From the front lines of the changing world of media: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to a client, VICE News, specifically editor Ryan McCarthy and general manager Dan Fletcher. They talk about VICE News and VICE more broadly, outline Dan and Ryan’s careers, and talk about the current media landscape and VICE’s position within it. They also discuss VICE News’s experiences with Postlight, who redesigned the site in 2016.
Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford, and I’m the co-founder of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. And I’m joined by my co-host and co-founder —
Rich Ziade: Rich Ziade.
Paul: Rich, here we are on Track Changes. You know, one of the things about Track Changes that’s soooooo special —
Paul: is that we’re authentic and we market in an authentic way connecting people to ideas and brands.
Rich: And we do that without selling ourselves short, selling anyone down the river.
Paul: No, so it’s exactly what we’re about.
Paul: We’re about connecting and community.
Paul: And so, one of the things I thought that would be really authentic today is if we brought in two of our most cherished clients, and had an open, frank, and transparent conversation about just how great it is to do digital work with Postlight. [laughter]
Rich: I think that sums it up beautifully. To clarify, it’s not two different clients, individual clients, it’s actually two individuals from one of our clients, one of our marquis brands that we’re working with right now, and really helping drive their digital initiatives.
Paul: So, I mean look, I’m being a little over-the-top. We built a really good relationship with these two men, and have had some good times.
Rich: Wait, Paul. It’s not with the men! [laughter] We’ve built a relationship with the client.
Paul: With the client.
Rich: These happen to be stakeholders at the client.
Paul: Two key stakeholders.
Rich: OK, right.
Paul: So, you know, right now in the studio —
Rich: The client is VICE Media.
Paul: And right now in the studio, we have Dan Fletcher.
Dan Fletcher: Hello.
Paul: Dan, what’s your title?
Dan: I’m General Manager of VICE News.
Paul: OK. And Ryan McCarthy.
Ryan McCarthy: Hello.
Paul: Ryan, what’s your title?
Ryan: Editor of VICE News.
Paul: And let’s talk about VICE News. What the hell is VICE News?
Ryan: What the hell is VICE News? That’s a good question. So, VICE News is a media organization that covers news. It’s a pretty, you know, self-explanatory title. I think one easy way to think about it is a digital website that you guys helped us build, VICE News.
Paul: Mmmm hmmmm.
Dan: As opposed to the analog websites?
Ryan: Exactly. [laughter]
Paul: Oh, those are so slow, whereas this one is fast.
Dan: Only Postlight does the digital websites.
Ryan: That’s true. VICE News Tonight, which is our new show on HBO, new as of October 10th.
Ryan: It’s a nightly news show every night, five times a week, rather, on HBO, and a weekly show called VICE on HBO, which is relaunching in January?
Dan: February, end of February.
Paul: And you know what? Actually, tell everyone what VICE is.
Ryan: That is an even tougher question —
Dan: That’s a tough one.
Ryan: that I’m going to pass over to our General Manager. [laughter]
Dan: It was a magazine for a while during the dot-com boom, it was a retail store, briefly. They had retail locations and they tried to get into merchandise —
Paul: What could you buy?
Dan: I don’t know, like clothes?
Dan: It was clothes and, like, cool things. I always knew it as like the magazine that was distributed inside American Apparel. That was their thing for a long time. But then they were pretty quick on web video. They had this thing, VBS.tv, which existed, like, almost pre-YouTube, where they started pumping the web full of documentary content, you know, sending people into war zones, into different locations around the world, and sort of doing reporting where other places wouldn’t go. Then for a while, YouTube got behind them. It was a big YouTube brand. They made a lot of different documentaries on YouTube. And from there, the HBO show launched five seasons ago, and there’s been a sprawling digital empire ever since. Now there’s a fashion magazine, there’s sports, there —
Ryan: TV channel, VICELAND.
Dan: TV channel.
Paul: So, there’s this giant media thing.
Paul: It’s got lots of brands, it’s on the web, it’s in print, and this is a big part of it.
Paul: VICE News, I mean.
Ryan: I think that’s fair to say.
Rich: I feel like the rest of it, more or less, orbits around VICE and VICE News as the sort of anchor brands of the thing, and then you’ve got stuff that focuses on music and technology and the like.
Ryan: You can think of it as there’s an internal ad agency, or ad agencies, that do things for brands. There is the consumer-facing parts of it, which are broadly — not Broadly the site, but generally — news and then the lifestyle verticals; things like VICE.com, things like Broadly, things like Noisey, which is music.
Paul: See, this is good for listeners to understand. So, I might come to VICE as a writer and say, “I have an article for you.” I might come to VICE as, like, John’s Giant Hamburger Conglomerate and say, “I need to reach an amazing cohort of young, cool people.”
Rich: I actually want to share a little story that I think gives the sense of how VICE has absolutely aced the desire to be associated with a brand.
Rich: I was, for a handful of reasons, I was in the sort of, I don’t even know what you would call it, it was like a master meeting room. It’s almost on this floor that no one’s allowed on, it’s really weird. [laughter] And it looks different than the rest of the office.
Paul: But where is this?
Rich: At VICE headquarters in Williamsburg.
Paul: Oh, VICE headquarters, OK.
Ryan: It’s just full of Webbies, it’s the room that has just like all the like Webbies — [laughter]
Dan: Is it the Bear Room? I think this is the Bear Room.
Rich: It might be the Bear Room.
Rich: It had like weird art and it was just a pretty surreal place. And I had a meeting with some higher-ups. And then an assistant walks in and she said, “Look we’re going to need this room. We’ve got somebody coming in.” She mentioned the brand. I’m not going to say the brand here, but it was a deodorant.
