VICE Media Monday took a $450 million investment round from $50 billion private-equity firm TPG. What that means for the future of VICE’s brand …and brand of journalism.
If it were reporting on its own latest investment round, the headline would read: “VICE Media stripped of pride, content, dignity …gets to keep urban-looking logo.”
This is not the first time VICE Media—whose founders Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi, and Gavin McInnes launched a magazine called Voice of Montreal in October 1994—has dealt with the devil.
But it is the first time they’ve challenged him to a soul-or-nothing battle with a golden fiddle.
In August 2013, VICE Media took money from Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch who invested $70 million for a five percent stake. In 2014, VICE Media partnered with A&E Networks for a 10% minority stake. A&E’s co-owner Disney made an additional investment of $200 million.
Enter private equity firm TPG (stands for Texas Pacific Group) with a $450 million investment Monday for an undisclosed slice of the company (VICE’s valuation is somewhere in the $5 billion range, so probably in the neighborhood of a 15% stake.)
To put the round of funding in perspective, VICE Media isn’t even TPG’s biggest communications deal this quarter. On May 17, they purchased a regional broadband operator called WaveDivision Holdings LLC for more than $2 billion, including debt. The deal combines Wave with RCN Telecom Services LLC and Grande Communications Networks, the broadband providers that TPG already owns. The acquisition created the sixth largest cable operator in the U.S. with a focus on providing internet/broadband services.
The VICE acquisition is more of a nice media splash for a firm like TPG whose acquisitions are usually less sexy and more about consolidating underperforming or troubled companies, burning them and profiting using an investment strategy called leveraged recapitalization.
Leveraged recapitalizations increase earnings per share for companies that have a smaller earnings yield than the after-tax interest rate on corporate bonds. This form of recapitalization can lead a company to focus on short-term projects that generate cash (to pay off the debt and interest payments), which in turn usually cause the company to go off-mission. If an acquired company cannot make its debt obligations after that, restructuring, layoffs and bankruptcy are on the menu next.
By then the PE firm will already have used its own tax loopholes to cover any debt it incurred and pay off its own shareholders. While they destroy the company from the middle out, they get paid. The PE Blueprint in a nutshell.
This isn’t TPG’s only strategy on how to make money—and they surely saw something in the perhaps underperforming/perhaps overextended VICE brand (an opportunity to go public, likely) to take a half-billion-dollar chance, but what does it say about an alternative/watchdog juggernaut when it sells such a noteworthy stake off to the very entity that is capitalism unchecked?
The Canadian alt-lifestyle magazine changed its name to VICE in 1996 and moved to New York. An unsuccessful acquisition (followed by an acquisition back) and a move to Brooklyn in 2001 led to the rise of first-wave Brooklyn hipster contributors like Terry Richardson, Ryan McGinley and later director Spike Jonze, who helped define and expand the digital and video brands in 2006.
Enter VICE’s unique brand of journalism that seemingly required an outfit of faux-hawks (both genders), vintage leather scooter gang jackets, aviators and enough sleeve tats to give off a sous chef vibe.
The magazine’s offshoots include shows like The VICE Guide To Travel, Epicly Later’d, and Toxic as well as specialty verticals Thump, VICE News, Munchies and VICE Sports. A partnership with HBO in 2015 yielded an eponymous hour news documentary show and in February 2016, VICE Media launched a cable television network in Canada and the U.S. known as Viceland—a millennial-targeted network which draws upon the resources of its verticals.
The Viceland TV channel currently operates in 80 countries. HBO’s programming now features VICE News Tonight, which premiered last October and showcases a nightly roundup of global news, technology, the environment and economics.
TPG gives lip service to wanting to expand the brand further into direct-to-consumer and even feature film market, but the first moves will likely be the aforementioned debt restructure, possible layoffs/shuttering of the less-profitable verticals and ventures and likely a look at the rent going out on the company’s 74,000-square-foot property at 55 Washington Street in Brooklyn.
One of the cons listed on an employee review of TPG on GlassDoor was, “working with public is not an easy task.” Read between those lines and it gives a glimpse into the above-it-all-ness attitude that permeates individuals working for PE firms, thanks to the ability to hire, fire, freeze out and generally dismantle corporations for short-term financial gain. To pirate the brand, slash jobs, bankrupt the organization for profit and move on to the next village to torch, that is TPG’s singular set of goals for VICE.
They create nothing. They destroy everything. <– Copy that on a Post-it VICE employee, and stick it over the camera hole of your laptop.