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VICE News: 'We don't treat the internet like a low-rent version of other media'

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Broadcast, Digital Media


VICE News: 'We don't treat the internet like a low-rent version of other media'

"There's always been this view that this generation of young people aren't interested in the stories of the world," says Al Brown, head of video for VICE UK, "Through our work you can see that young people will flock to current affairs and news coverage if it's done in a voice they trust."

Launching a news channel is a fairly obvious extension of what VICE have been doing for the past several years with their increasingly news-led documentary production, but a hard news vertical is a different ballgame that poses different challenges – shorter timeframes, a higher dependence on accuracy, and stronger editorial independence from advertisers to name a few.

Attention to audience

But with their video content born in the age of the internet, VICE are deliberately setting themselves apart from legacy media in both format and function with VICE News, says Brown:

"One of the great things about the internet, especially in the broadcasting world is that you get the opportunity to get quick and instant feedback from the audience on what they like, whether they think something is too long or hasn't given them enough. You can track those responses and act on them very quickly."

When the site launched a few weeks ago 3,000 beta invites were sent out as part of a feedback-gathering exercise and an adaptive, evolving approach to the way things are done. That approach is also reflected in the way content is produced:

"Another freedom of the internet is that the story can dictate the format. If you have access to a scene or an event, to characters, etc, then what's great about online is that you're not bound to a linear programming schedule."

"You can say 'Well the perfect state for this film is 15 minutes or 45 minutes'. You're not bound by having to fit something into a schedule, so as far as the format goes you don't have a pre-decided version of what that could be."

The lack of a traditional linear broadcasting schedule that determines both how long content needs to be and when it will air mirrors Generation Y's consumption habits.

And those consumption habits are global, too. Translating content into as many languages as possible and delivering it through a large array of social media channels is an important part of VICE's reach and explains in part how they have managed to hit numbers like 130 million uniques a month and an average 20-minute-plus viewing time on YouTube, says Brown.

"One of the things I was talking about on the Today Programme recently was the fact that, yeah, OK, iPlayer is great – and iPlayer is amazing – but it's a walled garden."

"It's hard for that player to travel, you can't look at it from other countries and I think it's really important for us that we have the ability for everything that we make to travel as far and wide as possible and that means using as many platforms as possible."

Pre-roll potential

Working out VICE News' ad model is something the company will no doubt have spent a lot of time thinking about given that the idea of sponsorship poses ethical problems when paired with news content that is supposed to be editorially independent and trustworthy.

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Investment for VICE's content mostly comes from revenue generated by advertising across its network, with a small amount from outside the company (as in Murdoch and 21st Century Fox's $70 million acquisition of five percent last August) and in that sense, VICE News is no different, Brown told me.

He was unsurprisingly coy about VICE News' ad/monetisation strategy, but he did hint at the possibility of sponsored pre-rolls:

"Not yet. On the YouTube player it does run ads sometimes and that's part of the technology and the backend of having YouTube, but there's not huge plans to have sponsored news content, but that could be part of the evolution. It's perfectly fine to have a commercial part of your business that deals with the world's brands and I think it's at the same time perfectly fine to have a news-gathering editorial side of the business that may criticise some of those brands."

"One of the things we don't want to be is a news aggregator. There are enough of those in the world. We want to be a news voice that's creating the majority of its own editorial content. People come to us because we're a trusted and authentic voice and we need to maintain that. It doesn't work if you have brands telling you what you can and can't say."

Startup spirit

Adopting a startup mentality in certain areas of the business has also allowed VICE News to approach the way they deal with reporters in a different way to legacy media, says Brown.

Freelance Full-time VICE foreign reporter Ben Anderson spoke about the company's approach to commissioning stories from their network of reporters in a Reddit 'Ask Me Anything' last year:

reddit ama ben anderson

As Brown puts it:

"We're in a very useful position to be in where we are both the production company and the broadcaster in one. There's also – and this is something that's very much our ethos across everything we do – a very small chain of people between the person with the idea and the person who can say 'Here's some money. Go and make it'."

Having such a compact vertical structure means VICE News can be much more responsive and waste a lot less time and resources than an organisation like the BBC, says Brown:

"Not to throw stones at the BBC particularly, but they have an awful lot of responsibility in terms of being a public service broadcaster, and therefore have an amazing amount of bureaucracy to protect that public service interest. It can be quite a difficult place to navigate as freelance journalist."

"If a young amazing freelance journalist comes to us, they find they can very quickly have a direct conversation with me and I can commission a film, and there's not a lot of other people that need to be involved in that until we decide that the idea is right. Once we decide that the idea is right however, then in many ways there's as many people involved as there would be with any broadcast."

And although the budgets and level of equipment VICE News offer their reporters is not dissimilar to traditional broadcast, what they produce is:

"What we produce we may produce for the internet, but we produce to the same standards that [legacy] broadcast [media] would. That means we are using high-end cameras, we do have large RAID arrays in our office to support our edit suites (because you need that shared storage to be able to turn around fast edits for news) and we actually use very high-end equipment."

"On the ground we use really qualified shooters who produce amazing imagery, but we don't do crappy B-roll and we don't do green-screen but that's a stylistic choice. That's always the way we've looked at it and I think that's actually an integral part to our success – we don't treat the internet like a low-rent version of other media."

A gradual evolution

VICE Media have been very successful with sponsored video for some of their other verticals, but are obviously still working out the details of VICE News' advertising strategy.

It's understandable given the sensitivity of news compared to their music, food, or technology coverage – all of which are easier to tack ads or long-term sponsorship onto – and it's justified given they don't want to get trapped in the same trench as legacy broadcast media.

Upending the traditional myopic approach that many broadcasters take towards news, and producing stories that are timely, unforced, and delivered in ways appropriate to how young people consume content in 2014 is an attractive prospect for advertisers and a serious challenge for traditional news providers.

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