According to the Vice News supremo Josh Tyrangiel, the time of the television news anchor is over.
And he may be right. The legendary Walter Kronkite of CBS, whose words once held a nation in thrall, is long dead. So too is Peter Jennings of ABC, while Dan Rather of CBS and NBC’s Tom Brokaw have retired from fronting bulletins and Katie Couric has been sidelined into online news. In today’s all-consuming media environment, the anchors on the biggest UK bulletins lack the stature of past greats such as Alastair Burnet, Trevor McDonald and Jeremy Paxman.
The current crop of American anchors is beset by a crisis in credibility that encompasses journalistic integrity and moral values; Brian Williams of NBC News has been embarrassed by the exposure of his false claims that he came under fire in a Chinook helicopter while covering the invasion of Iraq. Billy Bush, host of NBC’s ‘Today’, was the man bantering with Donald Trump in the infamous Access Hollywood tape that revealed the president’s misogyny. And calls are being made for the sacking of Bill O’Reilly, the face of Fox News, after reports that his employer paid out $13m to settle claims by five women that he sexually harassed or verbally abused them.
Add to that the accusatory refrain of 'fake news' that mainstream journalism must contend with in the Trump political era, and you can see that reading out the headlines has never been so tough.
“I don’t think there’s a person that a plurality of Americans, let alone global citizens, actually trust enough to be sitting in a chair behind a desk,” says Tyrangiel, who is attempting to take on the big networks by shaking up the familiar infrastructure of the television news bulletin.
When he launched Vice News Tonight last October, he did so without an on-camera newsreader, a “bet” which “really paid off”, he says. The show, screened by HBO, has quickly found a nightly audience of 540,000 and a younger viewer profile than its more established rivals.
Personality journalism – although you could argue it dates back to the times of Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens – has become a prevailing trend in the past 20 years.
Young reporters who once would have been trained to report objectively from the sidelines, their bylines and lower-third name tags mainly of interest only to their media peers, have been encouraged to make themselves part of the story, while simultaneously developing their own “personal brands” on social media. The rise of blogging and the need to stand out in the information overload of the internet have favoured theatricality, subjectivity and polemic opinion.
'Nobody is interested in you'
But Tyrangiel thinks that audiences have had enough of journalism’s ego-tripping. “What we have tried to tell [Vice News Tonight’s staff] is ‘Look, nobody is all that interested in you. No offence, but people are interested in stories.’ We didn’t hire anybody with a recognisable television background or a recognisable brand.”
Vice News Tonight, which can be seen in the UK on the Viceland UK channel on Sky (with much of the content also available on vice.com), has no desk and many of its stories are told in voiceover. On screen reporters dress down and don’t spend a lot of time getting made up or dressed up. They have an identity but it is a collective one, of youth and diversity.
“I think the audience is so exhausted by reporters being part of the story, by reporters conveying some of their own opinions within a piece,” says Tyrangiel. “We are currently swamped by people sharing their opinions about the news in the news. Nobody needs us to do that.”
He admits that his strategy is partly defined by budgetary constraints which mean he cannot “just go creating an all-star team of recognisable people” but he says that “necessity is the mother of invention” and he has instead chosen to focus on hiring younger staff from a wide variety of work and ethnic backgrounds. The newsroom “looks like a Benetton ad”, he says. “I know that every community has at least some representation and stories that we otherwise would never know about, not only are we hearing about them but we are making them before other people.”
Tyrangiel, whose official title is executive vice president of content, news, has responsibility for the Vice News output on vice.com and its weekly Vice documentary show on HBO, as well as Vice News Tonight.
When he agreed to take the job last year, after winning admiration in US media circles for his transformation of the Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, he warned Vice co-founder and chief executive Shane Smith that “nobody’s going to need a nightly newscast” because audiences are receiving news updates on their phones all day. But then he spent time taking a long look at the established offerings from the TV networks and realised there was room for innovation.
“From a format perspective they are all exactly the same,” he says. “There’s a person at a desk and then there’s tape (recorded film). If they don’t have tape, the person at the desk has to read the story. And if the story is too long or too complicated to read then they just don’t do it. I think that, more than anything, is a reason why the younger generation have fallen out of favour [with bulletins] – they just don’t believe in the TV news because on Twitter they can see that something has happened and then TV news, which is supposedly comprehensive and authoritative, doesn't tell them about it because they can't figure out a creative solution for how to show something.”