Rich: And five or six people filed in as I’m putting my stuff away to walk out. And my guess is they’re about to do a deal with a brand, right? And you’re thinking the typical dynamics would be the seller, the person that’s looking to close the deal, would be, “Hey, could we get you something? There’s, like, croissants. There’s, like…” You know, the nervousness is on the sell side, right? And —
Paul: Oh, so if I worked for VICE and I sell this —
Paul: I sell —
Rich: You got to get them to fall in love with —
Paul: Men’s Funk Stick is coming in and I’m like, “Hey.” [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Men’s Funk Stick’s coming in.
Paul: “Let me get them the mini bagels and the…”
Rich: “I know your kids’ names” and we small talk.”
Paul: “Look at this salmon cream cheese.”
Rich: “How is Naples these days?” Et cetera, et cetera, right?
Paul: “Like grapes?”
Rich: The thing is, the five or six deodorant people, let’s call them deodorant people, just for the sake of this.
Paul: Mike’s Funk Stick, is the name.
Rich: Are nervous! They’re nervous. The dynamic was flipped on its head.
Paul: And you’re watching this.
Rich: And I’m watching this and I’m thinking to myself, “This isn’t, like, they’re here to see…they’ve got the money, it’s essentially falling out of their pockets, and they’re walking in and they’re going to see what VICE is willing to give them.”
Paul: Oh, interesting, cause they’re not cool enough.
Rich: They’re not cool enough. So —
Paul: It is true. You go to the VICE offices, unless you old and tired of media like I am. [laughter]
Paul: And I could imagine if I walked in there if I was a little younger and not sure of myself, I would be like, “I don’t belong here at all.”
Rich: Yeah, they’ve owned —
Paul: But now I’m just like, “I am your babysitter.” That’s how I feel.
Ryan: It’s a little weird there.
Rich: It’s kind of incredible. And they’ve really aced the perception game there.
Paul: You know let these guys — describe the office so people understand the space in which you spend all of your day.
Ryan: So, it’s crowded, first of all. I mean, VICE is just growing like crazy. VICE News, I think we’ve hired 130 people this year. So —
Paul: And there’s thousands of people in the company.
Ryan: Thousands of people in the company.
Rich: Around the world.
Ryan: It is really a global media giant at this point. We don’t even have visibility into all the things that VICE does even on a news side. There are other news-like functions in some of the lifestyle brands. I think, being there, the thing that jumps out is a) the amount of people…people are largely young, which is a great thing, sometimes a challenging thing. But there is just visual talent, creative talent coming out of the woodwork at VICE. There are people who can go film something for a brand or for a news shoot and make it look cool and interesting and vivid and visceral. And that sort of visual language is just sort of a shared trait there.
Paul: That used to be the monopoly of branding agencies —
Ryan: Right. Exactly.
Paul: And ad agencies.
Ryan: You’d have to fly out to Seattle, to the coolest ad agency that only does stuff with Nike. Now VICE does that. And I think with VICE News, we want to bring that sort of edginess, that visceralness, that sort of tone to what is essentially straight news, bring that visual style. That’s what we try to do on the web. That’s what we try to do on VICE News Tonight. We’re early on in that, but —
Dan: I think that’s been the response. I’ve even heard with friends who watch the show on HBO. They just think it looks cool or like nightly news is maybe a little bit more staid in how it’s presented, and, like, the fact that we’re flying drones around is, like, crazy, and making a nightly news show out of that? Like, it’s different, and I think VICE is smart in capitalizing on that.
Rich: But, you know, I watch it, by the way. I’m a fan. I watch it every day.
Paul: Definitely, you’ve got the 46 year-old Lebanese immigrant demo locked down. [laughter]
Ryan: Classic VICE demo.
Rich: Nailed it.
Dan: That’s what Mike’s Funk Stick wants. [laughter]
Paul: Yeah, exactly.
Rich: And I buy the funk stick, yeah.
Ryan: It’s all working out.
Rich: You guys definitely, I mean, beyond the visuals and the big typography and all that stuff, the truth is the formula, like, Lester Holt is shitting the same thing every night, in the same, like, it’s the same routine. At minute seven of every nightly news, there’s a guy standing in a flood zone in Louisiana. It’s like every night you got to go to weather. They cover some stuff in the beginning. It’s just, it’s just cookie-cutter. And VICE, I have to say, they’re sending some people to some pretty rough places. And they’re doing deeper stuff than what just happened that day.
Rich: They’ve got a guy living in a camp who’s putting a report together that’s going to take a couple of weeks. You could tell it’s a deeper piece. I do want to dive into how you guys ended up here, which starts with where you guys are from. So Dan.
Rich: You’re a general manager.
Rich: Which doesn’t say a whole lot, doesn’t tell the whole story. Where’d you start professionally?
Dan: I started my career at Time back in 2009. I was an intern. My job at the time was reordering stories on the homepage, which was just incredibly boring.
Rich: So, when you say Time, you mean Time —
Rich: Dot com.
Rich: So, Time magazine’s equivalent on the web.
Dan: And I was just bored to death. I had to do this internship. It was my last semester of college and I was looking for anything I could do to sort of get out of rearranging stories up and down based on an editor’s email.
Rich: Oh my Lord.
Paul: So you couldn’t even arrange them yourselves.
Dan: No, no. I had to wait for instructions and then follow that instructions and then send through a confirmation that the changes had been made.
Paul: So basically, because people couldn’t use computers, you were using them.
Dan: I think they could’ve even used the computers. It was just —
Paul: This was how it works.
Dan: Yes. This was how it works. This was the hierarchy.
