Empowering the Freelance Economy

Vice’s woes leave lasting impact on freelancers

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OPINION

Vice: edgy, irreverent, juvenile, inexplicably cool. Many a freelancer’s dream publisher, as long as you were not bothered by the reportedly dubious journalistic methods and clickbait gold headlines. As Vice’s corporate ego grew, so did the calibre of freelance journalistic talent. Yet executives didn’t get the memo on how to respect freelancers, a considerable group of individuals who helped fuel the company’s rise. Has Vice forever burned its bridges with freelancers and top creative talent?


In 1994 three friends from Montreal – Shane Smith, Gavin McInnes and Suroosh Alvi – created the magazine VICE, which was originally named Voice of Montreal. The magazine focused on the punk movement, drugs and rap within the Montreal area. The publication content was edgy. It used visually striking and thought-provoking photography to connect with the Generation X audience in a way that other media companies couldn’t.

Vice’s outlandish headlines would make you do a double-take. In the age of watercooler office chat, you’d only bring up what you read on Vice if you didn’t embarrass easily. With your mates, it was a different story.

Later into the 90s, Canadian software entrepreneur Richard Swalzinski invested in the company for a 25% stake which allowed the team to relocate to New York, a hub of culture and strange stories about the underbelly of US society. This injection of funds allowed Vice to branch out and they quickly started sending journalists to other countries to document interesting events and groups around the world. In 2006, with the emergence of YouTube, Vice could now publish their video journalism projects on a website that was open and easily accessible for everyone to view. The rise in popularity of YouTube was parallel with the rise in hype and viewership around Vice, soon making them one of the highest-valued media companies in the world.

Over the years, the publisher would grow to 35 offices, create a TV and film production company and form a creative agency. But with this growth followed successive funding rounds and debt. Debt to cover debt and flush executive salaries, bonuses and expenses. The company was living up to its name.

Fast forward to May of 2023 and Vice is filing for bankruptcy.  In July 2023, Vice Media Group would be sold to an investment consortium of its existing lenders including funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group LLC, Soros Fund Management and Monroe Capital. In the same month as the bankruptcy announcement, Softbank-owned Fortress Investment Group, an American investment firm investing on behalf of institutional investors, would be acquired by Mubadala Capital, one of the investment entities backed by the sovereign wealth funds of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Deep pocket investors, but will they have a taste for portfolio company Vice’s historically saucy and highly controversial content? Time will tell if the Vice narrative changes if it hasn’t already.

No site, no matter?

In February 2024, it was reported that Vice would stop posting on their website Vice.com and would have to let go hundreds of employees. Chief Executive Bruce Dixon explained the reason for this decision, “It is no longer cost-effective for us to distribute our digital content the way we have done previously.” In other words, not publishing on its own website, but the likes of X and TikTok.

From attracting millions of viewers to becoming site-less. Some may see this move as a fall from grace compared to the situation of the company in 2017 when it was valued at around $5.7 billion soon after private equity firm TPG invested. But other things could be happening under the hood that will only be revealed should other parts of the group be sold off and to whom.

Freelancers caught in the crossfire

According to a report by The Verge, Vice Media has faced some serious financial and emotional turbulence. Layoffs, bankruptcy, reported harassment cases, you name it. But what stood out amidst this commotion was how freelancers found themselves caught in the crossfire, some even named in the bankruptcy court filings.

Vice’s recent rollercoaster of layoffs and financial woes offers a reminder of why freelancers can be the unsung heroes of the corporate world, yet often end up as the last in line when it comes to getting their due.

Even as far back as 2016 multiple freelancers reported Vice publishing their work without paying them as well as promising assignments, and later rescinding them. Vice was reportedly aware of their problematic treatment of freelancers, many working outside the US, and said it would make steps towards mending the relationship between the two.

The head of content at Vice at the time of the article stated, “We’re constantly taking steps to improve the experience for our freelancers, and we regret if the journalist writing this story didn’t experience the high expectations that we set and strive towards.”

I can’t help but sense an emptiness to this statement based on Vice’s past actions.

Guardian writer Sirin Kale recently mourned the demise of Vice Media. In the article, Kale acknowledges Vice’s shortcomings, particularly regarding employee treatment. However, she emphasises the talent and originality of Vice’s journalists, highlighting how they provided a launchpad for her own career.

Kale blames the company’s downfall on poorly performing executives who were more concerned with their own high salaries than with the future of Vice’s innovative journalism. Kale sees the closure of Vice leaves a gap in the media landscape and represents a blow to aspiring journalists.


The emoji still has its power

In a March virtual town meeting led by Vice Media Chief Operating Officer Cory Haik about layoffs, frustrated staff responded with a bombardment of thumbs-down emojis. According to a filing Haik, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, was last reported to have a salary of $726,068, Yahoo reported.

@bobbymang666

Vice Media CCO Corey Haik wss girved to cut her layoff meeting short due to an onslaught of thumbs down emojis from employees #vice #vicemedia #vicemediagroup #layoffs #medianews #firing #failure #loser

♬ original sound – Bobbymang666

What can hiring companies learn from this?

So, what’s the solution? Well, for starters, companies like Vice can treat freelancers with respect and professionalism. That means not requesting work without pay or avoiding the topic of pay, paying on time, communicating clearly about expectations and deadlines, and valuing their unique contributions. Just because a freelancer is based overseas does not mean they can be considered secondary suppliers and fobbed off when payment is due. That kind of working relationship will create reputational damage.

Know your worth and set boundaries upfront

Freelancers must be their own advocates. Before starting any client relationship, especially with those preliminary requests, do your due diligence on the company and know your worth.

Be upfront about your deliverables, work style, and expectations. This includes payment terms, your working schedule, the number of revisions included, and weekend availability. Clear communication from the beginning helps prevent misunderstandings later.

Spot sticky client situations early

By setting boundaries and knowing your worth, you’ll be better equipped to identify potentially problematic clients. This frees you to focus on projects that value your expertise and time.

In the meantime, I will track where and what Vice is posting to find the side of a story that otherwise would be left untold. And hope the journalist writing it was treated with respect and paid on time.  

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