Tyrangiel’s approach “from the very beginning” was that Vice News Tonight would think differently about pictures. “I said I don’t care how hard the story is and I don't care how complicated the story is, we are going to report on these things and, it’s 2017 for God’s sake, come up with a visual solution!”
His priority appointment was a director of design and graphics, Kenton Powell, who has overseen an inventive approach to the use of graphics and animation, exemplified by the bulletin’s recent use of drawings to depict a complicated legal case which barred cameras from the courtroom.
Vice grows up
Vice began as a streetwise magazine in Montreal in 1994, and for many young people today it has been around as long as they have. Shane Smith, 47, might berate the “baby boomer” executives of traditional media for failing to connect with millennial audiences (as he did in his lecture to the Edinburgh Television Festival last year), but Vice is now a generation old and faces its own battle to remain recognisably a “youth” brand, especially now that it has investment from 21st Century Fox, Disney and Viacom, and its broadcasting partnership with HBO.
There is surely a possibility that many of those who began engaging with Vice as a fresh voice a decade or more ago will stick with it, and that Vice will mature with them into middle age. Smith himself has said it has dropped its “hipster’s bible” approach in favour of more serious journalism.
Tyrangiel argues that serious content is entirely compatible with having a young audience. The way to attract youthful viewers is not, he says, to conspicuously court them. “I started my career in MTV News, it was the first time that there was really a youth news platform and one of the things I learned was that if you want to reach young people, don’t try to reach young people. Nobody wants to be patronised less than young people,” he says.
The answer to finding a young audience is recruiting young staff. “I have a newsroom full of people who are younger than me and to them I am Moses – I am 44 years old and they look at me as though I am some sort of Cretaceous creature,” he says. “What we don’t do is ever ask a question ‘Would young people like this?’ because you are lost at that point. Young people like serious stuff just like old people do.”
Recent Vice News Tonight content includes a feature on American immigrants from Latin America migrating onwards to Canada because of their fear of Donald Trump, a study of Greek youth unemployment and a report on rising racial tensions in Paris. The show brought together three British former Guantanamo Bay detainees to reflect on their horrific experiences and their journey towards rehabilitation over a restaurant meal in the West Midlands.
Tyrangiel makes further references to Vice News’s lack of financial resources, in comparison to more established rivals. But he claims this as a virtue – “I never want too much money because i think [that] can make people a little bit coddled and lazy” – and knows that Vice News does not have to cover every story and can pick subjects it thinks will have maximum impact. Its recent production Europe or Die, a feature-length documentary including some of its most dramatic footage of mass migration, is a case in point.
Relationships with other media
In this approach Vice News depends heavily on the support and ideas of freelance filmmaker stringers, and Vice News Tonight executive producer Madeleine Haeringer has a key role in maintaining such relationships. Vice was forced to review the way it treats freelancers last year after a damning article published by the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted evidence that Vice had previously failed to properly reward freelance journalists for their work.
It recently forged a partnership with The Guardian which, although not as ambitious as the project sounded when it was announced last year, has seen three Guardian journalists seconded to Vice’s London bureau in an exchange of skills and ideas.
Tyrangiel has five subjects he wants Vice News to really focus on, namely climate, culture, technology and, most importantly, domestic policy and international news. “We are not afraid to open the show with news out of Russia, news out of Libya or news out of Mosul,” he says.
Reporting on governments closer to home can be as challenging for different reasons. “I think it has never been harder to get access than in Washington and in London,” he says, claiming that both the White House and Downing Street are choosing not to engage with the media. “There is an inherent belief… that we (governments) don’t need you to tell our story, we can tell the story ourselves and you are biased,” he says. “I am concerned for the obvious reasons. Governments should not be allowed to tell their own stories, they need fact-checking, they need to be pushed back, we have a vital function when it comes to holding people accountable.”
Tyrangiel does not seem overly impressed by the efforts of some other news broadcasters in that regard, suggesting that they are feeding the mood of distrust and anger that prevails in Trump-era politics. “They have 24 hours to fill every day and most of what they are filling is talking heads generating outrage,” he says.
Vice News, its boss claims, will “try to focus on the most fundamental aspects of journalism; talking to people, showing people situations, explaining really complicated stuff and staying as far away from outrage as we possible can. Nobody needs more of it, that’s for sure.”