Dan: But at that time, like, they weren’t on social media at all. They had no Twitter account. They had no Facebook account. So out of boredom one day, I just opened up @time on Twitter and just started tweeting stories and links back to the website.
Rich: Whoa. So you locked up @time.
Dan: I either locked —
Rich: Twitter was really young at that time.
Dan: It was super young. I either locked it up or emailed from my Time email address to, like, get access to it. I forget exactly what it was.
Rich: Wow, that’s really cool actually.
Dan: Yeah, so it was fun. And I just started tweeting stories out and Digg was huge at the time and I created a time.com profile on Digg and started gaming Digg so I could consistently guarantee our stories would hit the front page.
Paul: So that was when Digg was totally corruptible, too. [laughter]
Dan: Oh, it was amazing. It was peak Digg. And that was thing, it was like all the Digg power users were on this AIM group and I would just, like, I was on there as time.com and they thought it was cool to talk to someone at Time not realizing I was 21.
Paul: For the young people, that’s AOL Instant Messenger. [laughter]
Rich: Oh, by the way, for the young people. It’s D-I-G-G-dot-com.
Paul: Yeah. No, no, no. That’s still at Betaworks, still rolling along.
Rich: Yeah —
Paul: We’re going to pretend it —
Dan: Think of it as a proto-Reddit.
Paul: Everything’s fine.
Rich: So, wait a minute, so this isn’t — you weren’t given an initiative here, like, “Get us on social.” This is just you bored.
Dan: Me bored. Yeah. But then I started, I mean, I was savvy enough to start sending traffic reports along showing how much traffic I generated.
Rich: OK, who are you sending those to?
Dan: Josh Tyrangiel, who now is the head of VICE News. So this has paid off for me out of several different instances throughout my career. [laughter] I’ve worked for him at Bloomberg as well.
Dan: And he just sort of let me run with it. And, again, it was, you know, as someone who’s managed social teams since, like, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was just like, I remember one day, the day Michael Jackson died, I saw AP reported that Michael Jackson died and I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll tweet that Michael Jackson’s dead.” But it was like super early and I didn’t, like, we had no reporting and I didn’t, like, confirm anything. So then I…God, this is an awful story. [laughter] Then I was sitting there, like, rooting that he was actually dead so I didn’t get fired, like, on my third day. [laughter]
Rich: Wow, you really do belong at VICE.
Dan: Yeah. [laughter] Well, so there were just no guard rails back then. It was just the beginning of news organizations being on Twitter so some of these landmines hadn’t been stepped on yet.
Rich: So you tweeted it?
Dan: So I tweeted it.
Rich: Hoping for the best.
Dan: Hoping for the best.
Rich: Or worst.
Ryan: Hoping he was dead.
Paul: Well, then he killed Michael Jackson. That’s the part of this story that nobody knows. [laughter]
Rich: Found him at the airport and just…all right. OK.
Dan: So anyway, all of that eventually meant when I went back to school for my last semester, I was sitting there and tweeting as Time in class while also, like, ostensibly finishing up journalism school.
Paul: So you were living as a brand. [laughter]
Dan: Yeah. I was. I was one of the first individuals to assume brandom.
Rich: OK. And corporate, I don’t know what you’d call it, brand compliance didn’t come down and say, “Wait, this is a billion dollar — ”
Dan: No, because they didn’t know what was going on.
Paul: It’s like the early days of the web. People just didn’t…
Dan: They had no idea.
Rich: It’s not early. It’s 2010.
Paul: Well, but it’s the early days of social.
Rich: Early days of social…ish.
Paul: The early days of the web was like, “Hey, we have a site. Seems to be working. Young people are involved.” That happened with Twitter, too.
Rich: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Dan: I mean, that was the hilarious bit of it was having to wait for this email to move a story from Most Popular Spot 4 to Most Popular Spot 3. And meanwhile, I’m just, like, pushing out headlines of things I’m reading on the Twitter feed where 600,000 people are following us.
Paul: So you’ve set a precedent now for your career, which is that you’re easily bored and a raging bull when you have something you want to do. [laughter]
Rich: And subversive.
Dan: That is accurate.
Paul: OK. So that’s, that’s Dan. How’d you end up at VICE?
Dan: After Time, I went to Bloomberg, I was there, briefly. I ran a news team at Facebook, which went terribly. And then I had a start-up —
Paul: Facebook has a great relationship with journalism in general, though. So that’s…surprising. [laughter]
Dan: Yeah, I was proud to play my small part in that. And then I had a startup called Beacon, which attempted to do crowd-funding for journalism. Ultimately learned that automating the process of responding to credit card disputes is a much better business than trying to fund journalism. [laughter]
Paul: Cool, I’m going to go right out the window and we’re on the 10th floor. I have enjoyed this interview.
Ryan: That’s the best pivot ever.
Dan: They made a hard pivot, but bleeding-heart Dan wasn’t quite ready to give up journalism so I landed at VICE thanks to Josh.
Paul: You could be processing so many credit cards right now.
Dan: I know. [laughter]
Rich: They’re killing it.
Dan: They’re killing it.
Paul: Oh sure.
Dan: They are absolutely killing it.
Ryan: I just love that you pivoted from supporting the free press to processing credit cards. I mean that is…I love that.
Paul: You know, it’s always been a little more combined than people think. [laughter] If you look at, like, a Condé Nast, the consumer marketing division is a giant credit card processor.
Ryan: Yeah, we got to get them on board.
Rich: So young, I mean, when you said, “2009 I was in intern,” I just felt like my prostate was going to explode.
Paul: Oh, so it was a rough one. [laughter]
Rich: That’s…I mean…
Rich: Young career, exciting career.
