One built its reputation by exposing fashion faux pas, the other by listing pictures of strangely-behaving pets. But two youth-oriented media brands, Vice and BuzzFeed, are fast becoming challengers to the traditional news industry.
Vice Media began 20 years ago as a free magazine, best-known for its bitchy “Dos and Don’ts” fashion feature. It is now planning to invest $50 million (£31m) in expanding a newsroom which has already picked up an Emmy nomination for its ground-breaking approach to news documentaries. Profit-making and with substantial recent investment, Vice has added 60 journalists to its international team in the past two months, bringing its total news team to more than 100.
BuzzFeed, which is only seven years old but is expanding so quickly that it could be soon be one of the biggest websites in the world, has recently made a commitment to serious investigative journalism.
The opportunity that both organisations have identified is to serve the so-called “millennial” audience of twenty-somethings who have supposedly turned their backs on mainstream news providers. “We see that as a huge demographic that’s underserved,” Shane Smith, Vice’s chief executive and co-founder, told the Wall Street Journal.
In fact, Vice is no longer quite the underground and independent operation that much of its audience probably imagine. Its latest $50 million expansion into journalism is partly the result of a cash injection from that most visible of traditional news media figures, Rupert Murdoch, whose 21st Century Fox company invested $70 million (£45m) in a 5 per cent stake in Vice earlier this year after the mogul had earlier praised the youth brand on his Twitter account.
Murdoch was not alone in his interest – and Vice has grown by not being afraid to make partnerships with more established media players. Its documentary series on premium cable and satellite channel HBO was nominated for an Emmy in its opening season. It has a reputation for heading to hotspots of war and crime, invariably looking for a youth-friendly angle on the story. Its subjects have included the “Killer kids” among the Taliban’s suicide bombers and gun violence in Chicago (or “Chiraq” as Vice dubbed it).
Vice - whose current investors include MTV founder Tom Freston, WPP, and 21st Century Fox - previously partnered its film-making arm VBS with CNN, as the news network hoped the edgy content would pull in younger television viewers.
Now Vice looks ready to go it more alone, with Smith promising live coverage of breaking news events on a dedicated Vice News channel, hosted on YouTube.
The Internet has liberated these news providers, allowing them to be cheaper and more nimble than the big broadcasters. He promises that journalists will cover the stories wearing Google Glass spectacles (which have inbuilt cameras) and carrying smartphones.
Its London bureau, the most important outside New York, is an example of the company’s commitment building its own edit suites and making them accessible to film-makers. Vice’s President Andrew Creighton was born in Tyneside and global editor Andy Capper is another Englishman.
Vice has appointed Kevin Sutcliffe, former editor of Dispatches on Channel 4, as head of news production for Europe. It also recently hired senior producer Ben Anderson, who made the BBC documentary Holidays in the Axis of Evil.
New York-based Buzzfeed has recently caused traditional media organisations to look up, following its appointment of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Schoofs at the head of a team of six investigative reporters. Schoofs, who previously worked for the respected and donor-funded investigative journalism site ProPublica, won the award for his coverage of the Aids crisis in Africa.
Buzzfeed’s founder Jonah Peretti (who was previously involved in setting up The Huffington Post) had previously signalled more serious intent by making the political journalist Ben Smith his editor-in-chief. Smith previously worked at the influential Politico website in Washington.
Buzzfeed, which attracted 34.6m unique visitors in September, is known for its addictive use of list-based content, animated gifs and animal pictures (“23 cats who are going to have trust issues”). Seven months ago, it opened in Britain.
Its UK editor Luke Lewis said he was still concentrating on humorous and entertaining content but he has recently made a series of new appointments. Political reporter Jim Waterson has been recruited from business newspaper City AM. Buzzfeed’s expanding 15-strong UK editorial team also includes a breaking news reporter, a media editor and a science editor. But Lewis, a former editor of music site NME.com, said he was not looking to go to war with any traditional British media players.
“The media is a big place and we don’t need anyone else to fail in order for us to succeed,” he said. “We have our own way of doing things and it would not necessarily work for any other publisher.”