Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: VICE has recently undergone some structural changes. How does your role now fit into this?
Dory: I’m an Executive Editor in our digital newsroom. The way that our newsroom works in the US right now is, since May, when we moved all of our distinct verticals back into one major VICE.com, we’ve split the newsroom into a variety of different desks that cover a bunch of topics.
So my purview is to really oversee our culture and entertainment desks, lifestyle, style, and that really encompasses everything from movie, TV, film, food to health and wellness, sex, personal finance, drugs, recreational drug coverage, so it’s quite a wide purview.
But my general role is to really guide and shape the coverage in those areas, and oversee quality and journalistic standards, and really build, along with our executive leadership team, digital strategy in those areas.
And is that easier to do now that all the verticals are under that quite clearly branded umbrella, or has that become a bit more challenging?
That’s a great question. I mean, I think the short answer is, it’s a lot easier. Now that we’re able to be one coherent unit, in terms of developing the strategy, it’s a lot easier to be able to build something forward-looking for one major entity than to have to fine tune and tailor a similar but slightly different strategy for a whole bunch of smaller properties.
Also, I think the way that we’ve really been thinking about it is in terms of the value that we can now provide to our audience; being able to come to one destination and find everything that you’re looking for, versus having to go to a bunch of different URLs, different O&O’s, I think is a much more beneficial and exciting experience for our audience. So that’s been really a great boon to our coverage and our teams here.
And also, it’s much more efficient to be able to work as one organism rather than as a bunch of siloed sites.
VICE has – to put it politely – it’s got quite a distinctive voice, it’s got quite a clearly defined audience. But how is it evolving its tone and focus as basically the core audience of what used to be, 20-something millennials are now basically growing up?
Yeah, I think actually that the question is a little flawed in the sense that our core audience who started out with us is evolving and ageing, but we are also every day bringing in new users who are still 18 to 25.
I think that what is exciting now about the coverage that we’re doing is that we’re able to really appeal to actually quite a broad swath of people. Yes, our audience that’s been sort of diehard VICE readers are growing with us, as we continue to build out coverage in the areas or around the issues that are pertinent to them, while we simultaneously continue to speak to the young audience that we sort of made our brand on.
So I think that what we’re thinking about is, what are the specific issues or topics that are interesting to an 18 to 25 year old demographic, versus what are the topics and stories, or issues that are facing maybe that 26 to 35 demographic?
But also, what are the key issues, universal instincts and stories and problems that face that wider demographic, and how can we start to guide and build up and speak to that younger audience, and then bring them with us through their evolution to where our core audience is now, in that sort of older, I guess you could say, demographic.
So I think it’s less about how do we evolve our tone, and really about how do we continue to speak to young people in the world today in a way that feels relevant to them, and feels important.
No VICE for mortgages then yet!?
I mean, we’re really thinking about – especially in our lifestyle coverage – how we can actually talk to an audience that is getting a little bit older, that is starting to tackle some of the challenges that you might face in your early 30s, whether that’s long term or committed relationships, whether you’re interested in marriage and how to navigate that, how to think about changing family structures and what the family looks like.
What we’re really trying to do with our coverage there is, look at who the audience is, and think about what problems they will be encountering, and speak to those. So if that happens to one day be a discussion of mortgages, then so be it, but I think what we’re really trying to do is help our audience navigate through life, and whatever the challenges are, that are encompassed within that, then that’s what we’re going to talk about.
Relating to that, you’re planning to launch an account for Munchies on TikTok this month. What’s your experience of TikTok been like so far?
Well, I think TikTok is a very unique and interesting platform. We are launching our Munchies channel on I believe, November 18th is the exciting day. But we’ve always been keen to take on and expand to new platforms, and we saw that and really leaned into that back in 2015 when we launched on Snapchat Discover.
But Snapchat, and Discover especially is not like TikTok. On TikTok, the content really has to be original, fresh, organic; it needs to really lean into the sort of cringeyness and humanity of the TikTok platform and I think that’s something that we’re really trying to embrace.
