Roussinos reports for duty in 2018


December 27, 2023   7 mins

A decade ago, as a young war reporter for Vice News, I had the nagging feeling that one day I’d find my wizened older self, like an old NME journalist droning on about punk, reminiscing about the time when we brash millennial upstarts had the world of TV newsgathering at our feet. But I never expected it to be so soon.

The young get old and revolutions end up eating their own: and the death of the flagship Vice News Tonight show and drastic downsizing of the Vice News platform, just days after the closing of Buzzfeed News, heralds the closing of the era when the New York new media giants bestrode the news world like strutting conquerors. With the heavily indebted Vice empire reportedly circling on the edge of bankruptcy, and struggling to find a buyer, the media landscape of the 2010s already looks like history. As Ben Judah observed: “The early 2010s were a moment where Buzzfeed News and Vice News gave you the impression you didn’t have to do journalism like The New York Times or the BBC. Them shuttering is telling us, actually, there’s only the way they do it at The New York Times and the BBC.”

Back then, the world looked very different. When the Vice News channel launched on YouTube in 2014, its parent company’s reputation for achingly arch and semi-ironically offensive content aimed at jaded hipsters caused legacy broadcasters to scoff at the idea of their cocky, inexperienced journalists challenging them on their own turf. Within months, their laughter stopped: networks such as the BBC and CNN were now terrified that Vice held the key to the future of news. Vice News went where no one else would go, gaining access to the most difficult stories, and throwing itself into the thickest action with studied indifference. Young people, who had always been disregarded as news consumers, were enraptured by the hard-edged, thrilling content from the worst places on Earth; elderly execs and money men threw sponsorship at the company in an attempt to capture some of the magic for their own ailing brands. The future of news was young and online, and there was no going back.

Historians of the craft of newsgathering will record that Vice News changed the visual grammar of the medium. By marrying a cinematic visual style with the tempo and immediacy of breaking stories, and pioneering the use of handheld DSLR cameras, Vice News re-aestheticised TV news. And by having its young reporters talk casually to the audience, like friends, in the middle of the world’s worst chaos, the old world of buttoned-up correspondents stiffly lecturing the camera suddenly looked like a relic from the age of black and white. But while the big networks quickly learned to copy Vice’s style to the point it has become the norm, the fundamental challenge of all news broadcasting — how to make the most difficult and expensive content on Earth pay for itself — had still not been solved. In the end, it was all a mirage.

As is the nature of the trade, it was always a source of pride, and of glittering awards, to obtain better combat footage than anyone else: always getting closer to the action, dancing at the edge of death like a gladiator in the amphitheatre for the audience’s thrill and delectation. The highest word of praise from an exec was “gnarly”. But what neither fans nor critics of what they saw as our recklessness understood was that the “bang-bang” was merely a vehicle with which to smuggle in serious analytical reportage of poorly-understood conflicts and revolutions. Vice’s central insight was that if you framed the story right, and shot it well enough, you could persuade teens and early twentysomethings to watch in-depth explorations of Syrian rebel justice systems, or the intricacies of South Sudan’s civil war. Middle-aged execs from traditional networks had always claimed young people didn’t care about granular detail, or distant wars in Africa: but this (apart from stories about drugs) was always by far the most popular content, judging from YouTube views and comments. The audience never demands dumbing-down: viewers want nuance, shades of grey, and moral ambiguity. They want to see the world as it is, not as it ought to be.

While the rewards in the early days were mismatched to the risk, the degree of experience offered to young journalists was unrivalled, a huge draw to those with an adventurous streak. Journalists at the beginning of their careers were given access to stories the networks reserved for their hardened veterans, and repaid that trust with a fervid dedication to their craft. I was a green 31-year-old reporter when I started, with only the Libyan war, Tunisian revolution and a strange months-long sojourn with tribal rebels in Sudan under my belt. Vice gave me the freedom to follow the Malian army into bloody battle against jihadist rebels, experience the Egyptian coup from the Islamist side, return to Syria over and over again during the course of the war and follow the Isis story from their initially underplayed rise to their final desert gotterdammerung.

And like Isis, Vice was a 2010s phenomenon that wrongly thought it could take on the giants and win. Perhaps that strange kinship between the decade’s two great disruptors is why Vice News was the only Western network Isis let embed with them in Syria and Iraq. This isn’t as wild as it sounds — Isis watched us and we watched them. As the Syria reporter for years, focusing on Isis, I watched the terrorist group copy Vice’s style in their videos as Very Online Western millennials took over their output, syncing cinematic DSLR footage with hypnotic music and thrilling action sequences.

