Vice Media is one of the hottest media properties in America. It's the counterculture empire that even Rupert Murdoch could love. Vice's founder, Shane Smith, has speculated his company could raise tens of billions of dollars. So why are its employees so broke and pissed off?
Last week, Vice Media and Bacardi had a huge party in a towering event space under the Williamsburg bridge. The former Williamsburg Savings Bank, now a party palace, was lit up like a glowing wedding cake. The line of young, streetwear-clad hopefuls waiting to get in stretched around the block. Inside, glamorous models on stilts teetered through the crowd, and more earthbound models passed out trays of free liquor. Shane Smith and a couple of friends breezed in the front door, straight through the VIP entrance, without even pausing to gladhand on the red carpet.
Shane Smith is, in fact, a Very Important Person now. In addition to becoming a TV star by hosting Vice's HBO show, he is a business star in the media world. Last year, he lured a $70 million investment in his company from 21st Century Fox. That sounded like a lot, until Smith speculated in March that Vice could go public at a valuation of more than $20 billion. That's probably exaggerated, but perhaps not by too much—the same report said that Vice's annual revenue could reach $1 billion by 2016. Barring any economic collapses in the meantime, a public offering would certainly make Shane Smith a billionaire.
Vice Media has a successful cable show, a successful global magazine, and successful websites in multiple verticals, all supported by a successful ad agency that sells the company's cool young audience to major corporate brands. Vice produces some very good journalism. Investors are circling. The founder is rich. The money is flowing, and the parties are lavish. So Vice's headquarters should be packed with happy employees. But it's not.
In the New York media world, Vice has a reputation as a less than ideal employer. A few months ago, we asked Vice employees to tell us what it's like working there. Many responded. And they unanimously said that while Shane Smith is getting rich, they're struggling just to pay the bills.
Most people don't go into the media to get rich. But a company as successful as Vice should be paying decent wages. Vice doesn't. Instead, the company pays shitty wages to low-level employees, "compensating" them instead with the sheer coolness of working for Vice Media. "A handful of grown ups a thin middle layer and a gaggle of people who also moonlight at American Apparel" is how one veteran characterizes the company. "The appeal is street cred, lots of free parties/booze and the hope that one earns a coveted Vice ring." (Literally, a ring that says "VICE," given to lucky employees.)
"VICE editorial across the board is full of very good, smart, and talented employees," one person who spent years there told us. "Unfortunately, we have a bit of a jackass who represents us publicly—and makes an insane amount of money while doing it."
A more specific complaint: the salaries at Vice are low. Very low. Even as Shane Smith watches his millions increase, his employees are pissed that they can hardly afford rent in Brooklyn. One intern two years ago was excited to receive a full time position—until the company offered him a salary of $20K. Employees who have worked there full time within the past two years say that salaries well under $30K are routine for "producers." (One such producer said that after waiting in vain for more than a year for a raise to push their salary up to $30K, they left Vice last year after seeing executives spend what appeared to be thousands of dollars on drugs for a company party.) Editors who worked on Vice's verticals (music, video, fashion, sports, etc.) tell us they started at salaries of $24K-$26K, sometimes rising to a whopping $30K after six months or a year of good performance. For editors who run verticals, salaries are "about $40K," said one ex-employee. And that's at the upper end— "I can tell you that as one of the higher level editors of one of the highest trafficked verticals, I make less than 40k a year," another editor told us.
"A designer for print was making $28K" in 2013, we're told. A video editor who worked for Vice for two years said "the wage was $27K/year." Another person who left recently after holding relatively important editor-level job told us that, in her experience, "Rarely anyone makes over $45,000." Freelancers—writers, photographers, illustrators, and otherwise—tell us the rates are low, and that Vice (like many other publications) is often slow in paying them. Salaries at Vice Media and the company's pay rate for contract work were described to us as "a pittance," "a fucking joke," and "so low I couldn't even consider it, it was offensive."
The low pay is not the only thing that Vice employees hate about Shane Smith's empire. After all, with such awful salaries, nobody would work there if they didn't believe in Vice's mission— speaking truth to power, going where others won't, doing the stories that the mainstream media is too lazy or afraid to do. The contrast between that mission and the reality of some of Vice's business practices seem to bother employees almost as much as the low pay. Quite a few of them scoffed at Shane Smith's assertions in an interview earlier this year that "we don't do branded content, we do content sponsored by brands," and that "No programming has ever been edited for a sponsor." Among the responses we heard from Vice employees on that point:
- "Just saw the Shane Smith 'we never edit anything for brands' bit on Gawker. That's bullshit. They constantly edit to keep brands happy. When I worked on THUMP, we had to delay the release of a film 'Blackout' to not offend Heineken, who had sponsored the vertical's launch. We also had to be sure to cast subjects that met their standards and practices, had to edit out the names of venues, and went through lengthy and irritating approvals processes before any video made it to the website."
- "'No programming has ever been edited for a sponsor, he says.' —that's not true. when i wrote for vice they made me edit out all curse words and references to artists with beverage sponsorships, since the content was underwritten by Brisk."
- After a writer posted a story critical of Nike, "The sports editor didn't know about brand clearance either and was getting hammered for running the piece because of what a huge account Nike was and how much content they create for them."
- "Shane's vague distinction between brand sponsored content and branded content is pure spin. VBS had loads of content in their archive which we would edit together in various different ways in order to snag certain clients on certain occasions."
- "Shane's spiel about branded content is bullshit. They have whole verticals on the site that are sincerely compromised by the brand involvement, none of which seem to realise that if they invested in the edgy, heroin-chic of Vice then they'll get edgy, heroin-chic content. Sort of a reverse Bill Hickian sucking Satan's cock."
The main thing that we heard from current and former Vice employees was frustration. Frustration at Shane Smith's failure to share any of the company's spectacular financial success with his workers; frustration at being taken for granted, on the assumption that Vice was too cool of a job to ever quit. Vice does lots of good work, and Vice knows it, and uses it to its advantage. Most of the Vice employees that spoke to us don't hate Vice—they love(d) it. All they want is decent pay and conditions in which to do the good work that attracted them to the job in the first place.
One former section editor at Vice told of near-poverty-level paychecks and long work hours in a freezing office that made her sick. But her concluding note was one not of outrage, but of disappointment: "I've never been treated worse by a publication I worked towards, and for, that hard."
Update: Vice's response to this post, "VICE to Gawker: Fuck You and Fuck Your Garbage Click-Bait 'Journalism,'" can be read in full here. It does not refute any of the specific claims made by our sources about salary figures or about changing content to suit advertisers.
[Image by Jim Cooke. You can contact the writer of this story at Hamilton@Gawker.com.]