Monday, December 01, 2008

Unpublished Masthead Article on Vice Magazine

Point Taken
Ryan Bigge

After a few beers, most grad students will bemoan the fact only a handful of people will ever read their thesis. As a journalist who recently completed a Master’s degree, I’ve slowly accepted the fact that my 158-page examination of Vice magazine will garner fewer readers than a typical issue of Modern Dog. While my thesis looked at how Vice succesfully used transgression and irony to create a profitable niche publication, my inner magazine nerd was careful to take notes on their tricks and tactics. The following pieces of advice are considerably shorter than my thesis, and I promise not to justify my new degree with a bunch of polysyllabic academic gobbledygook. (Besides, given the rather low per word rates in the Canadian magazine industry, my editor can’t afford any twenty-five dollar words.) Here, then, is what I really learned from studying Vice:

* Always Stay in Character. Vice began as free monthly newsprint (Voice of Montreal) in 1994 (renaming itself Vice in the fall of 1996) and went glossy in October of 1998. Soon after, it moved HQ from Montreal to New York, and has since gone on to start a record label, open a half-dozen clothing stores, launch an online video site (, put out a DVD travel guide and publish two anthologies. Despite hopping from platform to platform with the frequency of a cheap ham radio, Vice has managed to transfer its essential “Viceness” to each of these projects, allowing the magazine to reach new viewers without alienating their core audience.

* Slick Design is Overrated. At the risk of understatement, Vice’s content is colourful. Over the years, the magazine has published large photographs of vomit, clothing advertisements starring porn stars and a review of a NAMBLA Bulletin. Almost as shocking as Vice’s content is their low-key design, which an editor once admitted “was ripped off from National Geographic.” Until recently, the magazine eschewed typical front-of-book conventions like tightly packaged info-nuggets, instead preferring plenty of white space. This anti-design approach served the magazine well, helping it to avoid the eye-burning graphic design excess of other cutting-edge magazines like Wired and Raygun. Vice’s look and feel also remained constant between 2001-2006, which, in an era of frequent (and often unnecessary) redesigns is an accomplishment worth observing.

* Experiment with the Medium. This suggestion might appear to contradict the above point, but here I refer to the paper the magazine is printed upon, rather than how material is arranged on said paper. For their fifth anniversary issue, Vice’s cover featured a metallic shiny surface meant to resemble a mirror. This eye-grabbing gambit reminded me of the first holographic image printed on the cover of National Geographic -- except in Vice’s case there was a line of cocaine decorating the mirror. Vice has also featured die-cut and fold-out covers, along with embossed lettering, stickers, multiple covers and an annual photo issue printed on oversized stock. These extras have helped turn what is otherwise a free, disposable monthly magazine into a collectible object.

* Embrace Technology Cautiously. Vice has not only avoided embarrassing graphic design fads, but acclimatized to new technologies at a moderate pace, which belies their cutting-edge, street culture ethos. Vice managed to avoid a number of Internet missteps through a combination of budgetary constraints and patience – although their dot-com investors did force them to pour far too much money into a short-lived e-commerce portal. Vice was certainly not the first magazine to decide to embed a blog into their website, but it’s there for a reason, and it’s executed strongly. Being better is sometimes preferable to being first.

* Acknowledge Your Hit Songs. Although fewer editors would dare admit it, most magazines are remembered, at best, for one or two regular features. This is not to say the rest of your fine publication is birdcage liner, but Harper’s without the index is simply not Harper’s. Vice has realized for a long time that their fashion Do’s and Don’ts are a core element of their character, and have been careful to nurture and sustain the popularity of that feature. Musicians often complain about having to play their hit song every night, but Vice never seems to get tired of making fun of the fashion impaired. Although I lack an official survey to prove this, I am certain that magazine editors get tired of regular features years before readers do. I was very sad to see Toronto Life eliminate its Icon feature a few years back. Ditto National Post Business Magazine’s Deconstruct. I’m confident others miss these too.

* Reward loyal readers. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, author Steven Johnson observes that Seinfeld made repeated references to Art Vandelay (an alias favoured by George Costanza) over the course of the show’s nine seasons. However, entire seasons would go by between mentions, which presupposed a loyal and attentive audience. Vice also assumes their readers are loyal and devoted enough to read every issue and remember the ongoing preoccupations and in-jokes. When Vice celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2003 by pretending to redesign the magazine into its bizarro world equivalent, the magazine failed to provide much handholding for their readers. Not only did the parody issue require a thorough knowledge of Vice, but many of the jokes hinged on being familiar with magazines that Vice competes with. The issue demonstrated a delicate mix of arrogance and confidence that Canadian magazines should strive for more often.