Dan: I mean, that’s what’s crazy about VICE though. I walk around I feel old. I’m like the old man with my thermos full of coffee and my untrendy jacket. [laughter]
Dan: And all these kids are sitting with their slick hair.
Ryan: I like your jacket.
Dan: Thank you. Doing God knows what.
Paul: Cool, cool. Good, Good dad give-and-take right there. [laughter]
Paul: Nice jacket bro.
Rich: Your turn.
Rich: Don’t tell me you started in 2009. I’m going to tip this table over.
Ryan: No, no. So, I started out in a hometown newspaper in 2000, laying, literally laying out pages in Quarkxpress. I think it was Quarkxpress 2.
Rich: You’re working on paper.
Ryan: Physical paper. I was printing a paper.
Paul: That was desktop publishing software for organiz —
Rich: Can we ask the hometown?
Ryan: It was Darien, Connecticut. A weekly newspaper, not a lot of action.
Rich: Dary-Ann? Like D-A-R-Y-A-N-
Rich: I wish it was Dary-Ann.
Ryan: It’s like Greenwich.
Paul: Every now and then I guess there was a fatality at the amusement park. [laughter]
Rich: What’s the news like in Darien?
Ryan: Oh, it is a lot of planning and zoning commissions I covered. [laughter] I did cops, a lot of cops. Not an exciting job, but a good one to start out.
Paul: And the bedrock of our democracy.
Ryan: Yeah, you know, hometown newspapers.
Rich: Real quick: college major?
Rich: OK. All right, keep going.
Ryan: So sometime after September 11th, I did the freelance thing. I was a PA on movies and commercials.
Dan: You had to guard John Elway’s trailer at one point.
Ryan: I did have a job guarding John Elway’s trailer for a stomach acid commercial.
Paul: From what? What was going to go get John Elway?
Ryan: You know, you just need to have a minder for John Elway.
Rich: Dude, it’s John Elway, man.
Paul: OK, fine. Things could happen.
Rich: Do you know who John Elway is?
Paul: Yes, he’s a…hockey-soccer player. [laughter] No, I know who John Elway is.
Rich: OK, OK.
Ryan: So, I did a bunch of different things. I bartended. I waited tables. Made it back into full-time writing by the freelance internship hustle. Ended up at Ink magazine covering startups for about four years until around the financial crisis, around the same time, actually. When the financial crisis happened, I was like, “I need to get out of print. I need to get out of covering startups.” It just didn’t feel tonally right at a time when the economy was melting down and the web was taking off. So I wrote everyone I knew and tried to get into web journalism. And so I ended up at —
Rich: You wrote handwritten letters.
Rich: At this point.
Ryan: On Quarkxpress. [laughter]
Rich: Quarkxpress, OK. This is what? Where are we now? 08? 09?
Ryan: This is late 2008, early 2009.
Ryan: And ended up, actually, at The Huffington Post as their business editor back at a time when we were, like, 30 people above a Dean & Deluca.
Ryan: 30 young people. And I was a little bit older, but was there at a time, you know, first of all, it was great to cover startups and then go work at one. You know, I kind of got that bug in me. And then, you know, Huffington Post at the point just kind of took off. We started doing post-crisis financial coverage, which somehow made Huffington Post readers care about derivatives laws and Wall Street prosecutions. And so I was there for a couple years until when we were acquired by AOL, which was a strange, awesome, frightening trip.
Rich: You stuck around?
Ryan: Stuck around and then actually moved over to Reuters, where I came across Paul.
Paul: Oh, that’s right.
Ryan: Yeah. And then, from Reuters I was at Washington Post.
Paul: You may not know this. Did you know Rich was working on that project as well?
Paul: OK, good.
Ryan: Yeah, yeah.
Rich: But we never met.
Ryan: We probably did cause I was in that, remember they had that room where there was a giant ex-trading floor?
Paul: Yeah, I remember.
Ryan: We had 30 people there.
Paul: I was the only person who worked there for three months. [laughter] For three months, I went into a giant, like, 150-person room.
Rich: I remember this. It was almost like a bull pen.
Ryan: It was so bizarre.
Paul: Yeah. At Reuters, we were working on a big “Future of News” project.
Ryan: We did a lot of cool stuff that never saw the light of day.
Ryan: Yeah. We’re like a band that never released an album.
Rich: Your role at Reuters?
Ryan: So I was running a small website called Counterparties with Felix Salmon. It was sort of like the Drudge for finance, but also helping them do this big digital change thing. And so they wanted me to kind of straddle editorial, but also help out with redesigning the CMS and strategy and all that sort of stuff. And that sort of led into my next two jobs: one at Washington Post where I was early in that Bezos hiring binge where The Washington Post just started to figure out digital news, grew like crazy. I was working on Wonkblog after Ezra Klein left, hiring a bunch of people on their business section, and doing a bunch of weird digital experiments for them.
So moved on to The New York Times, where I was doing similar things. Working on the national desk as an editor, but also early on had a job kind of in this internal group that was almost like digital consultants. So I’ve been in these jobs where I’ve been tasked with digital change in a broad sense, which can be messy and difficult. And sometimes you’re the guy editing stories. Sometimes you’re the guy with the PowerPoint deck that’s ignored. Other times, you’re working on weird quixotic digital projects.
Paul: One thing from both of your careers: lots of jobs.
Rich: Yeah, there’s no 9 years at X.
Paul: No, not at all.
Rich: But that’s, I don’t think, I mean —
Paul: What the hell do you do all day, though?
Ryan: So now, I mean, Dan and I joined VICE basically the same week, and we…it’s hard to explain what we do. I mean, we do a lot of managing.