So while on Discover, we had played around with both original franchises but also how to format the content that we created for our own verticals onto that platform, with TikTok, we are taking a completely different approach where it will be all original content just designed for that platform, so that it can really feel authentic and have the right vibe, have the right tone of voice, and feel good to the audience, and really speak to the audience that is on that platform.
I think that TikTok is certainly a platform that does not suffer fools or people who have a very inauthentic brand voice. They’re actually a platform that really celebrates that zaniness, that weirdness.
And so, for our launch, and for the coverage that we’re going to be doing there, we really want to create stuff that feels designed just for that platform and that audience.
So with food coverage, food is actually really huge on TikTok as a vertical or subject matter. So we want to start by really talking to the audience who’s there about the things that matter to them in that subject area.
So we’ll be looking at dorm life, or DIY, or testing weird food combos, or doing food ASMR…stuff that’s really key to, and core to what VICE has always done.
That’s going to have to have dedicated resource, because you can’t presumably use that same video for Instagram stories or things like that?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think because TikTok is certainly an exciting new platform, that most people in the digital industry are looking to, and thinking about as the new Snapchat, it is something that we want to devote time and resources to.
But at the same time, we’re really building up our innovation team, and the teams here that do a lot of that more interactive content. We actually created a working group that can help test this different storytelling format, that will include VICE staffers, that will include culinary experts, producers, visual artists and audience development specialists to see how we can really experiment on this platform and create a really new kind of VICE content.
You’ve got an astrology section as well on VICE that I’ve read has been quite popular with the next generation down, generation Z. The Astro Guide app was actually getting paying subscribers! So what’s the story behind that? Why is astrology still a thing?
It’s interesting. I mean, that question is half a question of our story, and also half a very existential question about people looking for structures to help create meaning in their lives, which is very much what astrology is.
Back when we launched our gender and identity focused vertical Broadly back in 2015, witchcraft and astrology was actually one of the main pillars that we focused on, because we could see that this was something that was starting to gain in popularity, become part of the zeitgeist, and that young people were really focusing around, because I think it actually is a way – and there’s a spectrum of people who are excited about astrology who take it, some very seriously some less so.
But I think what people are really looking for is a way to create structure and meaning in their lives, and also a way to make sense of what is happening in the world around them, and to them in their interpersonal relationships.
What we saw is that, that content, that the way that we were tackling it was really resonating with our readers; they would come back time and again. Every month we’d see a huge spike when we launched our monthly horoscopes. And so we really wanted to think about how we could take that loyal audience that we had built, and that community that that we were involved with that we were speaking to, and create sort of a premium product for them that would have value, and that would have meaning.
Recently, maybe a couple of months ago, we were written up in an article in The New Yorker – that was looking at astrology and its impact on society – as being the most informative and well-researched astrology app, because obviously there are a few out there. That really speaks to what our strategy has been all along, which is that we’re taking it really seriously.
There are a lot of people out there who think that astrology is shoddy or it’s like, whoo, whoo, or whatever it is, and they are more than welcome to their opinions. But what we decided to do that I think is a little different from how some other publications might have been treating astrology, is that we’ve decided to go really deep, and immerse ourselves within that community, as as our tendency, as it’s sort of the VICE way, take it really seriously.
And that comes out in our coverage, so that not only was it important for us to be able to provide value to an audience who was dabbling in this, whether it was just weekly horoscopes or just wanting to know what their compatibility is, who are sort of just scratching the surface, but we also wanted to be taken seriously by the astrology community. And we are.
So I think that that is really where we’ve been able to provide value to the readers, and why people have ended up paying for this app, is that we went really deep. We were like, well, if this is what you guys want and what you’re interested in, then we’re going to take this incredibly seriously, and give you a really nuanced, inclusive, diverse astrology app and format.
As an editor, do you ever feel pressure to tone down VICE’S VICE-ness to appeal to sponsors and partners who seem to be increasingly wanting a ‘safer’ environment these days?
No, not at all. I mean, I think on the first level, we have a really well delineated church and state separation at VICE.
But beyond that, it’s in fact our fresh and direct approach which is why brands come to us. They’re looking for that brand, trust, reputation, authenticity of voice, and I think they’re looking for an audience that demands that, that’s loyal to that, and that is excited by that.
