources include a website and online television channel, web store, record label, and even a pub in the East End of London called the Old Blue Last.
That same FT report was written after advertising giant WPP joined a group of companies investing more than $50m in Vice Media including boutique bank Raine Group and MTV founder Tom Freston. The company has global assets of well over $20m, revenues of more than $54m and predicts profits of around $60m within the next two years.
The magazine continues to eschew the newsstand or distributors in favour of a grassroots network of around 850 outlets in the UK including boutique fashion stores, coffee houses and pubs (though it has introduced a £35-a-year subscription service available through its website).
The subscription ad tells readers that “after untold years of emails and letters from people whining about how they can’t get their hands on an actual physical copy of the magazine because some idiot keeps grabbing 20 copies at a time and then selling them on eBay, we are throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Fine’”.
But the fact it does not flood the market, unlike some free titles, only adds to its cult appeal, according to Miller.
“Often free magazines print insane numbers and they end up mopping up beer on the floors of pubs,” he says. “Our magazine is a beautiful, wonderful thing and we want people to cherish it and keep it on their bookshelf.”
And while other revenues now outstrip those from the print product, it remains central to the business. “The magazine has grown an awful lot,” says Miller. “Online, video production, these are the future, but for us the core will always be the magazine.
“We love the magazine. We love printing beautiful photographs, love being able to hold something, love being able to create something that will exist in a physical form for eternity.
“So no there are no plans on shutting that. The plans are to increasingly grow everything us.”
Miller also notes that being free since its inception 18 years ago means Vice has “escaped the terror which has faced the rest of the print community”.
“They’re now having to deal with the fact that people don’t necessarily want to pay for their journalism when they can get it for free online.
“Everyone’s been running around like headless chickens trying to work out whether paywalls work, or cellotaping a free pair of sandals to the front of their magazine to try and get people to buy it.
“We’ve been quietly lying back and going, ‘Oh, this is great. We basically predicted this.’”
Where Vice also deviates from other free rivals is its low editorial-to-add ratio. November’s edition featured 132 pages of which only 23 were ads. Only three of those came after the first 30 pages, two of which were plugging documentaries on the Vice website.
And where other rival magazines are often reliant on “tedious” press releases, Miller says, Vice has the approach of “that’s bullshit and not interesting or fun on any level, so let’s try and do something more interesting”.
He continues: “Let’s try and reflect the world as we see it, rather than the world as it’s presented to us on A4 sheets of paper by some codswallop written by PRs whose entire job it is to change your mind.
“With other freesheets the covers are bought, the front sections are bought, the features are bought. It’s kind of like the Argos catalogue. With us it’s really not: We aspire to be a truly great journalistic magazine.
“Basically, there’s always been loads and loads of really bad magazines and I guess perhaps they are the ones that are shutting down.”