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article imageHow VICE became a media empire Special

By Michael Thomas     Feb 28, 2014 in Business
Toronto - Few media companies have managed to do what VICE has done — what began as a roughly $15,000 investment has turned into a company worth over $1 billion. The secret to their success, though it may sound clichéd, is simple — being innovative.
At the latest talk hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, Anna Maria Tremonti, host of CBC's The Current, led a conversation with Suroosh Alvi, one of the co-founders of VICE, on how the company came to be, what VICE does differently than traditional newspapers and news programs, and how it plans to extend its reach even further than it already has.
VICE began in Montreal in 1994, with Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes at the helm. Initially, Alvi wanted to work in magazines, and got his first gig translating a French magazine into English, before deciding to start his own. When discussing the idea with his friends, they said "What have you got to lose?" With $10,000 worth of help from parents, as well as a donation of computers, the magazine was born.
The magazine (and soon website) would quickly grow in stature with popular columns like "Dos and Don'ts" (which Alvi said was just him and his partners "being assholes" since they had no fashion experience) and their edgy, and often snarky, reporting style.
What Alvi and Tremonti referred to as the tipping point for VICE came in the form of a 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, which was filmed by Alvi and Eddy Moretti. Prior to the film's debut, VICE partnered with MTV to create Vbs.tv, a network Alvi pitched as "60 Minutes meets Jackass."
Heavy Metal in Baghdad turned out to be an enormous success after its premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, and served to highlight VICE to an entirely new audience.
Since then, VICE has expanded rapidly. Keeping track of the company in all its incarnations is a dizzying task, which will only become more dizzying when VICE launches its VICE News "vertical," or part of the website. Their rapid expansion can really be boiled down to embracing new forms of content before anyone else could.
One big example is that of online video, something VICE began working on years before the big network did. But then there's also the company's fearless reporting style. VICE has reported from war zones across the globe and its reporters frequently go much farther than many news networks, which Alvi says are often (but not always) based in or in front of hotels as opposed to on the ground.
Though he wasn't crazy about talking about it, Alvi spoke of Dennis Rodman's first trip to North Korea, which was sponsored by VICE. Alvi said that Rodman wasn't the company's first choice to arrive, and that it was unfortunate how quickly Rodman "went off the rails." Still, it was a way for VICE to get into the isolated country, and as a result they got a story on Kim Jong-Un's passion for the Chicago Bulls.
During the Q&A afterwards, one audience member wondered how VICE makes all its money, and apparently a lot of it comes from advertisers. Alvi said that there is no way the company can exist without corporations, but that VICE is always making sure that ads and branded content aren't overbearing.
One big branded content success story came in the form of the Creators Project, which was sponsored by Intel. According to Alvi, not only were readers on board, but Intel garnered a lot of positive press for doing something outside their comfort zone.
When asked what leads him and other VICE writers to their stories, Alvi simply called his stories "instinct-based." So perhaps the secret to becoming the next VICE is to simply be fearless and embrace your ideas, however unfashionable they may seem.
For more Digital Journal coverage of Canadian Journalism Foundation talks, click here.
More about Vice, suroosh alvi, Canadian journalism foundation, cjf, anna maria tremonti
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