Partners in Truth: VICE News & the David Rubenstein Atrium
Interview by Gillian Campbell April 28th, 2017
Partners in Truth: VICE News & the David Rubenstein Atrium
In 2016, Lincoln Center and VICE Media launched a partnership to present screenings in the David Rubenstein Atrium followed by panel discussions and Q&A sessions with the audience. Like all events at the Atrium, these screenings and discussions are free and open to the public. As the partnership recently entered its second year, I sat down with Atrium Director Jordana Phokompe and VICE News Deputy Director of Communications Annie Augustine to discuss some of the highlights of the events so far, and what they’re looking forward to in the future.
Gillian Campbell: Can you tell us a bit about the partnership and how it first came about?
Jordana Phokompe: The Atrium serves all of Lincoln Center and its constituents with free programming throughout the year. When we were looking at ways to continue to support our community and offer deeper civic engagement, we thought of VICE Magazine and VICE and VICE Media because they dig deep into the truth and highlight important issues that are happening in a timely manner. And they do it in a way that can engage a diverse audience. So we reached out, and Annie Augustine responded.
Annie Augustine: For us it was an exciting partnership. VICE doesn't want to just screen our content—whether it be on HBO, our TV network VICELAND, or online—without offering our audience a way to further engage with the issues we’re covering. Lincoln Center provides VICE with a wonderful opportunity to screen our documentaries in advance for a live audience, and then engage through a meaningful Q&A and discussion. I’ve found the audience that convenes at the Atrium is always eager to know how they can get involved and what they can do to make a difference.
VICE, our half-hour Emmy-winning news magazine show on HBO, covers everything from foreign affairs and conflict zones to climate change and the environment, as well as medical breakthroughs, and science and tech innovations. So we get to bring a wide range of topics to the Atrium.
JP: I think the first one was around National AIDS Day.
AA: "Countdown to Zero." Yes. It was about finding a cure for AIDS.
JP: And we had some of the physicians who were featured, and we had people who had traveled to come and see these physicians speak. I knew we were onto something special during the very first one, because it had that impact of bringing in audiences and bringing in people that were connected to the story. So these are real-time, real events that are happening in our lives, and people are coming to these conversations and wanting to know more and wanting to know how they can be involved.
AA: I think VICE does an excellent job covering topics just as they’re entering the larger national discourse, so it lends itself well to timely screenings at Lincoln Center. The audience is engaged and eager to learn more about the topics we're covering. And, as Jordana said, we’re able to invite people featured in the documentary to come and either be a part of the audience or join the discussion on stage. It's also always great to incorporate the correspondents and producers who spent time in the field making the documentaries.
"VICE brings in that humanity of a story, and they're not afraid to show who is helping tell that story."
GC: What can the audience at Lincoln Center expect from one of these events?
AA: Jordana does opening remarks, and then we screen the documentary, which is typically a half hour. Following the screening, panelists take the stage for about 15 minutes of conversation and 15 minutes of audience Q&A. We really value questions from the audience.
JP: And you have two amazing moderators who represent VICE.
AA: Tim Clancy is the executive producer of VICE on HBO, and Beverly Chase is the senior editor. They serve as moderators for the discussions. We always love to bring in the correspondents and producers who specifically worked on the episodes we’re screening. Tim and Bev oversee the series from a high level, holistically, but then we bring in the correspondents and producers who were on the ground, in the field, doing all the research and reporting for that specific episode.
Sometimes it can be a bit tricky because they're globetrotting, and they're not always in New York and available to be at the screenings. They're sometimes in South Sudan or Russia or wherever they might be. But we do our best to get the folks who were working on that specific film on stage and engaging in conversation. And it's great, because they can talk about their personal experiences as people living in New York but then traveling to these regions and meeting these incredible characters. What was it like for them? So they can kind of bring in a more personal side that I think really resonates with the audience.
JP: VICE brings in that humanity of a story, and they're not afraid to show who is helping tell that story. Their correspondents and the people who are out there telling the story are featured in the story as well, so you get a human connection.