Paul: Are you like on Slack all day? What’s going on?
Ryan: We are on Slack all day. We are, in some cases, editing stories, managing projects, telling people not to do things, stopping libel, you know. [laughter]
Paul: Well this is my rule for editors, the number one job of an editor is to manage litigation risk. But you, are stories coming? Are you saying, “Go report on this.” Or are people coming and saying —
Ryan: So the cool thing about VICE News is we’re really sort of dedicated to making news visual. And we think the website you guys helped us build really does that. We think the show does that. We think that’s the way news is headed anyway if you look at Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, all that sort of stuff. And so we have about as many video producers on our staff as text writers. And so we’re kind of trying to think from the moment a story is assigned and Dan and I are in on this all day is like, how you tell the story? Is this 500 words? Is this a bulleted list? Is this something we can do in a Q&A? A video Q&A? Or is this something that we actually need to send somebody to Mosul to cover?
Paul: So what’s the difference between your two jobs, then? Cause if you’re in the room working…
Dan: I think Ryan makes more editorial decisions and I generally spend a little bit more time thinking about, like, web and social strategy. I feel like my job, in a lot of ways, has flipped in that I’m kind of the exasperated voice sometimes that says, “How does this make money?” Particularly as it comes to just pumping more video in on Facebook. I think the reason I’ve stuck with this and why this job’s interesting to me is still trying to figure out, like, what the hell is the economic model that supports all this? And VICE is interesting in that it has HBO as a massive client, this sort of very important client, that lets us take risks and try other things that other news organizations can’t do. But still, like, running a stand-alone website, what is the point of it? How does it make money? What is the model for that? And I try and find moments to tinker around with that.
Ryan: And I think one of the reasons Dan and I ended being attached at the hip was we’ve both been through the scale-for-scale’s-sake Facebook rat race. We don’t see a lot of value in that, economically or journalistically. So we’re trying to build something a little more surprising, a little different, something that keeps you on site rather than takes you off, something a little weirder, something a little more visual, and hopefully something that’s more habitual than based on impulses or screaming headlines.
Paul: This is — oh sorry, go.
Dan: No, I was going to say I mean I think there could be value in Facebook. I just think they’ve got to open up that gilded pocket book. And they got that Ricky Van Veen guy, College Humor guy over there now. And supposedly they’re going to start tinkering with original programming.
Dan: Like, I want to get a little slice of that pie. [laughter]
Paul: You know what’s wild here though is you got…there’s a story you’re telling, which is not a normal story anymore, which is “Maybe we just got to send them to Mosul.” [laughter] It’s this very old-school editorial opportunity to go get that story, right? That’s legit. Like, I look at the product and obviously everyone in here is deeply compromised, but in general knowing Tyrangiel, your boss, and knowing how things work, this is a real, legitimate, old-school news product. And you’re coming from the Times, which is a place with a lot of rigid boundaries. Even though we were teasing it, Time and Time Inc. are pretty serious journalistic enterprises. But you’re also really focused on the revenue here; it’s part of your job and part of what you’re thinking about, and you’re joined at the hip figuring it out. So I’m just observing that because that was never supposed to happen.
Ryan: Yeah. And it doesn’t happen almost anywhere else. I think it’s great that we can have that discussion from the core of the product. Like, we were producing a lot more video, initially, than our audience was ready for. So we can change that. if Dan and I talk, and we do every day about everything, so…I mean that’s really cool. Those silos that exist in other media organizations where social doesn’t talk to text and where video doesn’t talk to text and all that sort of stuff…we kind of have to think through those in a way that, I hate to use the word synergy, but, like, uses resources in a more efficient and smart way.
Paul: What I’m seeing, what I see a lot is that editorial ends up very exposed because they’re not in those conversations. And then everything hits this, like, breaking point and they come back and they go, “Look, it’s just not driving revenue. We need 4,000 more bulleted lists per minute.” And the editor says, “I didn’t go to Columbia Journalism School for this!” And then there’s just this endless drama. And, instead, it sounds like it’s a tighter feedback loop where you still kind of get to express the important thing you want to do.
Paul: Like, VICE News is doing the real thing. Whether people like it or not. Like they’re going to war zones and all that stuff that we’re saying is important journalism.
Rich: Yeah. I mean look, I don’t think it’s…there’s no doubt that the 50-year-old-plus person can watch a couple minutes of VICE News and say, “Well, that’s ridiculous. This looks ridiculous.” Right? But the truth is the aims of the organization, I think, come through the aesthetic, which is kind of odd if you think about it. There are no ads when it’s on HBO. So that’s not in the game.
Paul: There are ads on the web, though, right?
Rich: There are ads on the web.
Ryan: There should be more. [laughter]
Paul: Can we go get some? Let’s go.
Rich: There’s not a lot of humor. I mean, they have that Sonic You — who is it?
Dan: Yesterday on the Internet guy?
Rich: No, the guy who listens to music at the end of the show?
Ryan: Oh yeah.
Rich: Black Keys guy. I don’t know his name.
Dan: Patrick Carney.
Rich: That’s funny.
Rich: But, frankly, there’s not a lot of funny bits. There’s not a lot of really sappy, feel-good bits about —
Dan: The human-interest story.
Rich: The human interest, there’s not a lot of that.
Dan: The squirrel on water-skis. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of serious. There’s really, the aim here —
Paul: Rich is telling you that this as a serious fan of CBS Sunday Morning.
Rich: I love CBS Sunday Morning. We don’t need to get into that here.
Dan: I love it too. I mean, that is really visual. They take you right to the action.
