Vice surrenders

Literally the stupidest publishing strategy I’ve ever heard of (ever).

Cory Doctorow
6 min readFeb 24, 2024

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Piles of magazines in boxes. The top two magazines’ covers have been replaced with faked up Vice covers. On one, a man’s shoe is about to be punctured by a nail sticking up out of a board left on the ground. On the other, a rotary saw blade has amputated several fingers from someone’s hand.

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A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

Vice died the way it lived: being suckered in by smarter predators, even as it trained its own predatory instincts on those more credulous than its own supremely gullible leadership. RIP, we hardly knew ye.

For those of you who don’t know, Vice was a Canadian media success story. It was founded by a motley clique of hipsters, one of whom — founder of the Proud Boys — has since grown to be one of the world’s great fascism influencers. Another perfected the art of getting young people to work “for exposure” even as he built a massive, highly lucrative media empire on their free labor:

https://www.canadaland.com/podcast/vice-oral-history/

Eventually, Vice transitioned to a string of progressively worsening corporate owners, each more dishonest, predatory — and gullible — than the last. The company was one of the most enthusiastic marks for Facebook’s infamous “pivot to video” — in which Mark Zuckerberg destroyed half the media industry by tricking them into thinking that the public was clamoring for video content, based on fraudulent viewing numbers:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pivot_to_video

Vice went all-in on video, spending hundreds of millions to finance Zuckerberg’s doomed attempt to conquer Youtube. But unlike other the rubes who got zucked, Vice found greater fools to scam, convincing giant, slow-moving meidia companies that the best way to get in on the Next Big Thing was to shower them with vast sums of string-free money:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viceland_(Canadian_TV_channel)

And yet, at every turn, through a succession of increasingly incompetent owners who bought the stumbling, declining Vice at fire-sale prices and then proceeded to hack away at the wages and tools its journalists depended on while paying executives salaries so high that they beggared the imagination, Vice’s reporters continued to turn out stellar material.

This went on literally until the last moment. The memorial posted by 404 Media rounds up a selection of major stories Vice’s beleaguered, precarious writers produced even as Vice’s vulture capitalist leadership were pulling the rug out from under them:

https://www.404media.co/behind-the-blog-vices-legacy-and-the-idea-that-the-internet-is-forever/

True to form, those private equity scumbags locked all those workers out of the company’s CMS without notice — and then forgot to lock down the podcasting back-end. That allowed a group of Vice veterans — Matthew Gault, Emily Lipstein, Anna Merlan, Tim Marchman and Mack Lamoureux — to gather for a totally unauthorized, tell-all session that they pushed out on an official Vice channel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKT4OtDEJRA

It’s a hell of a listen. Not only do these Vice veterans have lots of fascinating history to recount, but they also describe the conditions under which those blockbuster stories of Vice’s final days were produced. As the “visionary leaders” of the company paid themselves millions, they halted payments to key suppliers, from Lexisnexis to the interview transcription service the writers depended on. Writers paid out of pocket to search PACER court records.

Not only did Vice’s reporters do incredible work under terrible and worsening circumstances, but the Vice writers who got out ahead of the total collapse are also doing incredible work. 404 Media is a writer-owned investigative news publisher founded by four Vice escapees — Samantha Cole, Jason Koebler, Emanuel Maiberg and Joseph Cox, which is both producing incredible work and sustaining the writers who founded it:

https://www.404media.co/

All of which leads to an inescapable conclusion: whatever problems Vice had, they didn’t include “writers don’t do productive work” and also didn’t include “that work isn’t economically viable*. Whatever problems Vice had, they weren’t problems with Vice’s workers — it was a problem with Vice’s bosses.

Which makes Vice’s final, ignominious punishment at the hands of those bosses even more brutal, stupid and inexcusable. According to the leaked memos emanating from the company’s investors and their millionaire C-suite toadies, the business’s new strategy is abandoning their website in order to publish on social media.

This is…I mean, this,..

This is…

Wow.

I mean, wow.

The thing is, the social media business model is a giant rug-pull. They’re not even bothering to hide their playbook anymore. For social media, the game is to encourage media companies to become reliant on third parties to reach their audiences. Once that reliance is established, the companies turn down — or even halt — the ability of those media companies to reach their audience altogether. Then, they charge the media companies to reach their audiences:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2023/06/save-news-we-need-end-end-web

Now, this wasn’t always quite so obvious. Back when Vice was falling for Facebook’s “pivot to video,” it wasn’t completely obvious that the long con was to take your audience hostage and ransom them back to you. But deliberately organizing your business to be reliant on social media barons today? It’s like trusting your money to Sam Bankman-Fried…in 2024.

If there was ever a moment when the obvious, catastrophic, imminent risk of trusting Big Tech intermediaries to sit between you and your customers or audience, it was now. This is not the moment to be “social first.” This is the moment for POSSE (Post Own Site, Share Everywhere), a strategy that sees social media as a strategy for bringing readers to channels that you control:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/02/19/now-we-are-two/#two-much-posse

Predicting that a social media platform will rug the media companies that depend on it today doesn’t take a Sun Tzu — as cunning strategies go, the hamfisted tactics of FB, Twitter and Tiktok make gambits like “Lucy and the football” look like von Clausewitz.

The most bonkers part of this strategy is that it’s coming from private equity bosses, who laud themselves as the great strategists of the 21st century, whose claim on so much of our global capital and resources is derived from their brilliant insight, which allows them to buy “distressed assets” like Vice, “restructure” them to find “efficiencies” and sell them on.

The reality is that PE goons — like other financiers — are basically herding animals. Everyone’s hit on the tactic of buying up beloved media companies — from the 150-year-old Popular Science to modern publications like CNet — and then filling them with spammy garbage in the hopes that Google will fail to notice and continue to award them pride-of-place on search results pages:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/21/im-feeling-unlucky/#not-up-to-the-task

The fact that these billionaire brain-geniuses can’t figure out how to “turn around” a site whose workers a) produce brilliant, popular, successful work; and b) depart to found successful firms that commercialize that work tells you everything about their ability to spot “a good business opportunity.”

PE — like other mafiosi — only have one business-plan, the “bust out,” where you invade a business that produces useful things, force them to pay your chosen suppliers sky-high fees for things they don’t need, extract massive fees for your “management” and then walk away from the collapse:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/06/02/plunderers/#farben

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/24/anti-posse/#when-you-absolutely-positively-dont-give-a-solitary-single-fuck

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