Rupert Murdoch Invests in Edgy Upstart Media Company Vice

The man who bought MySpace for $580 million and sold it for $30 million has just invested in an edgy media company geared toward young people. This time it might work.

Old media love nothing more than new media that get kids these days. So Twenty-First Century Fox, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has bought a 5 percent stake in Vice Media for $70 million, which values the company at a staggering $1.4 billion.

Vice is a modern media company that specializes in music, video, and stunt journalism. It started as a music magazine in Canada that became notorious for its provocative covers, as well as a target for the ire of feminists (an ire that still burns quite brightly to this day). Since moving to New York, Vice has launched a music label and published books, and it even owns a pub in London hipster haven Shoreditch.

Vice has a show on HBO that features its gonzo journalism. Correspondents are sent into global hotspots and often become the stories themselves. Vice was all over the news earlier this year (and came in for a lot of criticism) when it coordinated a game of basketball in North Korea for dictator Kim Jong-un and his new friend Dennis Rodman. Vice has become an adept purveyor of the in-your-face, no-envelope-left-unpushed kind of cool that establishment players can only hope for. Lizzie Widdicombe wrote an extensive profile of the company for The New Yorker. According to that profile, its 2012 revenues were $175 million. Last year Forbes thought Vice might be worth a billion “someday.”

Someday turns out to be today.

“Murdoch’s reason for investing is obvious,” says Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “If he is going to continue building a media empire, one needs to reach younger audiences.”

For Vice, the deal represents an opportunity to leverage Fox’s footprint in Europe and India to continue its global expansion. And “if a stuffed-shirt old guy walks down the street in Brooklyn and offers $70 million, they’re going to take it,” declares Thompson.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Murdoch has splashed out cash in an effort to buy some cool. His highest-profile attempt at the new-media market was the purchase of MySpace for $580 million in 2005. After Facebook left the social-networking site in the dust, News Corp. ultimately sold MySpace at the knock-down price of $30 million in 2011—long after it was the butt of many an ageist joke. So damaged was the MySpace brand that even a relaunch teased with a video featuring a who’s who of hipster celebrities was pooh-poohed. Another recent foray into the digital future, the iPad newspaper The Daily, also failed to make much of an impact.

The money and access Fox might provide Vice will doubtless come in handy. But for a company whose success with millennials is predicated largely on a hip brand, why climb into bed with a man who, upon learning of Vice in the fall of 2012, tweeted, “Who’s heard of VICE media? Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media. Global success.” (Possible Murdoch tweet after visiting Vice’s Brooklyn headquarters: “Who’s heard of Brooklyn? Wild, interesting city with millennials who aren’t employed in established jobs.”)

Ironically, in a response to a follower who asked if he would buy Vice, Murdoch tweeted, “No way! Last thing they need is corporate sponsorship.”

Yet Murdoch may still surprise. Despite the gargantuan MySpace stain on his new-media reputation, Murdoch has had a series of mind-boggling new-media successes over the last several decades. Fox Broadcasting has been on the cutting edge since its inception with shows like Married... With Children, America’s Most Wanted, Cops, The Simpsons, 90210, Family Guy, Glee, et al. The establishment laughed at Fox News upon its launch and then watched in horror as it amassed a large audience and became hugely profitable.

“An awful lot of people with money to invest may not have compatibility with what they buy,” Thompson notes. But that doesn’t mean the relationship won’t be mutually beneficial. Indeed, a lot of the hand-wringing over whether this means the end of Vice’s edgy brand is tied to “this ’60s notion of selling out, where somehow if you signed to a big label, you were selling out.”

Today the great desideratum of a counterculture startup brand is to find a deep-pocketed corporate backer willing to splash out big bucks to add a rapidly growing upstart to its stable of products and services: Instagram, Tumblr, and now Vice.

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It’s all about selling in.