Labour, Published Articles

Can unions help Vice stay virtuous?

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 

At least ostensibly, Vice has been an unmitigated success story. What began as the independent Voice of Montreal magazine has expanded into a multinational media empire with documentaries, extensive web content, an award-winning HBO series and now a 24-hour news network, Viceland. More recently (and controversially), the PMO gave Vice News exclusive access to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, shutting out the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Heritage Minister Melanie Joly praised Vice on CBC’s q, telling host Shad that the struggling public broadcaster could learn from Vice’s “risk taking” approach. Many viewers first became familiar with Vice through documentaries such as “Cannibal Warlords of Liberia” and “Ghosts of Aleppo,” where the network sent reporters into conflict zones to cover stories and assume risks that traditional broadcasters weren’t taking.

Perhaps nowhere is the vitality of Vice’s journalism more on display, in Canada at least, than the ongoing standoff between Vice News reporter Ben Makuch and the RCMP, who are demanding he hand over the transcripts of his interview with a suspected ISIS militant. Makuch has stood his ground, risking jail time, based on basic journalistic ethics, and to their credit Vice News has stood behind him fully. Forcing a journalist to reveal their sources to law enforcement, they reason, sets a frightening precedent.

At the same time, Vice is a lot like its competition—backed by large corporate donors and advertising. Viceland was set up with a $100-million investment from Rogers Media in Canada, and in the United States Vice is partially owned by the likes of Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Does this vast corporate sponsorship impact content? At a panel on the future of investigative television at Ryerson University in Toronto, Vice Canada’s head of content, Patrick McGuire, flatly denied it does.

“We’ve never done a deal that would give Rogers a final cut,” he said. “They don’t even own the content…. They don’t have anything to do with our editorial department. I’ve truthfully never had a story that’s been shut down or blocked.” McGuire did, however, concede that corporate sponsorship is a “tricky dance.”

Charles Davis, a former Vice freelancer who currently lives in Quito, Ecuador and writes for teleSUR, The Intercept, Al-Jazeera and other outlets, says the notion that Vice’s content is largely unaffected by corporate sponsorship is false.

“A broad range of prose style was allowable,” he says in praise of Vice’s editorial style. “I could write something serious then not so serious. And you can say things that you couldn’t necessarily say at other outlets, like ‘U.S. cops are killing people’ and ‘Israel is doing bad things.’”

On a large number of topics, then, Vice contributors appear to have more liberty in their reportage than they would at CNN, for instance. Davis claims he hit the limits of the Vice model while pursuing a story on the use of unpaid labour at the 2014 South By Southwest media conference in Austin, Texas.

“I was in Austin visiting some friends and I noticed in the newspaper that they were advertising for ‘volunteer professional photographers,’” he says. “That caught my interest because one of the first pieces I wrote for Vice that became a big hit was about unpaid labour in the so-called liberal media.”

Davis says that an earlier article on the exploitation of volunteer workers made him a sort of go-to-guy for unpaid labour issues, and the story about South by Southwest seemed an ideal fit. “It’s a for-profit conference that makes a lot of money, but it’s run on the ground by volunteers, people who they sucker in by saying ‘don’t you want to be a part of this artsy, cultural experience?’” he says. “They kind of play on the idea that if you want money for this, you’re being uncool.”

But the story hit a snag at the fact-checking stage, says Davis. “He (my editor) told me that the marketing department was not cool with this,” he recalls. “Vice was putting on a sideshow at South by Southwest where they were partnering with AT&T and Kendrick Lamar was there. The same unpaid workers I was complaining about were working at the Vice event.”

Davis says Vice’s marketing department put the kibosh on the story out of fear of alienating advertisers. “That was my first experience where it wasn’t an editorial decision,” he says, “but a decision imposed on the editor-in-chief by advertisers.” For the record, Vice’s New York office told Capital the story was killed for “editorial reasons that had nothing to do with AT&T.” But Davis says he experienced similar censorship three more times before being shown the door.

Another criticism of Vice is its advertorial style, whereby certain content is sponsored by advertisers but appears on the surface to be regular editorial content. Company logos were blurred on T-shirts worn in a documentary about the KKK, and in 2014 Vice made a promotional video for the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that featured an interview with an unsuspecting New York Times journalist, David Sanger, who was not told he would be appearing in an ad. While there is meant to be a fairly clear demarcation “between the marketing and advertising department and editorial,” Davis says, “at Vice, part of our 21st century hit media, that line isn’t just blurred but nonexistent.”

Vice is by no means unique in this regard. With the drying up of advertising revenues, many publications and networks are looking at less conventional ways to attract advertisers, including sponsored content. Politico, for instance, has come under criticism for its use of advertorial content in its daily “Playbook” newsletter, while Britain’s prestigious Guardian newspaper regularly runs “supported” content funded by private entities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds the Guardian’s global development section, for example.

This blurring of the line between advertising and news is one reason why the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) is in the process of trying to establish a union for Canadian Vice employees.

“We aren’t writing ads, we’re reporting on current events and people expect a certain non-biased viewpoint,” says Carmel Smyth, president of the CMG. “Sometimes things seem to cross that line and having a union gives workers a collective voice to negotiate with a company and to have some kind of journalistic standards in place…where it’s clear what’s journalism and what’s advertising.”

Smyth says the CMG’s unionization efforts are part of a broader trend in the global digital media atmosphere.

“We’re seeing that these online communications organizations are profitable,” she says. “Initially, when it wasn’t clear that these companies were going to be around for a long time, people were working for lower wages and happy to do that. Now that that isn’t the case, they want to have discussions about fairness— about living an earning wage, about overtime, about control or input into questions regarding journalistic integrity.”

That’s precisely what the Writers’ Guild of America–East (WGAE) accomplished with its successful drive to unionize U.S. Vice employees shortly after its unionization of Gawker. In addition to achieving a 29% raise for the 80 Vice employees they represent, WGAE has addressed many workers’ misgivings with advertorial content.

“We’ve inspired the company to issue an editorial policy statement that creates a wall between the business side and the editorial side,” says WGAE President Lowell Peterson. Thanks to the WGAE’s intervention employees cannot be compelled to work on advertorial (or “branded” in the contract’s wording) content if they don’t desire to.

“These were specific gains that people on the bargaining committee felt were important,” Peterson says. “Maybe partly because of its reputation, but also because people feel that for the long-term health of Vice, it’s important to reassure readers that this content is meaningful. Every digital outlet draws the line differently, but our sense is that Vice is drawing the line more carefully now.

“There are certainly a lot of digital companies that are less transparent about the monetization side than Vice,” says Peterson, adding there was no significant pushback from Vice management on unionization or the guild’s demands. The WGAE doesn’t represent workers on Viceland or the HBO documentary series, so policies could be quite different on that side.

Davis emphasizes that not all Vice content is affected by its advertorial model. “Vice News is insulated from some of the stuff I had to deal with,” he says. “That partly has to do with the fact that it’s a prestige project. It’s real journalism and so they don’t want to have the meddling there that may compromise that perception. It also doesn’t get as much traffic as, which is their big advertising platform.”

Vice continues to prove its place in the world of so-called serious journalism through its willingness to challenge powerful interests and stand up for journalistic integrity, as the Makuch affair demonstrates. On the other hand, its reputation is greatly diminished when stories are cancelled or altered to impress advertisers and promote branded content.

Requests for comment on this article from Vice’s director of communications, Jake Goldman, went unanswered. Goldman told the Washington Post in March that criticism of Vice’s alleged coziness with advertisers is based on “old or inaccurate (information with) absolutely no bearing on how we operate today.” He declined the Post’s request to elaborate.