Former digital-media darling Vice to end website, lay off hundreds

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Vice, the swashbuckling media upstart once valued at more than $5 billion for its vaunted appeal to young audiences, is effectively shuttering its independent news operations.

Bruce Dixon, chief executive of Vice Media Group, told employees Thursday that “several hundred” positions will be eliminated, and the company will no longer publish at its flagship website, Vice.com, although he left open the possibility of Vice providing content through other media organizations.

“It is no longer cost-effective for us to distribute our digital content the way we have done previously,” he wrote in a memo. “Moving forward, we will look to partner with established media companies to distribute our digital content, including news, on their global platforms, as we fully transition to a studio model.”

The downfall of Vice represents one of the biggest media busts in recent memory, as the company went from darling of the digital media era to bankruptcy. Last year, Vice Media Group filed for bankruptcy and was sold for $350 million to its former lenders, led by giant investment firm Fortress Investment Group.

Journalists who had done work for Vice spent the day furiously trying to save their work after hearing rumors that the site could imminently shut down. As of Thursday evening, the site was still accessible, and employees were told they would learn more about their fate early next week.

“We are out of the daily news business,” said a person familiar with Fortress’s thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss personnel matters but offering no specifics on how many people would remain. “This company was built in such a way that no longer works as part of the media landscape.”

Vice Media Group also includes other brands, such as Refinery29, a digital site aimed at young women, which will continue to operate, although executives “are in advanced discussions to sell this business, and we are continuing with that process,” with more news expected in the coming weeks, Dixon wrote in the memo.

Vice was pitched to the public as the future of media, growing from a free punk magazine in Montreal in the 1990s to a media conglomerate with 3,000 employees, offices around the world, an HBO show, a film production studio and more.

Its brash co-founder Shane Smith was a master salesman for Vice, helping to convince investors — and the press — that Vice was the future of digital media, and that its gonzo approach to the news would increasingly make the old guard of journalist irrelevant. Smith predicted Vice would eclipse CNN, ESPN and MTV.

Investors such as 21st Century Fox, James Murdoch and Disney poured hundreds of millions into Vice. In 2014, Vice raised $500 million. By 2017, another round of investing put its valuation at $5.7 billion — one of the most highly valued media companies ever.

Vice stood at the vanguard of a new wave of digital media, as it overtly targeted millennials with its content and also produced award-winning journalism. Its news division won several Peabody awards, including for pieces about the Islamic State, white supremacists at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and the plight of women and girls under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In 2020, Vice shared a Pulitzer for audio reporting — along with the Los Angeles Times and “This American Life” — for a story about a kidnapped migrant.

And just this week, Vice News journalists won the television reporting George Polk Award for a report on Russian mercenaries.

Vice also became embroiled in controversy, after a 2018 New York Times investigation exposed a toxic workplace environment and claims of sexual harassment. An executive was ousted, and Smith and another co-founder acknowledged that there was a “boys club” culture at the company and that they failed to “create a safe and inclusive workplace where everyone, especially women, can feel respected and thrive.” Smith left his post at the top of the company in 2018.

Vice went through cycles of layoffs and restructuring. The significant hopes embedded in the sky-high investments from the past never materialized. The company canceled its flagship news program “Vice News Tonight” last year shortly before it filed for bankruptcy protection.

After it exited bankruptcy, Vice sold off some of its brands, such as fashion-and-culture magazine i-D. It also instituted a round of layoffs that further hollowed out its news division, even as executives promised a continued commitment to producing news (the company reportedly was down to about 1,000 employees, from its onetime high of 3,000). In December, Vice saw more turnover in its executive ranks, and one of Hulu’s founding executives, Mike Lang, stepped in as interim executive chairman. (He was an adviser to Fortress.)

Vice joins the ranks of other boom-and-bust digital news outfits. BuzzFeed News shut down last year after a 12-year-run.

Last month, the Messenger shut down entirely after less than a year. That company, headed by Jimmy Finkelstein, also shut down its website without notice after blowing through a $50 million budget and a promise to hire 550 journalists within a year of its founding.

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