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Jan. 7, 2014, 10:56 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Vice News wants to take documentary-style storytelling to hot spots around the globe

The company’s new news channel will focus its ambitious, visceral style of journalism on conflict, health issues, money, and the environment.

If there’s a mantra for the team behind Vice News, it might be: Go where the story takes you. The soon-to-launch news channel from Vice is designed for the type of journalist who wants to strap a camera to her back and jump head first into a conflict zone. That’s already taken Vice reporters to places like Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic, to report on violence inside the country’s borders. When Vice News goes live later this winter, look for a lot more of that.

“We’re basically going to play to our strengths, which has been that longer-form documentary video,” said Vice News editor-in-chief Jason Mojica. “We’re going to be increasing the volume of that significantly.”

Over the past few months, Vice has expanded its editorial staff to more than 100, with people working in 34 offices around the world as well as other remote locations. The plan is to officially launch a mobile-friendly Vice News site to compliment the Vice News channel on YouTube. “This is the next logical place to play and space to create,” said Eddy Moretti, Vice’s chief creative officer. “It’s this organic thing. We didn’t start thinking we would launch a news channel one day.”

Vice — which started 20 years ago as a Montreal magazine — has made a name for itself in recent years through its documentary-style videos that take viewers into stories and parts of the world they may not know well. With the expansion of Vice News, the company plans to build on the existing work they’ve done in video and, well, go bigger.

The operation was the beneficiary of a warm glow of journalism enthusiasm this fall after word got out the company planned to beef up its journalism, expanding into new areas of coverage and hiring new people. It’s a familiar storyline in the world of media: Upstart company (Al Jazeera America, BuzzFeed, the list goes on) has money to invest in news, which attracts the attention of journalists like a school of fish after the next meal. Like the companies that preceded them, Vice promises an approach to journalism that is outside the norm. The trailer for the forthcoming news channel gives a clear look at what Vice is interested in: unrest, conflict, revolution, persecution.

Vice isn’t building entirely from scratch. From its magazine roots, Vice has branched out over the years in writing and video to build blogs around music, fashion, and technology. In a way, news is just another vertical in the mix. The ambitions for news are big, Mojica tells me: They want people to come to Vice for deep reporting on topics like the environment, national security, health, and money. “I think where we want to live is in a part of the healthy news diet, the food pyramid of news,” he said. “Read The New York Times and come to our site, or vice versa.”

It’s news with a voice, but also news that spends time on a subject. One thing they’ve learned from the videos produced so far, is that audiences will take time on a subject if you find the right connection, Mojica said. “It’s important for the site to be a place where you can come everyday to find out what’s happening in the world that affects your life,” he said. That said, don’t expect Vice to chase the general interest stories you might see elsewhere. The goal, he said, is to focus on the storytelling they do better than anyone else: “I don’t think we’re going to serve ourselves or our audience if we try to be all things to all people.”

Vice grabbed headlines with its look into life in North Korea (with the help of Dennis Rodman, last seem screaming on CNN this morning) and its chase (and ensuing fiasco) through Central America with fugitive millionaire John McAfee.

The Vice editorial plan is big on video, the revenue whale nearly every major online news organization is chasing — either documentary-style stories or live coverage from events as they happen. It’s a mix of of-the-moment and delayed. That’s part of the reason Vice is staffing up, bringing on editors, reporters, videographers to help shape the areas that will be covered, as well as figuring out the right metabolism for the operation.

Mojica told me they’re looking for people with skills on both sides of the camera, from backgrounds that could be professional or YouTube-honed. The key, he said, is that they are driven: “Vice is not a place for people who need to be told what to do,” he said. “It’s for people with big things they want to achieve. We can empower them and make that happen.”

Vice raised $70 million this year by selling a 5 percent equity stake to 21st Century Fox. That investment earned it some notice for valuing the company at $1.4 billion — less than two weeks after The Washington Post had been sold to Jeff Bezos for a mere $250 million. (Interesting that Vice falls on the entertainment side, not the news side, of the News Corp split.) The company also struck deals with CNN, to feature Vice content on, and HBO, which airs a half-hour show produced by the company.

Part of the interest in the company comes from its appeal to younger audiences. Mojica said Vice’s internal metrics show its audience is indeed young. Part of the appeal of Vice is because many of those telling stories are young themselves, he said. But identifying with Vice is also about the voice and tone of the work, Moretti told me. Vice approaches stories at a ground level, and reporters often inject plenty of their personality into the work. What really connects with audiences, Moretti said, is taking a story beyond the length and depth of typical TV or newspaper stories. “In a weird way, what they’re looking for is a level of empathy within the reporting, so that it’s not just a series of metrics,” Moretti said.

What works, Moretti said, is going beyond the clip and soundbite-centric storytelling found on most broadcast news. Despite what conventional wisdom might say, Moretti says young viewers want more than 60-second clips. It’s video’s ability to be immersive and narrative that lets Vice connect with audiences, he said: “It’s slowing down the flow, the speed at which the news comes now,” he said.

Vice now spans print, digital, and TV, not to mention advertising, with Virtue, the company’s in-house creative agency. That’s a lot of tentacles operating at the same time. Mojica said that also offers plenty of lessons for the new news division to learn from. While they plan to build a mobile-friendly site for Vice News, Mojica said the aim is to offer video and other reporting in as many venues as possible. While some people watch on their laptops or phones, others, like Mojica, are fans of streaming video over connected devices like Apple TV. “I think our general attitude towards method of delivery has helped us, in that we’ve always been agnostic and focused on content rather than get hung up on platform,” Mojica said.

Mojica, who has had stints working for Al Jazeera and 60 Minutes, thinks the appetite for news and information has never been stronger. The channels for getting news, and the way people consume them, are what’s changing, he said. “All of us love to complain on the state of journalism. And now it’s time to put up or shut up,” Mojica said. “I consider it the biggest challenge of my life, and one that I’m really looking forward to.”

POSTED     Jan. 7, 2014, 10:56 a.m.
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