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So What Do You Do, Vice Editor-in-Chief Jesse Pearson?

Eschewing a newsstand presence and subscribers, this EIC's finding success with a mag model that dares to differ

By Noah Davis - June 17, 2009

Newborn bunny (L), with Vice editor-in-chief Jesse Pearson.
Jesse Pearson, editor-in-chief of Vice since 2003, works in a room barely big enough to be called a closet. His "office," located in a space that used to house KCDC Skateshop, is part of Vice's auxiliary location (next door to its original, still-functioning work area). The company's growth necessitated the move. Pearson's cramped surroundings, however, suit him fine. They are packed with back issues still wrapped in cellophane, an overflowing bookcase, and the editor's desk; plenty of room to work or a sit for an interview, even if he can't extend his arms in both directions without hitting a wall.

Name: Jesse Pearson
Position: "Editor-in-chief, Vice magazine. I'm also a producer for Vice's Internet TV network,"
Resume: "I was an editor at Index magazine for a couple of years, then I was a freelancer, then I started editing Vice in October of 2003.
Birthdate: "July 10, 1975. Same birthday as Jessica Simpson and Proust."
Hometown: "Levittown, Pa. and Medford, N.J. Two sides of the Philly suburbs."
Education: "I graduated from Hampshire College, but since they don't have tests or majors or grades, I'm not sure if my diploma is real."
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: "Book reviews. But I read less and less of the Times every Sunday. Their magazine, especially, is like the punch line in an unfunny joke about baby boomers."
Favorite TV show: "It's a tie between The Wire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Guilty pleasure: Wawa hoagies.
Last book read: "I just finished Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard in preparation for an interview with him. He was amazing. He's 83, and he smokes Virginia Slims."

You're the editor of the magazine, but what else are you involved with inside the company?
VBS is the online television network that we do, and I manage a few shows on there. I do a show, Shot by Kern. He's this great photographer of just pretty girls naked, basically.

That's a tough job.
Yeah, real hard. We became friends through him shooting for the magazine, and then I had this idea for a show -- where I would go on his shoots and interview him about the girl and interview the girl about him. It's kind of cheesecake on one level, but we get into some weird psychological stuff, like what their parents think of them being naked for a camera.

I do a show called Soft Focus, which is interviews with musicians. There's a guy who was in a band that was an influence on me when I younger called The Nation of Ulysses. The guy is named Ian Svenonius, and he was always this really great writer. All their album liner notes would be like fake manifestos. They were kind of a fake political organization; it was all about terrorism and destroying America. I thought he'd be a good writer; I approached him a long time ago to work for another magazine that I edited before Vice and he did, and we became friends through that. He's kind of a rock historian, so we got to interview all these musicians. That's been really fun because we've gone to England and all over the country, and we've done all these people who are just heroes to us.

The only other publishing experience you had was at Index. How did you learn the job here?
Trial by fire, basically. Index didn't really -- I didn't work very hard there; I just did a lot of drugs basically. But they were great people there so I learned a lot, especially from the founding editor of Index, who is an art historian and critic named Bob Nickas. He was kind of a mentor to me as a writer. And also through Index, I met people who became coworkers here or freelancers for this magazine.

There was a staff in place when I came in as editor, so I got shown sort of the general flow of information. But we're a little more loose with how we do things, as you can probably tell from the magazine -- if you look at earlier days, especially.

"The mastheads of some other publications are just bloated with people... I think that not only is that why we've seen so many people getting fired from their jobs, but it's also why those magazines are kind of boring to read."

Do you think you're figuring it out?
I don't think that there is anything to figure out. You know what I mean? We're really open to having the magazine be radically different every month, so we do the heavily-themed issues that have nothing to do with the issue that came before them, or we'll do a themeless issue that's just a total hodgepodge of crazy stuff that doesn't seem to make sense together when you think about it, but does when you read it, to me at least. It's just kind of what's interesting to us that month.

Do you think that the Vice model where your staff is multitalented -- can edit, can write, can produce for VBS -- is the new model for magazines?
I don't know if it's the new model, I just know that it works for us. The staff of the magazine here in New York is me and five other people, basically. We have all the international editions -- each of which has an editor who kind of functions as a bureau chief -- but we are their editors, as well.

