Ian Burrell: Fashion and politics mean the 'Vice' is right

Media Studies

It has taken a pornography website 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 cutting-edge 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," dryly 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 developed crow's feet and 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. It has a distinctive voice and many young people still buy into it. The Vice website has grown from two million monthly users to 15 millon 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 34 countries around the world, 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 longstanding reputation for quality. After 18 years of existence, a youth title such as Vice is at risk of falling between those two stalls but 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 four YouTube channels, including one dedicated to music and another 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."

The romanticism of this let's-bring-serious-news-to-the-kids aspiration is tempered by the fact that Creighton is a commercial animal, with roots in advertising rather than journalism. He knows he cannot afford to allow commercial clients to damage Vice's credibility for the sake of short term gain. "If I try and compete on the same terms as major media companies we will lose," he admits. "We have to maintain our voice and our product – otherwise we have nothing to sell. I'm always conscious of that."

Creighton previously sold advertising for i-D and other style and fashion magazines but became disillusioned. "They were supposed to be edgy, non-conformist and putting culture forward, but they were basically pandering to the advertisers and PRs because they wanted to make money," he recalls. But he recognised something different in the irreverence of Vice. "I had never laughed so hard," he says. "I couldn't believe the freedom they had in the writing and the tonality was always very English and humorous. I thought I know this will work in the UK."

The Face was published for 24 years until 2004 and now exists as a museum exhibit at the V&A. Thanks to video and the internet, Vice need not face the same fate.

Wit, verve and attitude were not enough to save 'Daily'

Rupert Murdoch launched his digital newspaper The Daily with a mission statement that said it would be "combining world-class storytelling with the unique interactive capabilities of the iPad".

Last week, it was announced that the venture was to shut down less than two years after Mr Murdoch claimed it "may be the saving of newspapers". The Daily attracted only 100,000 subscribers, despite charging only £25 a year (7p a day).

The final edition of The Daily will be published on Saturday, although some of the 120 staff might be found positions on Mr Murdoch's New York Post.

Any sense of consolation that came with that news would have been tempered by the tabloid's front page the very next day, showing a man clinging onto a subway platform as the train that was about to kill him approached. The paper's insensitive headline said simply: "Doomed."

Despite widespread outrage at its decision to publish, the Post has declined to comment on its latest sensationalism. The freelance photographer who took the image has claimed he was hoping that the flash of his camera would cause the train driver to stop.

That might not be quite what News Corp staff thought they had signed up for when they joined The Daily and its editor, Jesse Angelo, promised : "We'll have punchy, funny headlines. We're going to have some wit and verve and attitude, but that doesn't mean we can't run a 1,500-word analysis of Afghanistan."

Now Leveson tries to lay down the law governing the internet

With quotations from Charles Dickens and Henry James and observations on recent media scandals, Lord Justice Leveson's speech at the University of Technology in Sydney last week was a racier read than his 2,000-word report of eight days earlier.

As Fleet Street editors met in London to humbly accept Sir Brian's plans for a new watchdog (in order to avoid the statutory underpinning that he recommended), the architect of the toughened regulatory system was Down Under, laying into the Web as if he had just learned how to log on. "It takes but a minute to record someone doing something in a public place and to upload it to the internet," he said. "Once on the internet the episode, the behaviour, is there for the world to see and is there permanently at the click of a mouse."

Perhaps Sir Brian, who said social media and Google must fall under the "shadow of the law", should have featured more than a mere nine pages on the influence of the web in his magnum opus.

The next instalment from the judge, a speech from Melbourne, is being broadcast live by a London law firm at a "Breakfast with Leveson" event on Wednesday. What media discoveries has he made this week?

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

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