It has taken a pornography to propel Vice into its position as one of the world's most influential youth-oriented media brands. Last year it bought the smut portal vice.com from a pornographer and turned it into the new home for its distinctive mix of snarky fashion comment and current affairs video. "A lot of horny dudes have been coming to vice.com and getting long-form documentary, which probably wasn't what they were after," observes Vice Media's Tyneside-born president, Andrew Creighton, on a visit to London from his New York base.
For those readers who have not heard of Vice, it is what style magazine The Face might have become if it had not been scythed down by Father Time. It's a multi-platform brand with a breathtaking confidence in its appraisal of everything from street-level fashion to complicated stories of international politics and social affairs. The Vice website has grown from two million monthly users to 15 million in just over a year.
The magazine format in which Vice was founded now accounts for less than 5 per cent of business, compared to about 70 per cent only five years ago. The company has signed a deal with the US cable broadcaster HBO to supply it with documentaries, and Vice's record label will release the next Snoop Dogg album. A 90-minute film feature about the rapper's new persona – the Rastafarian-inspired "Snoop Lion", no less – has been made by Vice's global editor Andy Capper, another Englishman, and recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Already based in 36 countries, Vice will in March open an editorial bureau in Beijing, with an advertising office in Shanghai. Creighton and Capper both came on board a decade ago when the magazine was launched in the UK, having been founded in Montreal in 1994. And herein lies the challenge for Vice. It marked its 10th birthday with a party in London, where Mark Ronson (aged 37) was a DJ and The Klaxons (Mercury Prize winners in 2007) performed live. Vice has a historical relationship with both of them – but younger readers will have their own music heroes. Similarly, it's not easy for a youth brand to stay cool and avoid being pushed aside by the media adopted by the next generation. When a young person is looking for intelligent content online – beyond breaking news – I'm guessing they're either searching for originality from an underground source, or they're trying to learn something from an established information provider with a reputation for quality. After 18 years of existence, a youth title such as Vice is at risk of falling between those two stools, but it is somehow managing to straddle both.
The approach is exemplified by the fact that co-founder Shane Smith will present Vice's first documentary for HBO, having obtained footage of would-be suicide bombers and other radicals living in tribal areas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where traditional media groups have struggled to operate.
Vice also has two successful YouTube channels, one dedicated to music and the other driven by serious but quirky films. Of the latter, the most popular include a piece on Krokodil, a dangerous new drug being used in Russia, and a feature called "The First Animal to Survive in Space", which is about organisms that live outside the atmosphere. The film has been viewed more than 10 million times.
Other films have a Hunter S Thompson spirit of putting the author at the centre of the action, which seems to resonate with a young audience that feels globally connected and has grown up making their own movies. Creighton, 40, argues that Vice can endure as a youth-oriented brand because its editorial voice is trusted in an era when traditional news media is viewed with suspicion by young audiences. "Whether it's culture, news or music we have the same attitude and tonality," he says. "The fact is that young people are as interested in Pakistan as they are in shoes."