The New York Times described him as “a cross between a punk rocker and Fortune 500 Executive.” Canadian Business placed him on “Canada’s Richest People,” claiming his net worth to be at $1.27 billion. He interviewed Barack Obama in the closing months of his presidency and conducted the first public interview with the Eagles of Death Metal after a terrorist attack in Bataclan left 89 people dead.
As an international correspondent, he has reported in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Liberia, and Greenland. However, Canadian journalist Shane Smith is best known for his leadership of Vice Media, one of the most exciting digital media and broadcasting companies to have emerged in recent decades.
Vice requires little introduction in the world of media. The award-winning company can regularly be seen on social media newsfeeds the world over, with a vast roster of contributors spanning over every continent. Indeed, the success behind Vice has been monumental, particularly over the past decade: What was formerly a small, independent magazine is now an international network of digital channels, television production studios, record labels, book-publishing houses and feature film divisions. The attraction behind the brand has become a phenomenon, and that may be explainable by the diversity and bold direction of its content. In few publications could we see an analysis of the Middle Eastern conflict paired with video content on how to make the best cannabis-infused cookies, all on the same page.
The melting-pot content strategy followed by Vice appears to have paid off for Shane Smith, who currently acts as co-founder and executive chairman of the media company. Less than two years ago, Vice announced a series of international deals that would see programming become available to audiences in over 50 new territories across Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, India and the Middle East.
However, things weren’t always as high-flying for Vice, which found its modest roots in Montreal’s underground skating scene. The network for all-things-millennial was founded by Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes as Voice of Montreal in 1994, with government funding assisting the growth of the now-massive brand. The magazine received a substantial grant as part of a welfare fund to discuss the previously uncovered subcultures of skateboarding, music and recreational drugs.
Initially publishing print articles based on offbeat subculture, the magazine rapidly grew beyond the confines of its Montreal headquarters. The magazine founders, including Smith, acquired the magazine and renamed it Vice, with new offices in New York City providing an impression of the company’s astronomical growth. When the magazine expanded into video content in 2006, the brand quickly established itself as a new leader in “gonzo journalism” – not since the days of Hunter S. Thompson had such an approach been so well received by the media-consuming public. Documentaries filmed by Vice gained notoriety in the world of media, thanks to their subject matter and “alternative” reporting style – and their reporting style certainly is alternative.
A cursory glance over Vice’s documentaries reveals an eye-opening choice of content. Reporters can be seen taking LSD before interviewing celebrities on the red carpet. Filmmakers can be seen travelling into the heart of ISIS-controlled areas, asking questions that much mainstream media sources would take care to avoid. It is indubitable that Vice has made great efforts to display courage in its reporting – especially in subjects that are far, far off the beaten track.
Raising a middle finger to mainstream media has been the catalyst behind the phenomena of Vice Media. The company has become symbolic of the millennial generation and not just for its tutorial videos on how to get high from licking frogs. BBC Newsdesk’s leader famously claimed that the organisation was “playing catch-up” with Vice following its comprehensive coverage of conflicts in Ukraine and Venezuela.
It would appear that Vice has grown far beyond its original intentions of acting as an independent, “alternative” media company. The content published by Vice is, in many cases, “real news” – far from the tongue-in-cheek interviews with heroin advocates and amateur rappers previously released by the company.
The company’s current affairs channel Vice News was launched in 2013. This has attracted the attention of none other than Rupert Murdoch, who controversially invested $70 million for a 5% stake in the company in 2013. To some, this represented Vice’s departure from alternative subcultures and independent reporting. To Smith, this simply represented the inevitable growth of the company which has flourished under his direction.
Whilst Vice has become a powerhouse under the leadership of Shane Smith, it could still be argued that the company is in its early stages. However, that hasn’t stopped the punk-turned-journalist from discussing the lofty ambitions of the media company. “There hasn’t been a media company like this to go public in 15 years…the markets would love it,” he told CNBC in 2016. “It’s the best time in history to be a content creator.”