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In Coversation with Kevin Sutcliffe

Thursday 17-09-2015 - 11:39

We spoke to Kevin Sutcliffe - Head of News Programming EU at Vice News - at our recent Student Media Summit event and asked for his advice to student journalists who are hungry to report on breaking issues around the world.

Tell us about your role as Head of News Programming at Vice News

I’m responsible for the European part of Vice News.  My role is to run a team of reporters, producers and editors who are feeding the Vice News web site every day.

What’s different about Vice’s approach to reporting?

Vice News came into being because news, current affairs in particular, was not serving an audience of 18-35 year olds.  The formats felt a bit dated.  Also, the people in them haven’t changed, or are middle-aged people talking to other middle-aged people - something that didn’t connect to the Vice audience.

We developed Vice News because we knew there was an enormous appetite for world news that was unvarnished and authentic.  The received wisdom was that people under 35 weren’t interested in news, because news programmes had an older-skewing audience.  Actually, that’s not why the programmes were skewing old – it’s because they weren’t talking to this generation.  We’re talking to that generation.

In the first year and a half since launch we have 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube, 350 million+ video views, huge amounts of share and amazing engagement times on social media, so I think we’ve shown, in that age group, there’s an enormous appetite for news, current affairs and the world.

Video content is central to your news coverage, but the videos are more crafted, in a documentary style.  How much does this style impact on your ability to create a breaking news service?

The video is actually a mixture of long-form, crafted documentary, but also, if you look at Ukraine for example, we have a hundred and something dispatches.  They are shorter films, which look and have a feel that I think is original to us – a documentary, immersive feel - but they’re made and turned around quickly. 

Pieces of content will feel different, because they’re handled in a different way.  The reporting is always thorough and important, but we can either cut quickly and do shorter films, or produce highly produced documentary.  The web makes it all very flexible.

As an investigative reporter, you must have seen some shocking things, have there been instances where you’ve had to put down equipment and intervene?

I’ve seen difficult things and reported difficult things.  Like anybody else, there are moments where you have to stop and help.  Everybody is a human being, so there are going to be moments where your journalistic drive, your desire to report a story and your basic human instincts are going to conflict and one will take over.  I don’t see that as a problem.  You see in a film we did on Bangladesh, for instance, the journalist comforting the woman who’s telling her story, what’s wrong with that?

If you were a student journalist today, what particular issues would you look to investigate and cover?

I think it’s a case of take your pick.  There are always any number of enormous issues.  I think the pressing issues are obviously human lives around the world and climate change.  The issue of migration – the movement of people through Africa to Europe and the governmental responses is absolutely, one of the key issues of today that’s not going to go away. 

It’s always worth remembering the aftermath.  We’ve all moved on from Afghanistan, or Iraq, but actually, whilst the news has changed, those places don’t just get better.  At Vice, we recognise the news cycle, but always address other things that are important too, which might be hidden, forgotten, or which people would rather not talk about because policy has moved on. 

How do you decide what is a priority to report?

There are several ways of looking at it.  One is a medium term strategy – what films do we want, what investigations do we want to get into, when do we want them to land and can we get them? You have a lot of ongoing stories all the time, original stuff that can land at different times – so it’s spinning plates. 

Underneath that, you’ve got the daily stuff coming in as well, certain things will happen on a daily basis in the world which you have to cover, so it’s a mixture.  You’re making sure the content is flowing and ready.  There’s a lot of forward planning. 

A bit like balancing a university course, with student journalism?

Yes, a lot of journalists we work with, it’s a part of their life, they’re committed to it.  They’re involved most of the time, because that’s what excites them.  People are just excited be journalists, doing stories.  It’s more like a vocation in that sense. 

Were you involved in student media?

No, I have a degree in fine art, which involved video and photography.  I was in London after university and started submitting articles - writing on a freelance basis.  I began to knock on doors, getting the odd thing for a couple of years.  Then I sold a couple of ideas to the BBC, which turned into TV programmes I then got to work on as a researcher.  That was my way in and how I learned.  I did an NUJ journalism course as well.

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists today looking to break into the industry?

Have lots of ideas – don’t be precious about them, someone else will have them too.  Don’t polish them for too long in isolation and think ‘I’ve got this amazing idea’, just go and ask someone if they want it.  They might say ‘I’m already doing it, ‘no I don’t’, or, ‘I’m quite interested’.  Obviously if you want someone behind you, the idea should have something to it. 

I’d be persistent, people want to know you’re there, don’t be shy.  If you’re not getting anywhere, publish yourself, show enterprise. 

You might shoot a bit of film of a character who you’ve followed for a few days and show someone – ask what they think.  Those are the sort of things that make you take notice.  If you come in and just say ‘I’ve got an idea’ – chances are it won’t be that original and won’t get you traction.  Everybody has a camera now in their phone.  Often what brings attention to things is just filming them. 

The final thing I’d say is, you might want to work for a particular organisation but should be very careful to note whether the ideas you’re pitching them are the ideas they want.  Look at their output very carefully.  Understand, if you’re trying to get a meeting with someone in this place where everyone is busy, only something special will get their attention.  90% of the time I say to people look at our work, because they’ve come in with things that demonstrate they haven’t. 

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