Rich: And they take their sweet time because it takes me 12 minutes to get to thing I’m watching CBS Sunday Morning for.
Paul: But the action is, what’s the action? The action is the cookie factory, right?
Rich: Well, there’s that. They have like the toaster convention.
Ryan: I’d love to see them go to Mosul, the CBS Sunday Morning version of Mosul.
Rich: I think they went and they just haven’t heard from them in a while. [laughter]
Paul: A little poem?
Rich: There’s a team of seven that they’re still looking for. I guess what I’m trying to say is as slick as it’s trying to be, it’s pretty damn serious.
Ryan: Yeah, I think —
Rich: That’s my read.
Ryan: I think, interpreting from what my bosses and what Dan and I have thought and what some other people have talked about, what they want from this project, if you were to build a news product that went across TV and digital and you want it to be inherently visual, what would that newsroom look like? And the fun thing for Dan and I is we can structurally build to solve some of the problems we’ve seen at other places: the bad incentives, the stuff that leads to volume or over-reliance on Facebook, or formatting for stories that really isn’t distinctive at all. And so VICE is at this really cool time as a company where it needs to have impact and sort of distinctiveness. It doesn’t need scale, necessarily. It doesn’t need to be in a staid news voice. It can do things differently.
Rich: It doesn’t want to be in a stayed news voice.
Ryan: It doesn’t want to be. No.
Rich: It’s actually, practically discouraged, right?
Rich: If it seems cookie-cutter, I think it’s going to be frowned upon in that culture.
Ryan: Definitely, definitely. I think the trouble with bringing so many people in an organization like this is they come from other cultures where things are done a very certain way. So it’s been hard to sort of, at times, reconstruct that classic, almost frisky version of what VICE is.
Ryan: But I think we’re getting there. But I think it’s really interesting to think what would a newsroom look like if you wanted to do these two formats really well?
Paul: That’s the thing. What’s been hard about…you’ve got this big TV property and a big web property. Often those things don’t live in peaceful harmony.
Paul: So how do you get more peaceful harmony on a day-to-day basis?
Ryan: I think the synergy aspect of it — again it’s a terrible consultant’s word.
Rich: There’s got to be another word. I don’t use it anymore either. I’ve deprogrammed myself. So what’s the other word?
Ryan: I don’t know.
Paul: No one can solve that problem.
Rich: Kindness. [laughter]
Paul: I was just kidding.
Ryan: The cool part of the show is it’s modular, right? It’s got these segments. It’s tied together with these interstitial graphics, or motion graphics, or bits of humor, or bits of illustration. We want to do the same thing with the web and try to build a site that feeds off that stream-like feel. And so if we do this right — and we are not there yet — the internet writers and reporters by trade who are hired as correspondents can start off work on the web and end up on the nightly show, and it’ll come back onto the web after some interval, sometimes immediately, sometimes after seven days — and both can inform each other. That is a really difficult task. It’s sort of enforced cooperation with two very different modes. We’re doing it more than any news room I know. We’re not doing it perfectly yet.
Dan: I think it’s funny. Every news organization has their version of this perfect model that exists. At Time, it was like, “What starts as a tweet may eventually end up as a cover story of the magazine.” [laughter] You have this whole food chain of intermediate news products —
Rich: There’s a diagram.
Ryan: We all started as tweets.
Dan: They’ve all got that Bloomberg like, “What begins in the terminal may end up on Businessweek and on Bloomberg TV.” There’s a version of this spiel everywhere. I think what’s nice about VICE is like it’s small enough and scrappy enough that you actually feel like it’s a little bit more than bullshit. Sometimes.
Ryan: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it’s like, “Look, this is the model. Can we get actually people to — ”
Ryan: “Live in that.”
Rich: This is great. Great conversation, but we have to ask this before we close out. Interesting times and you’re a news organization: what are you guys feeling and what are you guys feeling you should or could do in these interesting times? It’s been an amazingly strange year for media.
Paul: Oh you mean sort of post-election crazy cakes.
Rich: Pre and post and here we are today. It’s late January. This’ll air a couple weeks from now, probably.
Paul: As you guys have talked to us, over 4,000 major news events have occurred.
Ryan: Yeah. [laughter] I mean, that’s part of the trouble. We’re…I think the combined forces of VICE News through like different formats are about 200 people. But even we’re not equipped to deal with this velocity of news. What I would say is even the last couple days have proven to me that there’s a lot of value in literally just recounting what’s happened.
Ryan: And giving context. And I know that does not sound like any sort of secret sauce or master media strategy, but I think our audience just wants to hear from us what our reporting says in a direct voice. It doesn’t have to be a standard news voice all the time.
Ryan: Just in a Vicean voice, and that could be a straight-to-camera thing from a correspondent. It could be like a voicey news piece. It could be a weird video illustration, motion graphics thing. I think for us there’s a lot of value in just doing that. And it’s weird, in some ways, with all this craziness stuff going on, just speaking directly to your audience is somehow more valuable?
Dan: And I think that that’s what VICE’s particular format does.
Dan: It’s always been very correspondent-driven. You use these people who are children of the internet to sort of give you…they’re your avatar into a story. So you trust it in a way or you want to hear from them in a way that maybe just feels more natural than reading, like, staid news coverage.
Ryan: Yeah. For some reason, and I think there’s a lot of great, I don’t know, PhD dissertations to be written about this, VICE has never lost its trust with its audience. And it’s not necessarily the same trust that it has with the Times and the Washington Post, though we aspire to have impact like them. It is more like, “We trust your voice on things.” VICE has been great about being direct and taking people right to the action in a war zone, been great about telling stories from the margins of society, been great about just doing weird stuff. And for whatever reason, I think, we’ve got a good role to play here in just maybe we don’t speak in the same tone of voice as regular news, but just speaking directly and with honesty to our audience. We’re in a good place if we’re just doing that.
