Conventional wisdom holds that young people don’t watch television news. VICE is a weekly newsmagazine airing on HBO that stands in opposition to that premise. With a "gonzo" nod toward Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke, the show presents 20-something correspondents in dangerous situations lifting the lid on provocative stories, sometimes served with first-person, emotional reactions. This journalistically ambitious fare—think homeless children living in Bogotá sewers—is often interspersed with lowbrow and vulgar material more in line with VICE‘s roots.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell how to read the show. In a recent episode, VICE cameras covered an exhibition basketball game between members of the Harlem Globetrotters and the North Korean national team. In attendance were Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman. No other "normal" news-gathering organization got that footage.
The show’s combination of audacity and populism has proven formidable. Even more enviable in today’s media world, it makes money online—an estimated 80% of the operation’s revenue is generated there, led by a YouTube channel with over 2 million subscribers. Side ventures include book, film and record label divisions.
Jake Burghart, who oversees the crews that shoot the content, began shooting himself about eight years ago, bringing a background in surfing and skateboarding shoots. Senior producer Brendan FitzGerald, who says he was first drawn to filmmaking by Jem Cohen punk music films, has been onboard for five years. Both work on content for the HBO program, as well as for other outlets in the VICE universe.
The show thrives on putting viewers into environments that are fraught with tension and instability—places where network news camera crews rarely travel, Richard Engel aside. But FitzGerald says that no one is looking to take undue risks. "We all want to tell the story, and some stories are in dangerous places and some are not," he says. "We work with good people on the ground, and at this point, we all have pretty good instincts. We know when something doesn’t feel right, and we turn around and leave if that’s the case. We’re all married, and none of us are daredevils. We want to come home and see our families once we get the story."
One example was a story on sexual harassment in Egypt that featured a female host. The shoot was planned with 50 volunteers helping with protection, but in the event, only 15 showed up. "I told Shane [VICE mastermind Shane Smith] that my instinct was that we couldn’t protect the host," says FitzGerald. "It wasn’t even a discussion; we didn’t even get on the plane."
Still, a taste for excitement seems to be a requirement. "It was my first time in Congo that really made me fall in love with conflict zones," says Burghart. "I didn’t grow up wanting to be a war photographer or a conflict journalist, but I always grew up as an adventurer. Getting that taste of adventure and travel just makes you want more. And yet, when you’re there, you want to come back and do something safe and fun. You always want what you don’t have."