Young Western Isis fighters and social media influencers were constantly messaging me on Twitter, critiquing my films, and either asking me to join them or threatening to kidnap and behead me next time I deployed. I have the unusual distinction, as a legacy of my time at Vice News, of having featured in three Isis videos, twice using extracts from my films, and once combat footage of them shooting (unbeknown to them at the time) at my Landcruiser. Isis won the video battle: they had the resources of a state behind them, a demonic desire to shock and horrify, and could orchestrate combat for the cameras. But ultimately neither could maintain their exponential growth beyond the 2010s: both had dramatically overestimated their chance of taking over the world.

Careering skyward after their Isis scoop, Vice upped the sponsorship stakes with a deal to make HBO a prestigious nightly news series: and when the new network execs came in to run the show, Vice purged the young and idealistic journalists who had risked their lives to win the hipster bible journalistic credibility. Friends and colleagues who had risked their lives to produce groundbreaking coverage from Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic were let go with a lack of sentiment unusual even by the standards of America’s media industry. Vice News gave Vice the credibility to raise money from investors to furiously expand the rest of its brand, but the newsgathering itself was too expensive to sustain. For a while, Vice was making money, but little went to the journalists who originally built the brand.

Even still, the common online narrative that the glossier “new Vice” was a paltry shadow of “old Vice” is hard to maintain. Under the new regime, journalists were paid well, and professional security advisors were brought in to ensure the company never paid the toll in deaths that other networks gossiped were just about to happen. In any case, Vice News’s most sustained string of awards came under the new management, and some of the work from Syria that I am most proud of came under the nightly HBO banner, along with my only Emmy. Even up to the very end, long after the now-greying old hands like me had moved out to pasture, Vice News’s coverage of conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen and Ukraine outclassed the world’s biggest networks, raking in awards: Vice News Tonight closes with more Emmy nominations than any of its big name rivals for five years running.

Perhaps what really destroyed Vice News’s hope of making TV news into a profitable industry was the rise of Trump. The political polarisation of American life after 2016 saw viewers drift away from whatever interest they showed in confusing wars in far-off places for an obsession with their own internal conflict. The legacy cable networks such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox revived their ailing fortunes through a constant focus on the Trump reality show, and the rest of the world retreated back into obscurity — unless it could be viewed through Trump’s prism. As the online world polarised, Vice’s original YouTube fanbase, which skewed young male and often hard-Right, vocally resented the radically progressive orientation of much of the company’s new output.

At the same time every publication from The New York Times to Teen Vogue began speaking in the same voice, Vice no longer sounded distinct. The punk magazine-turned-megabrand had gone corporate, and now sounded like any other American corporation, only more so. Vice, which had won acclaim for dispassionately showing viewers how the world really is, now looked excessively concerned with its own virtue. As American society polarised, Vice could never fully capture the newly divided, inward-looking zeitgeist — stunts like reading the entire Mueller Report live on air for four hours didn’t possess quite the same old magic. HBO switched its patronage to newer, DC insider platforms such as Axios, showing the world as viewed from the top down, not the bottom up, and Vice News moved to new and less lucrative deals on smaller cable networks. While the quality of foreign coverage remained high, and awards kept piling up, the ambition dwindled. Vice had set out to conquer the legacy broadcasters, but found itself reliant on their largesse to keep the show on the road.

For a few short years, Vice News looked like it had found the secret to making news pay by showing viewers the world as it really is, far from Western capitals, rubbing viewers’ noses in the darkness of reality. But news is expensive and talk is cheap: we have reverted to an era of talking heads and studio debates, where perhaps only state broadcasters have the funding and desire to present their chosen images of reality to the outside world, with all that implies. Bored young men who want to see brutal images of combat can now get their kicks watching Ukraine snuff clips on Twitter. For good or ill — I still can’t decide — working for Vice News over seven years forcefully reshaped my worldview, by confronting my original impeccably liberal assumptions about how the world worked with constant immersion in the hard reality of tribal, religious and ethnic conflict. Young and idealistic, I thought I could change the world: instead the world changed me.

But as my old colleague, Vice News’ former Latin America bureau chief and chronicler of Mexico’s bloody internal conflict Daniel Hernandez wrote in an elegy on Twitter: “It was truly about going to countries that ‘didn’t matter’, diving into gnarly security situations — it’s a miracle no one — for conflict reporting in Syria, Ukraine, Mexico, Venezuela … Just a wild, idealistic time. Honored to have been there at its birth.” Vice News was the future, once. If even they can’t make hard foreign news pay, then perhaps it has no future.

 

This piece was first published in May, 2023.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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