Paul: One of my favorite old VICE pieces, years ago, probably almost a decade ago, they said a woman was strapped with a whole lot of bread out to a place where there were lots of raccoons. [laughter] And it’s just —
Rich: That’s strong.
Paul: Just pictures of her covered with raccoons and it’s the moment of regret on her face where she realizes, “This was a genuinely bad idea.” And she’s just freaking covered with raccoons.
Paul: That captures is the ethos for me. What stories are you really proud of since you launched this thing?
Dan: For me, the gratifying moments have been when it comes together around the longer feature story. I think we have a couple of examples of this. We had a deep dive on the state of Detroit’s public education that ran shortly after Betsy DeVos got the nod for Secretary of Education. Sent a photographer. Sent a reporter. We spent several months talking to families who were affected by the rise of charter schools in Detroit. Beautiful photographs to go along with it. It looked great on the page.
To me, it sort of encapsulated what I think is kind of the unique value proposition of the site, which is like, “Look, we’re going to hook you with some crazy-ass visual,” but when you get in the reporting is there and the depth is there, and you’ll come away learning something new on a topic. And I get mad occasionally at the audience for us on social because it is very quick to criticize and it’s very…there’s a lot of scorn, but when we give them deeply-reported things that look good, they take a moment and they respond to it. So that’s kind of been a standout piece for me on the web since we launched.
Rich: That’s a great example of VICE’s agenda and how…I think VICE has, I think they hit the magic formula when they figured out that if we stay true to the agenda, we can go bananas all around it. We can go sideways —
Paul: Well, isn’t there a mandate for global warming coverage? Right there’s a…?
Ryan: There is. Climate is one of our pods, our cross-platform pods. I think, you know, I don’t want to speak to the web because I don’t want to choose favorites and then have to manage them tomorrow.
Ryan: But on the nightly side, we’ve done some really great packages. The one that speaks to me as almost like the perfect VICE package was the Seb Walker’s report. It was a 12-minute report on VICE News Tonight from the Philippines where he not only confronted people in the Philippines military and police about whether or not there are vigilante killings going on in Duterte’s sort of regime, he also rode along with assassins right after talking to that police officer. And it was just like really well-reported, really direct.
Rich: That was intense.
Ryan: Politely confrontational, too.
Rich: Yeah, it was really unusual.
Ryan: And kind of unflinching and I think that, to me, was the best piece of any format that I’ve seen on that. And-
Dan: It’s also just a good example of what’s cool. Just that VICE can break the format.
Dan: The nightly show can be something different every single night. If they want to go 30 minutes on a piece, they can go 30 minutes on a piece. That’s the privilege of being on HBO. If we want to blow up the website and do one thing for a day, that’s fine. So, those types of things are freeing when they’re used well in that context.
Ryan: On the VICE News Tonight side, the day after the election, they literally just filmed people from across the country talking and asked them three questions. One of them, which was, “What just happened? What happens next?”
Dan: And it —
Rich: It was great.
Dan: Just turning the camera away from the traditional stand-up or the traditional news thing is something we can do really easily. And I think we’re probably doing better work if we do just point the camera somewhere else.
Rich: You guys are doing awesome work. There’s no doubt that a key part of their success is Postlight, digital product studio here in New York.
Ryan: We paid you to talk to us today, right?
Rich: Yeah —
Ryan: Technically? [laughter]
Dan: This was an ad-on to the package.
Paul: Yeah, this is in the contract.
Rich: I’m a big fan.
Ryan: A podcast rider.
Rich: Joking aside, I’m actually a big fan of what you guys put out and I continue to get surprised every so often. It’s very cool stuff.
Paul: Yeah, we’d want to talk to you even if you weren’t giving us money for doing this. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: Actually we should talk about that for one second. What did we — you came to us and you said, “We need to stand up VICE News on this here global internet. [laughter] We don’t know what it is. We know it’s a lot of news. And I’m Dan. I’m Ryan. Here’s some other folks you’re going to talk to. Let’s go.”
Ryan: So we had a tough ask for you guys. I mean, it was like, “Make it look like a TV show. Make it move. Make it be a stream.”
Paul: A TV show that doesn’t really exist yet.
Ryan: Exactly, yeah. [laughter]
Dan: And that no one can see and you can’t see.
Rich: The vision was sort of coming together at the time.
Ryan: And we want to put mp4s on top of everything. We want to have motion. We want to, I don’t know, have no nav. We want to keep people on site. We don’t want to rely on Facebook. It was really tough.
Dan: I remember this. And you guys spat out some crazy designs as part of this process because we were just trying to calibrate because we didn’t know what it would be. We were all trying to calibrate on what the thing was. I remember there was a version of the site that was built as if we would only produce vertical video.
Paul: Right — [laughter]
Dan: It was like a Tetris board. [laughter] And we felt so bad because we went back to the designer and were like, “Yeah, man. That’s not it.” And he was very proud of it, but it was. It was crazy and it was innovative. And if we were only going to do vertical video it was a badass site to do it in. But it was —
Paul: Running into the burning building, that’s sort of the policy, yeah.
Dan: I’ve done just a touch of consulting of here and there so I know what an impossible task it is when people are like, “We want this thing, but we don’t know what it is. But we’re going to tell you when it isn’t that thing.”
Dan: And I feel like we gave you guys a little bit of that.
