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Alt-news mogul aims to rock prime-time with 'Vice'

With an approach likened to National Geographic meets Hunter S. Thompson, Shane Smith's media group project for HBO is creating a new journalism geared for the Gen-Y crowd.

April 03, 2013|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times
  • Shane Smith is co-founder and chief executive of Vice Media.
Shane Smith is co-founder and chief executive of Vice Media. (Michael Nagle / For The Times )

Big and beefy with a scraggly beard, Shane Smith looks more like an aging roadie than a thrill-seeking foreign correspondent or a budding media mogul.

But Smith is both those things. Vice Media Group, the company Smith co-founded and is chief executive of, has gone from a single magazine aimed at tattooed teeny-boppers to a media empire with more than 30 offices around the globe, a large digital presence, a record label, an advertising agency and a book publisher. The closely held Vice is projected to hit nearly $200 million in revenue this year and has a valuation approaching $1 billion, according to people close to the company.

Along the way, the 43-year-old Smith has picked up a who's who of backers and advisors including former MTV chief Tom Freston and Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel, co-chief executive of the powerful WME Entertainment LLC. Smith also has the attention of Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley because he's managed to create content in print and online that young men — the hardest demographic for advertisers to reach — gobble up.

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

Now Smith's trying to prove that Generation Y will watch news, or at least his version of it. On Friday, HBO will premiere "Vice," a half-hour weekly news magazine that promises viewers in its opening credits that it will be there "uncovering the news, culture and politics that expose the absurdity of the modern condition."

The world got a taste of that absurdity last month when a story "Vice" was shooting in North Korea inadvertently led to a bizarre meeting between former NBA star and tabloid fixture Dennis Rodman and North Korea's secretive leader, Kim Jong Un, that garnered national headlines.

"We're not saying Dennis Rodman is Morley Safer. He's an absurd character and North Korea's an absurd place," Smith said over one of his trademark boozy lunches. But, he was quick to add, "I have a one-of-a-kind documentary with one-of-a-kind access to one of the hardest countries in the world to film."

Smith, a punk-rock fanatic who relishes being something of a bad boy and drops expletives into most every sentence, is sensitive to criticism that sending Rodman to Korea was stunt journalism.

"If I can generate a stunt which involves meeting the hardest man in the world to meet to promote my TV show, then every company should hire Vice to do their marketing for them," he said.

Vice first rose above lad-magazine status with "Heavy Metal in Baghdad," the critically acclaimed 2007 documentary about an Iraqi metal band trying to make it in a war zone. Since then its online news and travel efforts have gotten praise for their raw and often irreverent approach to journalism. Its blend of the tragic ("Ground Zero: Syria — Assad's Child Victims") and the absurd ("The Biggest Ass in Brazil") make Vice seem like both "60 Minutes" for hipsters and TMZ with a travel budget.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

"If National Geographic and the late, great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson were able to mate and have a baby, the newborn would be Vice," said Eason Jordan, a former CNN executive who now heads the video news service NowThis News. "It's not old-school journalism and it doesn't pretend to be."

Often serving as host of Vice's stories, Smith's style is to talk to the camera as if he's chatting with a friend rather than an audience. Setting the stage for an interview with a former Taliban member for a piece on child suicide bombers in Afghanistan, he leans into the camera and cracks, "We're going to go talk to him and hopefully he won't kidnap us."

Smith also isn't afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve or express an opinion. He tears up during a particularly tense moment in the suicide-bomber segment.

"If you don't get verklempt, you're not a human being," he said. "We're not trying to be these autobots."

HBO is banking on that authenticity and intentional lack of polish to be a good fit with "Real Time With Bill Maher," the no-holds-barred political talk show that will precede "Vice" on Friday nights.

"It's an audience that has inherent wariness and cynicism about what they are reading and hearing. They want someone speaking their truth," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO Programming. "There is a style of delivering news that has to evolve for a generation that doesn't want their information feeling quite so packaged and cares less about the gloss and more about the unvarnished story-telling."

For Smith, getting to do a show for HBO is a chance to show Vice can play in the big leagues.

PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times

"I want to be able to say I make some of the best content in the world for the hardest guys to make content for," Smith said. "It has forced us to think about things in a different way and kick it up a notch."

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