14 Apr 2019

Global squeeze on Vice prompts local closure

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 14 April 2019

Over the past four years, a small team of local journalists at multimedia outlet Vice has published New Zealand and Pacific stories that have been watched and read around the world.

A new lid-lifting look at billionaires’ bunkers beneath our soil is set to go viral too. So why has the plug just been pulled on Vice’s local journalism?

Frances Morton, outgoing editor of Vice NZ.

Frances Morton, outgoing editor of Vice NZ. Photo: Michael Duignan

After the atrocity in Christchurch last month, NZME head of business Fran O’Sullivan called on “the mega-rich who have invested in luxury property here to ride out the Apocalypse” to step up.

“Do they up sticks in the wake of the terror attack? Or come out from their boltholes and use their international pull to assist New Zealand?,” she asked in the Weekend Herald.

O’Sullivan reminded readers that former prime minister John Key had sold New Zealand overseas as a sort of ‘South Seas Switzerland’ for high net-worthers fretful of instability up north.  

And it seemed to work.

There were “articles aplenty” in overseas media, she said, some of which suggested some investors had brought prefab survival bunkers with them.

She picked out the funniest one: A brief guide to riding out the Apocalypse in New Zealand on the local site of global youth-focused digital news and entertainment company Vice.  

But it turns out Vice NZ took this seriously as well.

Last Friday at Auckland’s Academy Cinema it unveiled Hunt for the Bunker People - a half-hour documentary produced by Michael Duignan - in which Vice's Baz Macdonald went looking for the mega-wealthy preparing for doomsday here.  

Baz McDonald in 'Hunt for the Bunker People' by Vice NZ.

Baz McDonald in 'Hunt for the Bunker People' by Vice NZ. Photo: supplied

But doomsday has already arrived for Vice’s NZ journalists. The entire editorial team was made redundant earlier this month.

After Vice NZ opened, general manager David Benge set up a team in Auckland with dedicated journalists working with freelance production crews making videos which appeared online - and on the Viceland TV channel added to the Sky platform in 2016.

With editor Frances Morton at the helm, Vice NZ launched its local content hub and video series Zealandia in 2017.  

The aim was to present “an honest view of New Zealand ... beyond the rugby jerseys, DIY makeovers and backyard BBQs”.

A scene from Vice's Mahana documentray by Tess McClure.

A scene from Vice's Mahana documentray by Tess McClure. Photo: screenshot / Vice NZ

For example, last year's Syn City told the personal stories of New Zealand's deadly synthetic drugs crisis. They've also done intimate portraits of life for teenagers in the Chatham islands and the rot setting in at the Mahana commune

Vice’s cameras went inside the sex work industry in New Zealand, the world of lethal lady wrestlers  and the Lost Boys of Taranaki - a group of 14 and 15 year olds who growing up among poverty, gangs and boredom.  

Earlier this year, Vice NZ released one of its most ambitious documentaries: a story of Tongan nationals sent back there after prison time in New Zealand and the US.

Deportees of Tonga: Gangsters in Paradise was viewed more than 600,000 times worldwide within 24 hours and has been watched more the 5 million times on YouTube alone since then.

“If New Zealand does not actually pay attention to what we are seeing, it’s going to backfire on New Zealand,” the chair of the Tongan Advisory Council Melino Maka told a public screening of the documentary in Auckland in February.

The Zealandia videos - driven by producer Ursula Williams - are as good as any current affairs you’ll see on our main TV channels. Several have been nominated for the the country’s main prizes for journalism: the Voyager Awards.

There’s a fair amount to read too on Vice NZ’s site in sections about politics, culture, LGBQT, drugs, opinion and  crime  - and one where the NSFW stuff is housed.

So at a time when Vice NZ’s journalists were doing so much right, what went wrong?

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Photo: supplied

“It was part of a global restructure. There have been job losses here and in other countries. We were a successful and profitable office. This decision was made offshore,” outgoing Vice NZ editor Frances Morton told Mediawatch.

“I’m told there will still be New Zealand content on Vice, written from overseas offices or by freelancers here," she said.

After the recent Christchurch attacks, more than 25 stories by the small team have been published - and read and watched by the global online Vice audience as well as the one here.   

Vice correspondent James Borrowdale is in Christchurch now writing about the fallout from the mosque attacks for the global Vice news site headquartered in New York.

“We thought we would be taking it easy, cleaning out our inboxes and the cupboards - but it was not an option to turn away from the story,” said Frances Morton.

Vice isn't the only digital age multimedia startup that’s hired good journalists and produced good work in this part of the planet: the Huffington Post, the UK’s Guardian started up in Australia, as did Buzzfeed which had a staff of 40 at one point 

They gave big names in Australian news a run for their money, but Vice was the only one to take the plunge here.   

But lately, the likes of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Vice have all shed a lot of jobs around the world.

In February, The Hollywood Reporter first reported big layoffs at Vice Media to “refocus around its TV production unit, its international news team, its digital properties, and its original TV content”.

“At the end of the day New Zealand is a small population in this restructure and not an important enough market to keep investing in an editorial voice here on a permanent basis," Frances Morton told Mediawatch.

"We were always trying to do immersive storytelling from under-reported communities. In the case of the Lost Boys of Taranaki, it’s a lot easier to cover the story of youth justice from the perspective of a judge or a policy adviser," she said.


"But we went into the bush and spent many days with young teenagers taking part in a programme to get out of the cycle of offending. They’re the most powerful stories where you’re getting to the crux of what decision-makers need to deal with."


Several multi-media Vice projects have been publicly funded by New Zealand on Air now that the agency is 'platform-agnostic' - accommodating online media content as well as radio and TV programmes.

"There are so many ways you reach an audience and I think we are seeing media in New Zealand trying to do that across different platforms. We couldn’t have made the long-form documentaries without that support, and just like any other media outlet in New Zealand we were restricted by the revenue we could generate within our market,” Morton said.

Even the occasional visitor to Vice NZ can't fail to notice that drugs are a regular topic. Sex too - both novelty yarns and deeper articles about sexual identity.

"We didn't have a guide book that says: 'You are Vice and you must write about sex and drugs'. At the same time Vice is aimed at youth and that period in your life is when exploring drugs, sex and sexuality is high on the priority list. The key is that there has to be a balance otherwise it can be cliched or feels like button-pressing," Morton said. 


"There are other areas that we focused on  - like mental health, Maori issues, the MeToo movement and housing - that were of interest to our audience too."