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Justin Ling is a freelance investigative journalist who writes the Bug-eyed and Shameless newsletter.

We were going to fix journalism.

It was late 2014, and I had just joined Vice, the counterculture-magazine-turned-documentary-bad-boy-turned-new-media-journalism-darling. With roots in Montreal, the company was returning to Canada, flush with cash from Rogers Media. The Brooklyn bosses believed there could be no limit to the company’s growth, and it was hard to disagree. We would do for streaming video what Edward R. Murrow did for the evening news. A Vice TV network would bring people back to cable. We would produce movies, throw parties and change the way people consumed media. And we’d look good doing it.

Such was the hype that the company would soar to a US$2-billion valuation that year – which would later balloon to US$5.7-billion.

As one of the first journalists hired in Canada, I was invited to make up my own job title, and I went with “parliamentary correspondent,” becoming Vice’s first and last Ottawa reporter. “Like you,” then-Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose joked to assembled journalists at the 2015 Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner, “we woke up one morning to discover that we’re now taking our professional cues from some hipster named Justin.” I turned across my table, red-faced and laughing, to the new prime minister.

It all feels foolish, looking back on it now. Last week, Vice – bankrupt and deep in debt to a swarm of hedge funds – announced plans to shutter the official website and lay off editorial staff. Our brash, ambitious, maybe foolhardy attempt to remake the media ultimately fell into an all-too-familiar story: Hype, debt, decay, collapse.

There is plenty to rightly dislike about the culture and chaos that Vice cultivated. In its early days, it made content out of intern torment. There were serious allegations of sexual misconduct that went ignored or covered up. One of its founders, Gavin McInnes, launched a street gang that Canada has named a neo-fascist terror group. Some Vice footage was selectively edited to be more sexy than true. Our Toronto office was a hub for a cocaine-smuggling ring (which the culprit tried, somewhat hilariously, to pin on me and celebrity chef Matty Matheson).

The majority of the journalists, producers and staff who actually made up Vice, though, tried to make it something more than an edgy meme.

The whole ethos of its journalism was the idea that the distances between the news, the journalist and the audience should be as small as possible – perhaps so close that your noses are touching. It brought the ethos of war reporting and investigative journalism to everything, from hip-hop to food to drug culture. That had a big impact on a generation of wannabe journalists who had a hard time seeing themselves in the pages of The Globe and Mail or as a correspondent on The National – myself included. I vividly recall sitting in a loft on Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal, leafing through a copy of Vice magazine and thinking: I want to do that.

I joined the company in its heyday, when it was defined by fearless – sometimes bordering on reckless – reporting that was meant to elicit gasps. Aris Roussinos infiltrated the Islamic State shortly after its terror caliphate was proclaimed; Simon Ostrovsky helped prove Moscow’s involvement in the 2014 tumult in eastern Ukraine, and got kidnapped because of it; Elle Reeve went inside the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and provided an unflinching view of the new radical right.

The lesson, through all the gritty new-media Vice of it all, was an age-old fact: People want more hard news, not less.

For years, trust in the media has been in freefall, and journalists have been debating how to fix it. Should journalists be objective? Is that even possible? Should our own experiences and biases be removed from the work of gathering the truth, or should they actually be highlighted, to acknowledge them to our audience?

Vice News managed to sidestep a lot of those questions with its fly-on-the-wall reporting style. When it worked, it built trust with viewers and readers by bringing them along for the ride, instead of explaining things after the fact. It talked to readers like they were equals – and considering Vice’s army of underpaid millennial writers, that felt genuine. And for all that work, Vice News won a Peabody, four News & Documentary Emmy Awards, and a stack of other hardware.

The company’s collapse was not a failure of good reporting, which it was still producing in spades. But that was never enough for the company’s leaders and its corporate investors. Journalism doesn’t produce the kind of profits that finance fat executive bonuses and plans for limitless expansion, but nevertheless, Vice’s executives applied the brand’s swashbuckling style to the boardroom, striking deals to expand far beyond sustainability, larding the company with debt, and obsessing with selling off the new-media vanguard to old-media vultures. Along the way, Faustian bargains were made with social-media giants such as Facebook and Snapchat, making the journalists dependent on platforms that seemed to barely tolerate them.

I left the company in 2017, increasingly convinced that the company bosses didn’t actually understand the media industry, let alone journalism. A few months later, the first deep layoffs began.

In this business, success is not enough. The work of those at the bottom – and in the Brooklyn offices, that literally means in a basement – attracted millions of dedicated readers, racked up billions of views, and fundamentally changed an industry. But the company’s hedge-fund masters believed they could separate its value from its workers, while its ex-punk founders were so convinced that the company must grow or die that they wound up driving it to do both.

Vice is hardly the only media startup to flame out recently – BuzzFeed News, where I subsequently took a contract gig, died an inglorious death last year – but it is perhaps the most depressing, because it continued to be exactly what it said on the tin: ambitious, entertaining journalism.

Demand for that was still strong. That’s why Vice’s style is still being imitated everywhere – its visual style, its bombastic headlines, its offbeat story selection. But we’re worse off without the original.

Vice’s inept and hubristic leadership deserves plenty of blame for the failure. But the company was ultimately killed by a vampiristic corporate class in an industry that too often treats journalists as liabilities, not assets. So despite all its bleeding-edge new-media ambitions, Vice became just another victim of the oldest story in the book: greed.

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