The Vice paradox: How do you attract mass audiences while pretending you're cooler than everyone else?

I first heard of Vice magazine while working at Borders. An achingly hip young man came into the store — it was the late nineties and my memory is foggy, but he was probably dressed like a rave had collided with a grunge music festival — and asked me if we carried Vice. I said I didn't know what Vice was. He explained that it was a cool free magazine distributed around major American cities, and that new issues disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Without really thinking, I asked why, if it was such a cool magazine, he went looking for it in a corporate chain bookstore. The bluntness of the question didn't really strike me until it had already left my mouth, and we stared at each other awkwardly for a second before he left the store.

For the last decade, Vice has been trying to become an international media brand, to varying levels of success. Their website certainly gets a lot of clicks — though, honestly, all sorts of garbage news sites get a lot of clicks simply because they're on good terms with Facebook. But we're now seeing that Vice's new TV channel, which was supposed to bring "millennials back to TV," is failing miserably.

...Viceland is only drawing an average primetime audience of 45,000 in the 18-49 demographic, according to Nielsen data obtained by the Wall Street Journal. Worse, the median viewer age is 40, meaning that fully half of its total audience is far outside the “millennial” audience, widely considered to be 18-34.

Vice's quest for mass-media success confuses the hell out of me. The whole point of Vice has always been exclusivity: from the beginning, it's been targeted to a mostly male, mostly white audience of terrible people who live in cool neighborhoods. (Please note that Vice has often published the work of very good writers and very good cartoonists; I'm not saying everything in Vice has always been awful and I'm not saying that everyone who's read Vice is a terrible person. I'm referring, here, to the institutional strategy behind Vice.)

It is not a publication that has ever been intended for everyone. It's a publication for people — again, mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent — who desperately care about how cool they are. Thankfully, that's always going to be a slender slice of the population. For Vice to gain traction with a wider slice of the market, a Disney-sized portion of the market, say, it's going to have to radically change its model, and once it changes its model, it won't be Vice anymore. It'll be CNN for Assholes.

And frankly, there's already a CNN for Assholes and one of Vice's founding members already works there. Does the world really need a Fox News: Coachella Edition? The fact is, Vice's brand of "edgy" hipster racism and "just-playing" sexism is outdated, and its anti-mass-market edge is a corporate pose. It's aging. It's not millennial, it belongs to those asshole white dudes who were in their twenties when Vice was ascendent. It's middle-aged now, and the company is flexing its sagging muscles just as hard as a 50-year-old middle manager who buys a shiny new sports car.

Finally, it's biologically impossible for me to write about Vice without posting this video of sainted New York Times reporter David Carr tearing Vice's current CEO, Shane Smith, to shreds in the middle of an interview: