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Off The Fence

Dear Readers,
 
Good afternoon, and welcome to Off The Fence, a newsletter that fulfills its true function today: we’ve got a lot of news to share.
 
First up, we’re delighted to share a very generous profile of the mag from Bron Maher at the Press Gazette, who came to visit the office a few weeks back. If you’ve ever wondered how we operate, and what it’s like to be stuck in a room with us, then read this and wonder no more. 
 
Issue 12 has now been out in the world for a week, and thank you to all the subscribers, contributors and readers who have been sharing photos of the mag on social media. There have been some super snaps so far: shout-outs to Dr Mark Blacklock, writer and miscellanist, Ben Schott and also to Nishant Choksi, who has posted some of his astonishingly brilliant illos from the issue. It’s a real boon for the hard-working team to see these photos – please do keep sharing them on Twitter or Instagram.
 
At the current rate of sales, Issue 12 will be sold out in a matter of days, so do make sure to secure your copy from the webstore ASAP
 
To business. Like many of you, we’ve been a bit bewildered by TikTok, the social media platform where people do funny dances and news corporations duel it out for teenagers’ attention. Around six months ago, we heard rumours that Vice Media had decided to place the platform at the centre of their editorial strategy – and we wanted to know more.
 
Jigging for ByteDance 
 
Over the last year, social media channels have supplanted traditional publications and websites as the source of news and information for Gen Z, with nearly a quarter of US adults saying they use TikTok to get the news. Vice Media, keen to maintain its dominant market position as a global powerhouse for edgy yet informative content, has been focusing slowly and now suddenly to a ‘social-first’ strategy, and Vice World News now has a following of over two million on TikTok. But at the same time, almost half of Vice UK’s editorial staff have left in the last 12 months. We spoke to a number of employees both past and present there, to find out more about the latest pivot, and what it means for the mediascape at large.
 
In late 2019, Vice told their UK-based editorial staff that their writing obligations would not be increasing, but rather decreasing – they would now be required to commission, edit and write only one or two pieces per week, rather than the usual three to four, at the same time they were loaded with new administrative tasks as staff started to depart and weren’t replaced. It was, in one source’s telling, like ‘they were waiting for everyone to leave.’ 
 
After the stress of working remotely in the pandemic, in the middle of 2020 there was  a company-wide announcement that the editorial focus would not be on creating articles for the website, but on creating content for the social media channels – primarily TikTok. The message was delivered bluntly and swathed in corporate-speak: as one insider puts it ‘marketing execs don’t know how to talk to journalists.’ For many of the Millennial-aged staff, who were experienced editors, being compelled to do ‘watered-down’ content for Gen-Z was a kick in the teeth.
 
For everyone we spoke to, it was one pivot too far, but ironically, the strategy made some sense. ‘It was a completely sellable idea,’ one source told us, ‘they just didn’t know how to sell it,’ and had they made more effort to ‘nurture Millennial staff’ than it might have had a chance of success. Another former employee told us ‘It wasn’t as stupid as other things they’d done, but I’d had enough by then.’
 
In the 2010s, Vice UK developed a distinctive brand of journalism, focusing on stories far away from its Shoreditch base, and plumping the company’s sarky house tone with a British sensibility. From Clive Martin’s seminal ‘Big Night Out’ series, to Sirin Kale’s superb investigations, many of the best young writers currently operating in the country made their names at Vice.
 
Interestingly, this was all overseen – on an executive level – with some degree of independence from Vice’s Brooklyn HQ, with management teams in the UK (and elsewhere) having a degree of autonomy from the Williamsburg boardroom. But in March 2018, when the company was restructured as Nancy Dubuc replaced Shane Smith as CEO, a lot of European executives were fired, centralising the control of Vice Media in New York. 
 
For many UK-based writers, the communication between the American bosses and the British workers has been a significant sticking issue, and the ‘social-first’ pivot was the final straw. ‘A lot of these Americans just don’t know what they’re doing,’ one source tells us, ‘and we used to have people like Alex Miller [then Head of Content at Vice UK] to gee us up after we’d had some long video meeting.’
 
In April 2019, Vice got rid of its ‘verticals’ – including Munchies, Noisey, Broadly and Amuse – and also, we are told, started to focus more on identity politics. ‘We were told to stop being funny,' one source relayed. These volte-faces had exhausted many on the hard-working editorial team, who felt exhausted, confused and undervalued. Then the pandemic made their minds up for them.
 
One insider suggests that Vice Media suffers from one key problem: it is always chasing new investors, and then these investors hire a set of management consultants who tell the company’s executive team that they can try a new form of content, that they can make feature-length documentaries, produce films or bet the house on a social media platform that stands accused of having helped censor and surveil content regarding the treatment of Uyghurs in northern China.