The mastheads of some other publications are just bloated with people: There's an editor, a subeditor, editor of accessories, editor of whatever. I think that not only is that why we've seen so many people getting fired from their jobs, but it's also why those magazines are kind of boring to read. They're just so dispersed through so many different people and chiefs and voices and everything.

Have you seen a downturn with the economy?
I think we're doing pretty well. We do better than a lot of other magazines because we're free and because we discourage subscribers. As far as I understand in the rest of the magazine industry, a lot of money is lost on newsstands because copies that don't sell just get pulped. It seems kind of ridiculous to me to be on a newsstand. You don't need to be on a newsstand. That sounds kind of ignorant, but we don't want to be on a newsstand, and we don't need to.

You find your audience and you know where they go, and then you put [the magazine] there. The problem we have is of course people take like 30 issues at a time and then sell them on eBay and stuff like that.

Is that...

"Larger companies wouldn't prioritize a magazine like Vice [for advertising] if it was just an American or a Canadian magazine, but because we're all over the place, it's kind of our trump card."

How's the general shift away from magazine advertising affecting you?
I figured we would kind of run parallel to this stuff, and we are so far. I think it's probably because there are so many editions all over the world. We're able to go for international advertisers, people who are in all of these different countries. When we were a much smaller magazine, we'd have a lot of record label ads in the back, for example. Indie record labels. Unfortunately, a lot of them are going out of business, so those ads aren't there anymore. Larger companies wouldn't prioritize a magazine like Vice if it was just an American or a Canadian magazine, but because we're all over the place, it's kind of our trump card. We're doing more pages than ever, actually. I'm doing the photo issue, which is an annual thing that comes out in July, and I think it's going [to be] the fattest issue we've ever done. We're actually getting bigger, which I guess bums a lot of people out.

Do you get that blowback a lot?
Yeah. Not personally, because I don't tend to go to the places where the people who would hate us would be, you know? But if there's ever something about us on the Internet, there's bound to be a lot of hatred and a lot of throwing around of words like "hipster" and "Williamsburg."

Why is there that negative reaction? Is it from people who maybe picked up Vice 10 years ago and have seen how it's changed, or is it people just randomly piling on the bandwagon?
There's a small contingent of people who remember how the magazine used to be. For me, the magazine wasn't bad before, either, but it was just pretty different at certain points in its life. There was a point where we were a little more provocative in maybe more of a direct way -- and more of a way that might have been easily categorized as offensive or not politically correct or something like that. I think a lot of people saw it back then because it was in the press a couple times with some kind of slamming articles for certain things. New York Times did a really nasty article. Maybe people got an idea of what it was then and kind of never saw it again? The optimist in me says that a lot of the critics just don't know that the magazine is different now.

But then we also get the blowback where people... It's like, you can't f*cking please anybody because people either say that it used to be totally offensive bullshit, cocaine, trucker hat, hipster crap or that they see it now and they say that it's a sellout of bullshit, trucker hat, cocaine, Williamsburg hipster crap. It's difficult to know what they're basing their judgments on exactly.

You're doing a lot more investigative journalism where you follow stories all over the world. That's great, but how do you keep costs down?
The bureaus really are where the keeping costs down comes into it. The bureaus are really important. We're almost anywhere but the Middle East right now, so if there's an interesting story somewhere -- in Europe, in Asia, even Russia now -- we've got a bureau not that far away. Somebody can get on a train; you know what I mean? Also, it's pretty easy to call somebody up. Skype is free. It's just, get on the phone, or contact the Berlin bureau if you have one. We're lucky that way.

I was reading an interview where the reporter asked you about the "male" voice of Vice and you took offense to that, saying you didn't know why everyone thought it was a male-dominated voice. But then [co-founder] Shane Smith tells The New York Times that 65 percent of your readers are male. How do you explain that?
It's hard for me to know. I don't tailor the writing in Vice to a specific gender or even a specific age. And certainly not a specific class background. These are big questions. These are things that keep me up at night.

