Vice’s Avaricious Stewards Finally Succeeded At Bleeding It Dry

Vice was a good website. On Thursday it was killed by its private equity owners, in a characteristically cruel and sudden maneuver: Staff reportedly received an “anonymous tip” that Fortress Investment Group, which bought Vice Media out of bankruptcy in June, had decided to shutter the operation; soon management began working quietly on the backend to restrict the access of its confused and panicked workforce. Then, at approximately closing time Thursday, CEO Bruce Dixon distributed a memo confirming everyone’s worst fears. Vice, a good and often essential digital publication in operation since all the way back in 1996, will be nuked, and hundreds of staffers will be laid off. The band of worthless but extravagantly overcompensated executives who seized the Vice ship from its previous regime of worthless but extravagantly overcompensated executives have decided that the business’s new direction will be in content licensing and re-emphasized social media channels, and that’s that.

Dixon says that operating a website is no longer “cost-effective” for Vice in “the ever-evolving business landscape,” and that the coming bloodbath represents “the best path forward for Vice as we position the company for long-term creative and financial success.” This would raise interesting questions about who is “we” and for whom “the company” is being saved if the saving involves firing all of the people who make the product, except that those questions have already been answered one million times over in ruthless private equity–led tear-downs at other publications and across other industries. It’s not clear who Dixon and Vice Media’s board expect to make whatever content it is they plan to license to the “global platforms” of “established media companies” in Vice’s new pivot, nor is it clear that these clowns have noticed at any point over the past decade of ongoing and accelerating destruction across the industry that Vice was one of the only established digital media companies left working in the English language. It’s this sort of outside-the-box strategic thinking that describes, I suppose, why these people make the big bucks.

And it has always been the style at Vice that its executives make extremely big bucks, even as they failed to execute any coherent strategy for running a media business. Vice founder Shane Smith enjoyed an infamously lavish lifestyle, back in the surreal and deeply insane times when his rollicking media company was being valued in the billions of dollars. This executive-level expectation that Vice could be raided for riches like a blasted-open bank vault was handed down to Smith’s successors, even as Facebook and Google undermined and then annihilated the ad-supported digital media business and the company’s valuations began trending sharply in the wrong direction. Former Vice senior staff writer Katie Way, now at Hell Gate, described in July the exorbitant pay of the executive team responsible for steering Vice Media into urgent financial disaster and thus into the hands of private equity: Vice chief communications officer Jonathan Bing took home $640,000 in salary and bonuses in the 12 months prior to Vice’s bankruptcy filing; chief operating officer Cory Haik took home $726,000; executive vice president Subrata De was paid $779,000; chief marketing officer Nadja Bellan-White hauled in $835,000.

Vice Media leadership was still self-dealing hefty bonuses in the days immediately preceding its bankruptcy; De, who was given a whopping $200,000 bonus in April one day after The Wall Street Journal reported that 100 or so workers in her department were being laid off, defended her compensation in a July call with angry workers as commensurate with her experience. Vice Media Group’s leadership masthead lists 12 of these bozos; that’s millions of dollars off the top, much more in salary and bonuses and benefits to C-suite freaks with ill-defined job responsibilities and made-up titles than Defector makes in revenue in an entire year.

The absolute best that can be said of any of Vice’s grotesquely enriched stewards over the years is that some of them believed in the value of the work; unfortunately that belief too often took the form of cocaine fantasies of conquering all of media, and inspired its leaders to recklessly burn through actual billions of dollars of investment capital. This was no less destabilizing for Vice’s workers, who might otherwise have been able to guide their excellent publications through the industry’s tumults if they hadn’t been subject to the whims of captains who make Ahab look like Andy Griffith. Meanwhile, the solutions for sustainable digital media are out there, even amid all the carnage and panic of the collapse of the advertising economy. 404 Media, the excellent worker-owned tech publication birthed from the ashes of Motherboard, once a jewel in Vice Media’s portfolio, needed less than a year of operation to achieve profitability, and thus stability*. It is entirely possible for journalists to earn enough from the sale of their work to make a living and to continue in their vocation; it just may no longer be possible for the sale of that work to also fund the extravagant ambitions of swirly-eyed, would-be moguls and grifting MBA-havers and entire constellations of make-work consultants. But those are the people in charge, and they are simply never going to fire themselves.

Admirers of Vice’s journalism—Vice News and Motherboard, both of which were largely kerploded during Vice’s bankruptcy, had made themselves essential with years of excellent reporting—have long daydreamed about a future where its owners and executives stopped trying to turn it into a leprechaun’s pot of gold and just allowed it to be a good website. The Vice Media story is almost the opposite of the story of The Messenger, that other recently shuttered digital publication that wasted the work of hundreds of talented journalists. Where Jimmy Finkelstein was a dopey old washed-up idiot whose visions of scale and dizzyingly obsolete concept of digital publishing effectively ruled out any possibility of The Messenger ever becoming a good publication, the various creeps atop Vice over the past decade already had a good product. Instead of protecting it as responsible stewards, they treated it more or less the way Paul Cicero treated the Bamboo Lounge in Goodfellas, fattening themselves at its expense until there was nothing left to rob, and then burning it to the ground.

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