Vice, the young-man-focused skateboard, sex, travel, music and international
derring-do multimedia empire based in Brooklyn, was the subject of a favorable
story in last week's New Yorker magazine.
Alone among media companies, Vice appears to have figured out a new and profitable relationship with advertisers. Or rather, it has convinced advertisers that its view of the world is unique enough, cool enough and splashy enough that advertisers should just shut up and support it.
The New Yorker story was both an official nod that Vice is a hot media company, and a kind of risible acknowledgment that nobody in mainstream media saw Vice coming or knows quite what to make of it -- or how to imitate it.
Almost immediately, the rumors began in earnest about which established company might buy Vice, with valuations beginning in mid-stratosphere -- Google among them.
Google is, of course, a possible buyer of everything, but there is always particular interest about its intentions when it comes to media.
Many believe that, even though Google regularly says it is not a content company, content will prove both irresistible to it for reasons of prestige and influence (it is often mentioned as a possible buyer of The New York Times), and necessary. It makes its money selling advertising adjacent to content.
There is even some sense of inevitability here. Google now survives on other people's content, but how long can that go on if those content providers cease to exist?
What's more, Google, heretofore a practical monopoly, is now facing true competition from off-Web apps and other search methods.
Like all media companies before it, Google will need to further distinguish itself. It has to feed its audience.
Still, Google has seemed not only cagey and resistant when it comes to media, but also kind of out of it.
Just as the rumors about Vice were heating up, reports were going around that Google was getting rid of the one clear, old media-type content acquisition it had made: Frommer's Travel Guides.
A travel-related website, Skift.com, reported that Google was "quietly pulling the plug" and returning the company to its founder, Arthur Frommer.
Google's decision to retreat from the travel guide game was as sphinx-like as was its move to get into it -- and once again offered a relative blank sheet on which to imagine its strategies and ambitions when it comes to its media future.
When the deal was done to buy Frommer's just eight months ago, it elicited, from the few media people paying attention, a collective, "Huh?"
Frommer's was a middle-rung brand in a labor-intensive business in a genre -- travel information -- that had largely been overwhelmed by the Internet itself. Still, this was the first time Google seemed actually to acknowledge that it needed to own content, specifically to enhance Google+.
Of course, the Frommer's guides, representing a negligible cost to Google, might well have been just an errant purchase.
Given the very short time Google owned Frommer's, it surely seemed that Google had discovered something that it hadn't anticipated about content and travel guides -- perhaps, for instance, that travel guides go out of date.
But it is likely the Frommer's deal, which sent a signal, a rather desperate one, of needing some content to call its own, was just one more step in Google's steep learning curve into the media business.
Google, in the end, can't be immune to the crisis that is gripping anybody who sells advertising -- the crisis that Vice, seemingly alone, has found a way out of.
Yet, the striking thing is how far apart all the principles in the advertising conundrum remain.
To the traditional media business, Vice seems as though from another planet.
(There is a scene in Page One, the documentary about The New York Times, in which Times' media reporter David Carr clearly regards the Vice team as being subhuman.)
From Google's point of view, the entire media business rather seems like a culture of strange rituals and unfamiliar artifacts.
Buying Frommer's in the first place suggests, on Google's part, both an inchoate need for "stuff, good stuff, like useful information" (I have been in many meetings with technology people, and this is, uniformly, how they talk about content), and the strong possibility that the only thing the kids at Google know about books is what they've seen kicking around their parents' homes.
It's worth assuming that a great many people in the most important company in the media business know very little about what the media business actually does.
Newspapers, no. Books, no. Magazines, no. Music, stolen. Video, mainly the scattered, brief, random forms of it.
This is why Vice, a small revolution in sensibility as well as ad sales, and pretty much the media polar opposite from Arthur Frommer's travel guides, might be the logical bridge for Google to the media world.
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