To that extent, like at our [new friends] presentation earlier this year, our President of International and Global Chief Revenue Officer Dom Delport talked about our decision to take these 25 significant words that were on this brand blacklist off, and why we stood behind content that included those words.
Those are words such as bisexual, gay, LGBTQ, HIV, Jewish, Muslim. I think our POV is, we understand, but those topics are so core to our coverage and to our audience, especially for younger generations like Gen Z and millennials, that we feel very passionately about covering those topics, and we are not going to shy away from those things because these are so much so part of the lived experience of those generations and what they care about that we couldn’t really be who we are and shy away from those topics.
That really sums it up in that, in order to be able to build the audience that we want to capture, and continue to be relevant to it, we need to push forward with our bold, direct approach.
Brands that want to work with us and who come to work with us are really looking to be able to tap into that audience. And I think that they know that in order to do that, they have to be ready to grapple with some of this subject matter, or at least understand that it’s a part of the lives of the audience that they’re trying to reach.
Presumably that audience will pull you up quite quickly if you weren’t covering those things.
Absolutely. It’s hard to imagine a world in which in which we didn’t, and as we’ve always said, our audience has a really strong bullshit detector. So the second that we started to back away from that, they would sense it in a in an instant, and I just don’t really think that’s a proposition that we’re really that interested in.
You’ve been at VICE since 2015. And that time has been, to put it mildly, pretty tough for a lot of digital pureplays. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen – either good or bad – in the way that VICE has adapted to the digital media landscape? I mean, you’re still here, so that’s a good thing!
Absolutely. I mean, yes. The last, five years, four or five years have been incredibly challenging for the industry as a whole, there’s been a tonne of rollercoasters, whether that’s been the Facebook algorithm, rollercoaster, ad sales, or pivot to video, they’ve sort of all come and gone through the industry.
I think that what the biggest positive change has been in terms of, where we are now, is that there’s really a focus on wanting to just tell great stories, and have fun doing that.
VICE has been lucky in that we’ve been able to get ahead of some of those rollercoasters, or that uncertainty, by diversifying our business. Diversifying in terms of platforms, and also in terms of the types of business that we’re participating in.
And so I think that for this question specifically, we aren’t just a digital pureplay, right, we have a television network, we have an advertising agency, we have deals with Showtime, Now and Hulu, where having that diversified revenue has actually really offered us a little bit more freedom to experiment in the digital world, or to ride the waves as they come.
But what has really carried through is that we really just want to focus on our storytelling, on building our audience, and on providing really empathetic, cutting edge, deeply investigative coverage on our platform that can help to inspire our audience, and help them navigate through a world that, honestly becomes increasingly complicated each day.
Apart from TikTok, what sort of things are you focusing on next year?
I think we really want to continue to focus on publishing great stories across platforms that have impact. We want to grow our audience, obviously, and we want to make sure we’re continuing to diversify it, and build it out, or looking to really build out our global audience. That’s something that we’re really going to be focusing on in 2020 is how we can continue to have a global impact, really build out.
We have offices all around the world, so continuing to build out infrastructure there to make sure that we’re really working together to provide a real global snapshot of the world to our audience on any given day.
I think that one thing that’s really helped us as a media company over the last few years of change, is that this company was really built on change as the norm. We’ve always privileged experimentation, tried to be on new platforms, tried different types of businesses. And what that’s actually done, and what that’s created, is an environment where change is the status quo.
So as the industry shifts around us, and as some of our competitors grapple with these sea changes, and with a shifting landscape, because change has been our bread and butter, we are not as shocked as some of our competitors are.
We have the ability to just keep pushing forward, because we’re used to always being in a state of flux. And I think for me personally, that’s why it’s always been exciting to come to work here, is that there’s constantly a desire for creativity, for new ideas, and to push the envelope further.
That is why, in an industry where people sort of hop around from publication to publication and change jobs every couple of years, I have felt excited to stay at VICE because there’s always been new opportunities, whether it’s a new platform that we’re experimenting on, or a new type of coverage, or a new topic that we really want to build out into, there’s always been new opportunities to learn, to shape new coverage, to try something new.