Paul: That was fine. You just throw things at the wall until everyone’s crying. [laughter]
Rich: And it’s worth noting, I think the time frame was…
Ryan: Easily four months.
Paul: That’s definitely worth noting that.
Ryan: Dan and I joined —
Rich: Not just for us, by the way, because we watched the steam coming out of everyone’s ears when we went to the office.
Paul: That is true. The first couple meetings —
Rich: Aww man it was intense.
Paul: — were relatively, incredibly tense. [laughter] And then after that, it was this amazing uptick of stress and pain. [laughter]
Rich: Oh yeah. Well, we had turned a corner. We knew we were ready to launch and it was a couple weeks, three weeks before.
Paul: We received that as “We’re not the problem anymore.”
Rich: Yeah, we got the “We’re not the problem anymore.” Because it’s like all the other shit has to come together.
Dan: Concurrent to you doing your work here, they were like building a studio piece by piece in New Hampshire and trying to figure out how to ship it down in a series of trucks
Ryan: A six million dollar studio.
Dan: While also gutting the office we were working in while we were working in it in order to become that studio. So it was crazy. It was a crazy period of time.
Ryan: It almost killed us. We started in May. We launched a website, hired 130 people across different teams, launched a nightly news show in five months, and reformed our video team too. I mean that we’re here is probably a sign that it went well.
Paul: You seem healthy. [laughter]
Ryan: No. You should see my biological age.
Paul: “No, it’s true, it’s true. I’m 13.” No, that’s what I remember. I remember there was a tremendous moment in client service where you’re no longer the real problem, you’re not the concern anymore.
Rich: And they want you out of the building, actually, you’re sort of in the way.
Paul: They’re just like, “Thank you for the check-in. Seems to be good.” [laughter]
Rich: Right, you go for the small talk cause you should be nice to your client.
Paul: Yeah. “Talk to you Tuesday.” I like to also, sometimes on those emails that at the bottom, I will just write “No reply necessary,” just cause I just want everybody to feel good. So anyway, we got through it. And we’re proud of the site. We love working with it.
Ryan: Yeah, so many, just one more compliment: so many times when you go through this process it’s either product or edit’s concern or it’s video’s concern or it’s the newsroom’s concern or it’s sales’ concern. Again, this is all wishing for an ideal state, but at least from the time when we were building this until now and hopefully going forward. All those things came together in a way that doesn’t happen very often in media companies. So I’m thankful for that.
Paul: Good. Well, we were glad to do it and we’ll do it all again real soon. No, I’m kidding. [laughter]
Ryan: VICE News 2!
Paul: VICE News 2!
Dan: I’m talking myself into that vertical video right now. [laughter]
Paul: I know. We’ll bring up those old designs, [laughter] give you guys something to do instead of just sitting around at VICE News all day. All right, well, Rich send us out.
Rich: I mean, everyone listening to this podcast, they should know we’re about to all go drink.
Paul: That’s true.
Rich: And much to —
Paul: This is a good crew to drink with.
Rich: This is a good crew to drink with.
Paul: We’re going to rope in some Postlight people and have a couple cocktails.
Rich: Thank you, guys.
Dan: Are you one of those groups that has nicknames for your employees? Like Eventbrite, all their employees are Britelings, which I think is just disgusting.
Ryan: Oh no. Posties?
Dan: But do you have, yeah, is it like Posties?
Dan: Is it the —
Rich: We’ve tried —
Paul: I think we tried to.
Rich: I think it came up for a second and it didn’t stick.
Paul: Posties, yeah, it’s not…no.
Ryan: Posties doesn’t sound like —
Paul: Nothing sticks.
Dan: Do you have any punny things? Like Facebook one year it was your Faceversary and you got like a Faceversary cake?
Rich: We have Star of the Week.
Paul: That’s true.
Dan: I heard that. And you get to pick the music.
Paul: Playlist control.
Rich: Play the music in the office for a week.
Ryan: I just said it would be like Titanic soundtrack. I had it all locked down. I’d make people listen to that for a week if I were the star.
Paul: That would be extraordinary.
Rich: That would be pretty amazing.
Dan: Oh my God…it would be everyone would work from home.
Rich: That flute version on YouTube.
Paul: But no, in general we’re joyless and unfunny. [laughter] So…
Rich: It’s a dark, cold place.
Paul: It’s for the best. [laughter] Thank you guys so much for coming on.
Dan: Thanks for having us.
Paul: This was fun.
Paul: Well, Rich, those seem like two fine young men who are really going to go places.
Rich: Oh, they’re just two good gentlemen.
Paul: You know, the fact that we have a commercial relationship with them in which they write our company checks for large amounts of money really doesn’t have any bearing on anything about what we’re saying about them.
Rich: Well, exactly. I would feel the same way.
Paul: I actually would. Those are two very together dudes.
Paul: In the media business.
Rich: They’re great and their product is great and I watch it. I mean, I’m a fan.
Paul: You love, yeah, VICE News is good, VICE.com, even though we built it, we’re proud of it. It’s good.
Rich: Yeah, it’s good stuff.
Paul: Good site. So there’s a little slice of life from the media business in 2017. We should tell people that they’ve been listening to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a product design studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. I’m the co-founder. My name is Paul Ford.
Rich: And I’m Rich Ziade.
Rich: We love you.
Paul: @postlight.com. You know we like to talk to people. Follow us at @PostlightStudio on Twitter and rate us on iTunes, five stars, good number of stars. We are very fond of our audience. We are very grateful for your time. Thank you. This was kind of a commercial, but also totally sincere and we hope you enjoyed it.
Rich: A sincere ad.
Paul: That’s our brand. Everybody, let’s get back to work.
Rich: Take care.