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The ambitious, adventurous journalists at Vice practise 'immersionism'

Posted: 03/20/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 03/20/2014 9:15 AM | Updates

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Vice's Shane Smith (centre) gets close to the story.

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Vice's Shane Smith (centre) gets close to the story.

"We're not action junkies or anything like that. We just want to get the good story."

That's what host/producer/reporter Shane Smith had to say when the HBO news/documentary series Vice was launched last year, introducing a 10-episode season of aggressive, in-the-line-of-fire reporting that included examinations of Taliban-recruited child suicide bombers in Afghanistan, political assassinations in the Philippines, the dangerous politics of the world's deadliest border, oil-patch piracy in Nigeria, and Dennis Rodman's controversial "diplomatic" trip to North Korea.

The series, a spinoff of the like-titled alt-news magazine and website, is co-produced by Real Time host Bill Maher and features a stable of Vice reporters who embed themselves in an ongoing series of risky circumstances in order to get stories -- or, at least, unique spins on stories -- that traditional TV-news outlets seem disinclined to pursue.

Vice returns this week for a second season, kicking off its sophomore campaign with an instalment that explores the staggering waste and corruption surrounding U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in Afghanistan (a tab that exceeds $100 billion and has produced meagre results) and the futile efforts of Brazilian officials to repair Rio de Janeiro's reputation as a drug and murder capital as that country prepares to host two major global sporting events -- the World Cup and the Summer Olympics.

Each 30-minute episode of Vice includes two reports, which are longer and decidedly less polished than what viewers usually encounter in network newscasts. Ottawa-born Vice co-founder Smith -- bearded, variously tattooed and ambitiously adventurous -- serves as the series host and also takes on a large chunk of its field-reporting duties (in the first two instalments of Season 2, he makes the aforementioned trek to Afghanistan and then travels to Greenland to witness the climate-change-induced glacial melt).

Smith's journalistic career actually began north of the border in the mid-'90s, when he and a couple of partners launched the youth-focused Voice of Montreal magazine. The publication eventually shortened its name to Voice, and then, after Smith decided to take a shot at Stateside success, dropped the "I" and shortened the title to something that more accurately reflected the alternative-culture focus the magazine had developed.

"We were sort of going after the 150,000 most cool kids in every country," Smith explained last year during HBO's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "And because of that, we eventually (were selling) 1.5 million copies of the magazine. We had 3,000 contributors. They were giving us all kinds of stories.

"Our creative director, Spike Jonze said, 'Hey, you're filming all these stories, right?' And we said, 'Yes.' And then we went back to the office and said, 'How the hell do we do that?' because we weren't. So we got cameras, and we went out and started shooting. And it was sort of a very public lesson in video production, but the stories resonated... (and) we realized there was a huge audience for that. And then we switched over to doing a lot of video production around that time, in 2006.

"Now we have 34 countries, over 1,000 full-time employees and 3,000 contributors. We have so many stories, and we love shooting them. So we wanted to take the best of the stories -- you know, our gold standard -- and put them on the gold standard of TV which is, for us, HBO."

Smith added that a key element in Vice-style journalism is the correspondents' willingness to spend relatively long durations following each story the series presents.

"We go in with smaller crews," he explained. "We practise a type of journalism we call 'immersionism,' where we go and we stay in the area for long periods of time. We stay with local people. We have local stringers. We dress the part. We don't try to be intrusive. And we just try to be smart about it.

"Smaller crews help, and now high-quality cameras can be (compact). So it's not like it was before, when you needed big cameras and lighting rigs and sound rigs and all that stuff.

"We descend into those locations, not as traditional news crews.... We're not there to expose; we're there to immerse and really just tell a story. And I think, because we come as storytellers, we're often welcomed into these situations or communities. And because they open themselves to us, we therefore have access to tell a rich human story."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 C8

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Updated on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 6:58 AM CDT: Replaces photos

9:15 AM: changes headline

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