For now, there is no way for Vice to monetise its relationship with TikTok – but that may change soon. In the meantime, the company’s rap sheet has become lore: one of its founders went on to launch the Proud Boys, and it was recently revealed that Vice helped manage the image of the Saudi Arabian government. They have partnered with Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, to launch a ‘vaping push’ in a sponsored content deal. And the company was restructured after a stinging investigation by the New York Times into multiple allegations of sexual harassment at an executive level. 
 
Vice UK has produced many brilliant pieces – across different formats – in the last decade, and has been a significant platform for many of the best young writers in this country. Whether Vice Media are interested in maintaining that distinct brand of British journalism from their American HQ remains to be seen.
 
A Noble Sediment
 
Generally speaking, we publish articles for the widest audience possible, but on occasion, we commission something that has one ideal reader. In the case of Henry Jeffreys’ piece on dealing with haughty sommeliers, that ideal reader is Andy Hayler, the first person in the world to visit every 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, and a man whose knowledge of wine lists is simply unparalleled (see his recent review of The Ritz as an example).
 
It was a joyful moment when Andy retweeted Henry’s article: there is, genuinely, no higher praise in this case. And you can read the piece for yourself here.
 
Chants Would Be a Fine Thing
 
When you think about it, there seems to be no unifying reason why football fans sing such a strange array of songs – from Verdi arias to Neil Diamond singles. So we contacted a fully-fledged musicologist to see if there was one. And there is! In this brilliant article, Chris Milton shows how terrace favourites all link back to Pythagoras, that well-known AEK Athens ultra. 
 
Sweet Caroline has been a hit elsewhere recently. If you haven’t seen the clip of Boris and Carrie Johnson’s first dance… well…. here it is.
 
You Know What to Do
 
As we mention with no little frequency in the interview above at the top, we are reliant on subscriptions to the print magazine to keep driving the project forward. Janine Gibson, who has worked as the assistant editor at two of the world’s leading newspapers, says that you should subscribe because we are ‘independent and small and rude and funny’ (this is true).
 
Oli Franklin-Wallis, who is the features editor at GQ, says that ‘very few magazines are made with as much love and attention as The Fence’ (this is also true).
 
The price of a subscription remains set at £25 – and that’s not changing time anytime soon. If you’ve been relishing what we do in the newsletter & online, do sign up to the print magazine today.
 
Prints Charming
 
Julian Lloyd was one of the first subscribers to The Fence, and, as we discovered, has an archive of photography that should be placed in the holdings of national museums. With beautiful photos of the British and Irish countryside, and portraits of some of the most iconic stars of the 20th century, Julian has combined a life as a stud farm manager with taking beautiful black and white photos that have only been digitised in the last five years. Julian had his first exhibition a few months back at the age of 75 – and we hope his work continues to win the acclaim it deserves.
 
The editor, Charlie Baker, interviewed Julian for our friends at Dirt, and Julian was kind enough to share some of his best snaps from the archive in the piece. Do give it a read, and you can also follow Julian on Instagram here.
 
In Case You Missed It

John Lanchester talks about the under-discussed fraudpocalypse that shuttered one huge German corporation and nearly destroyed another.

Fake News story of the week has to be Étienne Klein’s photo of a distant star, which he later revealed to be a slice of chorizo.

Rich Cohen discusses the many mysteries of ‘Murder Boy’ in an engrossing jolt of True Crime, for Air Mail.

For the Church Times, the Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie wonders why he hates weddings.

The New Yorker’s Tad Friend goes door to door with professional salesman Sam Taggart, in a revealing, colourful tale of hard selling.

Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Caravaggio break bread at Enya’s Killiney castle in Séamas O’Reilly’s fantasy dinner party. 

Drive & Listen lets you drive through dozens of global cities while listening to live local radio, for a strangely tranquil and displacing experience.

And Finally

With news that Dane Cook (50) is now engaged to his, erm, long-term girlfriend (23), age-gap discourse has been well and truly riding again. [Star comment we’ve encountered thus far: ‘Dane Cook has tribal bicep tattoos older than his fiancée’].

We couldn’t possibly comment on what attracts rich, powerful and ageing male comedians to very young women, but it did make us spare a thought for such trysts from a slightly less online age. Like back in 1993, when 38-year-old Jerry Seinfeld took up with 17-year-old high school student Shoshanna Lonstein.

As Gawker wrote some years ago, their relationship was, at the time, treated as more of a charming oddity than the very, very weird thing that it was, despite Seinfeld being then at the dizzying height of his 90s superstardom and Lonstein a literal schoolchild. Luckily, it didn’t escape everyone’s gaze. In this 2019 tour-de-force from comedian Jeremy Kaplowitz, pitch-perfect ruminations on wanting to date a woman less than half your age are paired with one of the best Seinfeld impressions we’ve ever seen.

‘Why is it that your girlfriend’s parents are the same age as you?’ he asks. A piece of observational humour the future Mr and Mrs Cook might laugh along to, perhaps.

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That’s all for this week. Do let us know if you have any postal issues/ praise /bon mots/ insults by replying to this email, and we’ll get back to you promptly. Stay cool and see you next Monday.
 
All the best,
 
TF

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