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Cultural Capital

VICE Ran Out of Money (For Everyone Except Its Executives)

New documents from the VICE bankruptcy proceedings tell a tale as old as digital media.

(Hell Gate)

I worked at VICE for roughly three and a half years—from September 2019 until February 2023—which is three years longer than I expected to be there. By the time I arrived, the company was notorious for layoffs dressed up as "reorganizations," and the ax dangling above our heads was palpable the entire time I worked there. I spent the last eight or so months that I worked at VICE heavily involved in the union's organizing committee, which meant I spent a lot of time talking to my coworkers about why we didn't have any fucking money—at various times, there was no money to pay cast and crew members on time, or money to reimburse full-time employees for expenses they accrued while reporting, or money to pay for subscriptions to other publications or for tools like transcription services or FOIA submissions or LexisNexis or working laptops. We stopped printing our magazine because we stopped paying the printers. Our video teams had to scramble to rent gear because overdue bills made the company name all but worthless at most of the equipment rental facilities we used in Brooklyn. We stopped using Slack because VICE stopped paying for it. Snacks disappeared from the mostly vacant office, except for coffee and an inexplicably—believe me, we asked, and they did not explain it—large amount of milk.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of editorial layoffs chugged on, while VICE lost other employees—including, eventually, me—to gigs that didn't involve begging a company allegedly worth millions of dollars for the basic resources required to do our jobs. I watched three different friends get laid off, one days after giving birth, another while they were in the process of finding out whether they had cancer, and the third while they were in the middle of cancer treatment. Last November, I watched my ex get laid off, along with almost everyone else left on the tiny team that comprised, when we were both on vacation the day before his childhood friend's wedding. The HR representative who conducted my exit interview three months later revealed they were on their way out, too, and that the cash flow issues extended far beyond editorial—every department was bleeding workers. 

But there's one area VICE's financial crisis doesn't seem to have touched: executive salaries. Newly public documents from VICE's May 15 bankruptcy filing lay out exactly how much money VICE's leadership made the year before the filing, the same period in which employees had to hassle their managers for basic newsroom resources. These documents show that the company's executives received mind-boggling retention bonuses along with biweekly paychecks for tens of thousands of dollars. This was all done in the midst of layoffs and as VICE's more lowly employees scrambled to produce work for a clearly sinking ship. As a former VICE employee and a born hater, these documents make for a fascinating read.

For instance, the company's Chief Operating Officer Cory Haik, who came to VICE by way of Mic, took home $726,068 between May 2022 and May 15, 2023, the date of VICE's bankruptcy filing. Folded into that sum was a $45,000 bonus on April 28, a little more than two weeks before VICE declared bankruptcy.

Chief People Officer Daisy Auger-Dominguez, who wrote a book on the workplace "inclusion revolution" but refused to give workers Indigenous Peoples Day off after Juneteenth made it onto the official company calendar for the first time, was paid $748,583 over the same time period, which included a $99,000 retention bonus which she received the same day as Haik. (The day before VICE's bankruptcy filing went public, Auger-Dominguez posted poolside while on a vacation in Playa del Carmen. "Room service for one on Mother’s Day is everything," she wrote in a caption for a photo of a pristine piece of avocado toast, a fruit salad, and a green beverage.)

Then there's Chief Marketing Officer Najda Bellan-White, who received $834,931 between May 2022 and May 2023, including a $128,700 bonus on April 28, 2023, even as employees who worked directly with her described her to me as deeply disconnected from the people and projects she supposedly managed. (In fact, say the word "mismanagement" three times in the mirror and you'll summon a current or former VICE employee who has a terrible story about someone who is listed in the filing as making hundreds of thousands of dollars.) 

Adding insult to injury, the last round of layoffs, which primarily hit Executive Vice President of News and Global Head of Programming and Documentary Subrata De's department (take-home pay: $779,365, including a $201,467 retention bonus), coincided with VICE's bankruptcy filing—a lucky coincidence for the company, as it allowed VICE to wiggle out of paying out the severance spelled out in the union contract. Former and current VICE union members had to set up a GoFundMe, which raised $32,531, to keep their former colleagues afloat while they wait an indeterminate amount of time for the money they are contractually owed from their employer.

I reached out to Jonathan Bing, VICE's chief communications officer, who took home $640,267 from May 2022-23 including a $53,455 retention bonus, for comment on this story; he declined on behalf of the company.

While the particulars of this story are specific to VICE—and I'm specifically mad about them—I could be writing this blog about pretty much any major digital media company. The impact this kind of mismanagement has on the journalism industry as a whole is hard to understate. Right now, so many journalists—smart, sharp, passionate people—are perpetually in search of our next professional life-raft, not for the sake of career advancement but out of ugly necessity. And the people I know who still work at VICE, or at any of these companies hobbled by the people at their helm, remain committed to doing their jobs, in spite of numerous inscrutable obstacles placed in their way by people whose jobs seem to consist largely of writing verbose emails.

Almost a year ago, a few union committee members and I met with then-CEO Nancy Dubuc, whose salary was not disclosed in the latest documents and who announced her exit from VICE a week after I left. During that meeting, we asked her what the company was doing to prevent further layoffs and what we could expect from the future of VICE. She seemed about as uncertain as we were. As the conversation drew to a close, she asked us a question: What did we think, and what did the whole unit think, should be done to cut costs and save jobs at the company? Her door was always open, she told us, and she was ready to hear suggestions. 

If we knew then what we know now—and what she obviously knew at the time—about how much money the C-suite was raking in off our backs, we would have had a few more ideas for her.

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