AA: Our correspondents aren't afraid to show emotion on camera. They're going to these places and reporting on some of the world’s greatest atrocities, and of course they're going to have a human reaction and a human response. At VICE, we capture that, and we're okay with showing that to our viewers. That's what differentiates us in a lot of ways. So then when they join us at the Atrium, they can kind of build upon those moments that we see on the screen and elaborate for the audience.
JP: The other thing that I think is really cool about what VICE does is that the people who are producing your series and your correspondents are all so young. It's wonderful that you guys are investing in the current and next generation of storytellers and media and journalists. I think that's amazing.
AA: You go to our headquarters in Williamsburg, and the average age is about 27. We empower a younger generation to be out there creating this amazing content, and it's so interesting to see the perspective that it brings.
JP: That’s reflected in who comes to the events, as well. The Atrium has the mission of getting all of New York to Lincoln Center and making Lincoln Center accessible to all of New York. So looking at who speaks to the younger generations of our society—it’s VICE, and it's reflected in our audience.
AA: Right. I mean, our goal is to reach a youth audience, and you're not going to do that if millennials aren't creating the content. To reach a specific demographic, that demographic needs to be creating the content.
I think people sometimes think that VICE has this secret sauce, and that's not necessarily the case. We give people fresh out of college opportunities that they might not get elsewhere. If you're creative and responsible and curious, VICE is going to give you a chance.
GC: What have audiences been like at the Atrium events?
JP: They're multigenerational, but they do tend to skew younger. It's really driven also by, "What's the conversation? What's the film?" There are millennials, and also just people who are engaged, who are hungry for the information. They're not passive. They want to know what's happening. They have opinions. They've done their research. They are educated and focused on this conversation, and they want to be part of it.
AA: It's interesting to hear Jordana say that it is a younger audience. I think with Lincoln Center and VICE coming together, we’re able to meld our two audiences, our two followings. The Atrium draws a little bit of an older audience, while VICE a younger one. I've appreciated that we get to reach Lincoln Center's audience as well. It's a really nice mix and balance of the two.
Touching on another point that Jordana just made, we get a lot of people who are interested in the specific topic or issue we’re screening that evening. Different issues attract different groups of people, and you see these pockets of people come out from different areas of New York and from all over. We screened an episode on ALS research, and some of the folks featured in the documentary came from all over the country. It was so heavy. Most VICE episodes are very heavy—it's not easy watching—but this one in particular was really heavy and emotional.
GC: In what way?
AA: The episode itself is heavy because it is hosted by a VICE employee who has ALS, and she powerfully highlights what life with ALS looks like, as well as the regulations, policies and many roadblocks ALS patients face when trying to fight for a cure. It was also heavy because, as we said, people who are featured in the film came from all over the country to attend the screening. So there were ALS patients in the audience with their families.
JP: The disease is so deteriorating. People are aware of where they're going. But it was also communities coming together and talking and supporting each other. So it was both overwhelming and really empowering.
AA: It's not easy for some of them to travel, but they really wanted to be present for the public screening and wanted to express themselves. I think it was cathartic in some way.
GC: What have been some other memorable events?
JP: Gloria Steinem and [Brigadier General] Loree Sutton. As Annie mentioned, most of the time we are working with the "VICE on HBO" series, but there are some special ones that we do. This one was through VICELAND'S TV series "Woman."
AA: Gloria Steinem was a part of everything from development to producing to being the host/narrator.
JP: We screened an episode about sexual assault in the military. The beautiful part of that series was that it focused on issues around the world—women who were struggling in Africa, in Canada, in the Middle East—on different facets of women's lives. I wanted to look at what was happening in the U.S., and I really liked the idea of talking about the often-silent struggles that women in the U.S. military are facing.
I brought the idea to Ed Walsh, who runs Lincoln Center’s Veterans Initiative. He's a veteran himself, and he was like, "This is great, and this reminds me of things that I saw and struggles that people faced. I'm glad that we are going to be able to have this conversation." And he is the one who brought in Brigadier General Sutton. And to have Gloria Steinem here, to have such a strong, powerful voice for women was important. The room was packed. There was a line out the door.
"I hear from my producers and correspondents how much they benefit from getting to engage with a live audience."
GC: Has there been anything that surprised you in these events?
