Vice Media's Jesse Angelo Takes on the "Corrupt System" of Cable News

THR_JessAngelo_1130 - THR - H 2019
Jai Lennard

In his first wide-ranging interview since joining the company, the former New York Post leader and Murdoch confidant addresses digital skepticism and why Viceland will focus more on news and politics: "It will be an evolution, not a revolution."

After more than 20 years at the New York Post, Jesse Angelo crossed the East River in June, joining Vice Media as the Brooklyn-based company's first president of global news and entertainment. Angelo, who opted to take a desk in the middle of the company's newsroom, is still getting his bearings in the world of digital-first media. The Manhattan native, who oversees a 200-person news staff, is one of CEO Nancy Dubuc's top lieutenants as she looks to turn the onetime digital darling into a profitable and lasting media business following a round of layoffs in February and its uncoupling with HBO. The news group has rebounded with a docuseries on Hulu and plans to revive Vice on Showtime. Cable network Viceland, meanwhile, is moving in a more news-heavy direction with the relaunch of Vice News Tonight, a step that suits the longtime newsman, who began at the Post as a reporter. (He oversaw some of the network's live coverage of the congressional impeachment hearings from Times Square.)

In his first wide-ranging interview since joining Vice, the 45-year-old who once roomed with longtime friend James Murdoch at Harvard declined to speculate on the future of Rupert Murdoch's prized tabloid now that he's departed. He was comfortable, however, discussing Vice's multiplatform, revenue-diversified future, which rests on the acquisition of Refinery29 (a deal that boosted its audience to 350 million monthly users worldwide), a ratings-challenged Viceland, a bustling online content empire and a growing audio portfolio. Angelo, who has two young kids with his wife, screenwriter Rebecca Dana, says he's long been a fan of Vice's unique voice, calling out the company's 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad as seminal for him: "I'd always admired them from afar."

What have you learned about the Vice audience in your first few months at the company?

The most important thing is that our audience trusts us. In an age when there is so much distrust of media, so much distrust of social media, we've done a lot of research on the topic: 90 percent of people under 35 who know Vice News trust it; 78 percent of people overall who know us, trust us. That trust is incredibly important to what we do, and we take that very seriously, and a lot of that comes from the authenticity of our correspondents and of our coverage, and for treating them as equals and treating them with respect, and having the news made by people who look and sound like them.

What's been your biggest learning curve since coming to Vice?

I would say two things. One, it has reinforced to me what I relearn over and over again in my career as a leader and an executive, which is how much your attitude and enthusiasm and optimism impacts the people around you and the products you make. On the flip side, the longer-form, incredibly immersive, field-based documentary work that has made Vice News what it is, is not something I had a tremendous amount of exposure on. 

Why did you pick a desk in the middle of the newsroom, as opposed to an office?

My feeling and experience is that if you are a leader, and you spend all of your time behind closed doors in an office, you're going to hear precisely what people want to tell you, rather than hearing what you need to hear to understand what's happening in your businesses. I also want to be accessible. I want to talk to everybody. I want to hear the ideas around them. I want to hear the pain points they have. If they're grumbling about X, Y or Z, or the telephones don't work, or the Wi-Fi isn't working and that's stopping me from doing my job, those are the kind of things I need to know. You're not going to know that unless you're sitting out among people hearing the chatter. 

With the 2020 election around the corner, will Viceland focus more on news and politics?

Yes. You will see more and more news and information programming on Viceland through the year. It will be an evolution, not a revolution. Vice News Tonight, coming early in the new year, will be the big stake in the ground.

Has Vice's consumer research determined that your audience wants more news?

Yes. We dispel the myth over and over that the youth aren't interested in news. What our research shows is: When it comes to Gen Z, they believe that they are activists and that saving the world and changing the world and making the world better is their personal duty. And they take it incredibly seriously. We want to make sure we're giving them the tools and information they need to do that.

Do you, personally, understand that very young audience?

I hope so. I'm getting a little gray hair, but I'm still young at heart.

How will a news-heavy Viceland compare to the programming on a cable news network like CNN?

What we see, in both our research and audience numbers for the other cable channels, you are at this moment — certainly in America and I think around the world — of upheaval, where there are a lot of people who are completely rejecting the system. They see partisan advocacy journalism and partisan advocacy talking heads as part of a corrupt system that they wish to throw away. There is this moment where people are saying the system is broken, and they see places like CNN as part of that system, and they see us as authentic and honest and very much not part of that system.

How do you personally feel about the product the cable news networks are offering right now?

I think there's tremendous opportunity for Vice, and I think that a lot of what they're doing is formulaic, and I think there is huge appetite for a new voice. We already see that. We already know that. And I think we're going to bring something very different into the mix.

How urgent of a priority is it to improve Viceland's ratings?

We are obviously always looking at all of the metrics of our businesses, and we always want to improve all of our business, but we are in the news business for the long haul. This is something we believe is fundamental and core to the mission of this company going forward.

What does Vice's future look like?

Incredibly bright. We just closed the Refinery29 acquisition. We are looking at a lot of other areas of expansion. As I said, news is a huge focus. This is a place that moves very, very fast, and the corporate cadence is electrifying, and the ambition — and Nancy's ambition, where she wants to take this company — was part of what drew me here. When she first started talking about what she wanted this company to be, and what she wanted the news and TV and digital businesses to be, I was blown away by the ambition.

What have you done to make this a better place to work for women and people of color?

This is a company that is over 50 percent female. If you look at the leadership of our newsroom, it is predominantly female, and females of color. That is radically different than any other news division I'm aware of. The culture was already here. My job is to make sure I don't mess it up.

Are there specific company culture issues you want to prioritize? How would you describe company morale?

You know, newsrooms are grumpy places. I think that's a universal truth — in my experience. Look, I labor every day to make this a better place to work, make this a better newsroom, to make the overall company and the digital businesses, to make the whole place better. Whether I succeed, I guess time will tell, and my staff will tell you. But culture is something we take very seriously here. There's an enormous amount of programming and thought that goes into what we do inside this building, in terms of events, in terms of staff get-togethers. There was beer pong the other night. It's something we take seriously. We want people to work here. We want the people who are here to be happy. And we want to be able to give them the ability to grow, both in their careers and in their lives.

Is the skepticism about the future of digital media unwarranted?

We believe in digital media, but more importantly, we believe in differentiated content and intellectual property. When you look at Vice and when you look at Refinery29, what you're really looking at is authentic voice, credible content creators.

Are you guys looking at acquiring other, similar-sized digital media companies?

I don't want to give you the misleading impression of, "Yes, we're looking to roll up lots of digital media companies." As I said, we're looking at all sorts of different things, and I mean that very broadly.

Did you advise James Murdoch on his decision to invest in Vice through his Lupa Systems vehicle?

James has been a big supporter of Vice for many, many years and has been involved with the company for many years, well before Nancy and I ever sat down. He believes strongly in the differentiated voice and attitude that Vice brings to the media landscape.

How often do you guys talk?

I'm not going to talk about who I talk to or what I say to my friends or my wife or my family.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.