The Ryerson Review of Journalism won multiple awards at the recent annual Association for Education in Journalism Mass Communication's Student Magazine Contest. In addition to placing top in the single issue category, three articles from the Winter, 2011 issue also won (two firsts and a second) — as well as two articles in the Summer, 2011 issue (two third places). Haven't picked up a copy yet? Check out Stephen Baldwin's newly-honoured AEJMC winning piece Vice Goes Global: How a foul-mouthed upstart became an unlikely outlet of praiseworthy journalism.

The Ryerson Review of Journalism won multiple awards at the recent annual Association for Education in Journalism Mass Communication's Student Magazine Contest. In addition to placing top in the single issue category, three articles from the Winter, 2011 issue also won (two firsts and a second) — as well as two articles in the Summer, 2011 issue (two third places). Haven't picked up a copy yet? Check out Stephen Baldwin's newly-honoured AEJMC winning piece Vice Goes Global: How a foul-mouthed upstart became an unlikely outlet of praiseworthy journalism.

BAGHDAD, 2006
Iraq’s August sun blasts waves of heat like a blow-dryer to the skin. Under palm tree shade, Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti are surrounded by a motorcade of film crew and AK-47–toting security. They’ve paid $1,500 a day for a bulletproof suv, another car without armour, two drivers, two shooters and a translator named Ahmed, who begs to have his identity hidden for fear of his life. Alvi and Moretti are two of the young moguls at the helm of Vice magazine, the counterculture bible-turned media-conglomerate. They’re in the most dangerous city on Earth to interview the four members of Iraq’s only heavy metal band, Accrasicauda. “We’ve been following them for three years and we needed to check in on them, see if they’re still alive,” Alvi explains.

They’re a long way from New York, where Vice has endured as a centrepiece for North America’s hipster culture since the late 1990s. But its ability to agitate the rebel youth is lost in a place like Baghdad, where true counterculture movements don’t launch magazines–they launch mortars.

“Nice and tight — get that belly in there,” Alvi mumbles to Moretti as they strap on beige flak jackets. “This is risky, it’s dangerous,” says Alvi to the camera. “People would say it’s really fucking stupid for us to be doing this, but, um, you know…heavy metal rules.”

This opening scene from Heavy Metal in Baghdad marked the moment at which Vice’s shift in identity began to manifest itself through film. The VICE Films documentary — a critical success at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival — pulled the pair away from their comfort zone among North America’s subcultures and into an unpredictable international underbelly.

For Alvi, it’s been a gruelling journey. As one of the three founders of Vice, he has guided the magazine from a crude Montreal indie rag covering the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll of the underground scene into a multi-million-dollar media conglomerate employing 560 people in 30 countries — not to mention 2,500 freelance print, web and broadcast contributors. Moretti, who has had varying, but central, roles in the company since 2000, is the executive producer of Vice’s web channel, VBS.tv (Vice Broadcasting System). It launched in 2007 as the company’s third content channel, after Viceland.com and the magazine, all of them free. VBS.tv tackles international stories with elements of social justice. Its Vice Guide to Travel and Vice Guide to Film have steered audiences through gun markets in Lahore, the radioactive wasteland of Chernobyl, and an undercover investigation of North Korea. The filthy discourse and ignorance of cultural taboos that Vice built its reputation on remain (see VBS.tv’s Asses of the Caribbean and Japanese Senior Porn), only now they’re positioned alongside global issues and responsible journalism (see VBS.tv’s Mecca Diaries and House of the Setting Sun). The two sides are on different ends of the spectrum, but they both share Vice’s propensity to stumble upon raw, if sporadic, truth.

Viceland.com and VBS.tv together receive nearly four million hits per month in the U.S. alone, and Vice magazine has stretched its distribution to an international circulation of over a million copies in 25 countries — 28 by the end of 2011, including China, Russia and South Korea. But while this expansion from local to international markets has been fuelled by the popularity of its subversive content, it’s the company’s commercial relationships that have financed growth. Over the years, Vice has entered a number of unexpected unions with corporate giants, which have found a lucrative side route to profit off of a hipster youth demographic that has been trained to reject them. Retail companies like Sony and Nike have been advertisers for years, but it’s the more recent deals that threaten the company’s anti-establishment roots. VBS.tv and its new mtv show, The Vice Guide to Everything (Moretti is an executive producer), are both produced in association with Viacom, which by 2010 was the fourth-largest media conglomerate on the planet. Vice also has web projects with Dell and Intel, and a marketing arm that has put together campaigns for companies like Microsoft and ESPN.

While these projects would be marked as achievements for a mainstream media company, the measure of success for a counterculture magazine is its ability to reject popular culture and remain exclusive. It’s by this gauge that critics see Vice as both a success and a failure.

So how is it that Vice has increased in popularity even after associating with the same corporate foxes that it claimed to subvert? How does a company that has based its reputation on celebrating subcultures survive as a mainstream entity? Think of Vice less as a band of sellouts, which they may well be, and more as a reinvention of the mainstream.

To continue reading Vice Goes Global, visit the Ryerson Review of Journalism website.

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