AA: Something that has been surprising for me is how much these screenings benefit the correspondents and producers. They travel the world, reporting from difficult regions and telling difficult stories, then return to our headquarters in Williamsburg, cut down the footage, record voiceover, and head off to the next story. In some ways, that sounds glamorous, but in other ways, they are going from one difficult story to the next and they're not able to engage with the people who watch their documentaries and who benefit from the truth they are telling. As Jordana said, VICE stories really do seek to tell the truth.
I hear from my producers and correspondents, who are out in the field gathering these stories and bringing them to the screen, how much they benefit from getting to engage with a live audience and see how viewers respond to their documentaries. How it causes them to think differently and maybe ask different types of questions. Getting to have that live dialogue at the Atrium is really valuable for them.
GC: The show is now in its fifth season, and you started this partnership about a year ago. How have things changed both for the show and the partnership?
AA: Well, just in terms of numbers, I think the first season was roughly 8 to 10 episodes. In Season Five, we're airing 30. People didn't think millennials were interested in news or coverage of international events, but we have shown that if you tell it in a genuine, authentic way, they actually are.
Going back to the previous point that we made about VICE on HBO being made by a team of young correspondents, producers, and editors—it's much more relatable to a young audience. It's not that the young audience doesn't want to consume these topics and stories. It's that we tell stories in a way that is relatable to them and that they want to engage with. What I'm trying to say is, there is an appetite, a total appetite.
Also, in the early seasons, it was a lot of international relations: a lot of conflict zone coverage. Now we are diversifying. There's a lot of science, tech, a lot of domestic issues. We did an episode on campus sexual assault here in the U.S. So we're also balancing out our international coverage with coverage of some domestic issues as well.
JP: It feels more urgent now. I mean, to be completely frank and direct, it feels like with this new president, it feels like people really want to be engaged. Even just last week or two weeks ago, we did "Rise," and it was about the Dakota pipeline and what was happening at Standing Rock, and we had people who wanted to have that conversation.
AA: I totally agree with that. Season Five premiered in February. Our correspondents have also been getting asked this question a lot recently. They say they're so grateful they're journalists today, that they couldn't imagine a more worthwhile job at this moment in history, and that they're taking their jobs incredibly seriously given the current political climate and what's going on not just in the U.S., but all around the world.
So I think they do have an urgency, to borrow Jordana's word. They do feel a particular responsibility, I think, right now, to hold elected officials and public figures accountable, and a responsibility to our viewers to make sure that they are getting the stories as truthfully and well reported as possible.
GC: What can we expect from the partnership in the next few months?
JP: Well, we just came from an amazing meeting, where Annie brought in the New America Foundation, which is a D.C.–based think tank with an operation here in New York as well. So we are looking to add them to help flesh out the panels and the conversations that happen along with the documentaries.
AA: Lincoln Center does a great job providing the space and the venue, and then we, VICE, provide the content. As we discussed, we always have our correspondents and our producers, but New America is really going to be able to help with the panel discussion, bringing in issue area experts, policy experts who can help round out that conversation and bring a new lens and a new perspective to the conversation. We’re looking forward to some powerful panelists and speakers that I think the audience will be excited to come out for.
JP: I think what's interesting is they will just bring in another layer of conversation and perspective. We want our audience to feel that they can come away from this experience, if not being empowered, at least with some more knowledge and hopefully some type of way to take action.
GC: Great. And can we have any sort of preview of topics you may cover?
AA: VICE on HBO is a news program, so our schedule doesn't always lend itself to advance planning. We're often rearranging the schedule so that it fits what's going on in the world. We want everything to be topical and timely, so if something in the world happens, we often reschedule around that. Whenever I'm planning with Lincoln Center, I always caveat, "I don't know what's going to air." Lots of schedules are up in the air in terms of what is going to show up on the network that Friday or where in the world my correspondents might be.
GC: If our audiences want to keep up on what's going on, where can they find that information?
AA: Sure, VICE on HBO airs on Fridays at 11:00 pm. They can also visit vicenews.com and follow VICE News on social media as well.
Gillian Campbell is Manager, Rights & Media, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.