All I can really speak about it what our intentions are when we start. In some way, the audience is out of our control, I think. The staff is very diverse, which surprises a lot of people. There's gay, straight, male, female, black, white, all these different countries, and I think what I told [the interviewer] was that we want to sound like educated valley girls. And that still appeals to me, kind of. But I guess maybe we sound like educated valley girls who are now in college instead of in high school.

So is Vice growing up?
No, no.

Then are you getting more sophisticated in your editorial direction as you get older?
We don't sit down and do editorial plans where it's like, "In the next six months, we're going to grow up, and in the next year we're going to grow up even more." The magazine is always a reflection of what the people who make it are into. I guess if you want to call it growing up, maybe I've grown up and the people who work with me have grown up a little bit over the last few years. We're definitely less interested in what the best band this month is now than we were five or six years ago. We're more interested in things that are kind of -- there's this really gross marketing phrase that I've heard a lot -- evergreen.

"We've always been very transparent about the fact that the advertising pays for this magazine. How the f*ck do people think it comes out?"

Do you think that's partially a product of the Internet? You can do the band of the minute on your Web site, but the band of the month doesn't work in a magazine form.
Yeah. The best thing about the Internet as it relates to what we're discussing now is that some readers still want the band of the moment and that's cool, and a lot of advertisers want us to do something about the band of the moment and that's understandable. It's not cool, but it's understandable. Since we have the Web site, that's where we can do it. But it wasn't really a reaction. It wasn't like, "Well the Internet is going to scoop us on this band somehow." It wasn't like we can't cover a band that we like because Pitchfork is going to have something about them tomorrow. I don't think that we've ever really been reactive in that way.

It seems as though the editorial side and the advertising side have always been closer than at other publications, or at least more transparently linked.
I'm happy with the level of freedom that I have editorially. There are a couple of things that [those on the advertising side] like to discuss with me if I'm going to try to put them in an issue. A dick, for example, or pubes. But generally it's a very open and good communication. I can't think of too many times when I've been asked not to do something because it might scare an advertiser, and that feels really good.

We've always been very transparent about the fact that the advertising pays for this magazine. How the f*ck do people think it comes out? We need them, and there's no reason to hide that. Sometimes an advertiser wants to get more involved by maybe doing an advertorial. I'm not really crazy about advertorials in the magazine itself, although never say never. We've done it once or twice before, and if the right idea came along I'd happily do it again, but we do do some fun branded content-type stuff. We'll do these little mini-guides. We do guides to certain cities. We'll do the guide to New York, guide to LA, guide to Montreal.

There was some video game that came out a couple years ago that was basically just a war game, and [Electronic Arts] asked us to pitch them some kind of a big idea for a sort of 'zine to go along with it. We did a 'zine about the apocalypse, and all kinds of different ways to think about that topic. It was basically an issue of the magazine, and it was great. Not a lot of people saw it because it was a smaller run -- it was just this little book that came with subscriber copies of the magazine -- but we basically took EA's money, and we made a magazine using their money. It was great. I got a trip to Nevada, and I got to go to a handgun survivalist training camp for like four days. That was never in Vice, it was only in this thing.

Do you have any involvement with Virtue?
It's a marketing company; it's a sister company to the magazine. They do a lot of really interesting campaigns, but I focus on my content.

In two years, where do you see Vice? Is there still a print issue?
I'd like to think that there will always be. I love print. That's why I wanted to do magazines in the first place, because it's a great object, a magazine. Editorially, where's Vice? I don't know. It kind of goes along with what I've already said a couple times, which is that there's really not a plan, there's not a formula. Sometimes I don't know what's going to be in an issue until a week until the issue goes to press. It's very stressful for my staff, but it's kind of the best way for us to do the magazine. It makes it what it is.

I'd like to have more international editions in two years, although I don't know where they would be. We have 21 now in 25 countries, and I think we might have gone to every country that's legal to make a magazine like Vice in already. I'd like the magazine to be a lot more global in every issue. I'm interested in working with guest editors, so I think we're going to try and bring that in, getting somebody that we really admire and just basically doing an issue with them. And VBS should be basically a huge monster by then, too. It's doing really well.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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