Vice Media, a company now valued north of $4 billion, has risen to prosperity by selling investors and advertisers on the simple pitch that it has the magic recipe for reaching the industry's most coveted and most elusive demographic: Millennials.
Increasingly, however, Vice Media is facing scrutiny over the true extent of its reach.
As Variety's Andrew Wallenstein reported Monday, the data Vice uses when pitching media buyers includes a number of "partner sites" that actually have nothing to do with Vice's core brand -- the one so appealing to investors and media buyers. Among them are sites with names like Distractify.com, OMGFacts.com and ThePlaidZebra.com.
Vice Media handles these sites' ad sales, and in return Vice includes their figures in the total number of readers or viewers presented to ad buyers.
Rolling up sites is a common, if frowned-upon, practice in digital media (Penske Media Corporation, which owns Variety, does it too). What's notable about Vice is that its partner sites account for roughly half of its monthly unique visitors.
On its own, the Vice.com's monthly audience is between 25 and 26 million monthly uniques in the U.S., according to comScore.com, less than half of the 59.5 million Vice Media claimed in January.
Nevertheless, Vice has used these lesser sites to tell a story of digital growth over recent years -- from 24.7 million unique visitors in October 2014 to 59.5 million in January 2016.
That has left Vice Media's digital audience vulnerable. In February, Vice Media's total uniques fell a whopping 17.4% from January, to 49.1 million, according to comScore, because Distractify.com's volatile traffic plummeted by 68%.
Vice Media claims that its digital network doesn't represent its overall digital reach, which also includes platforms like Verizon go90, Snapchat, Spotify, YouTube and so on. (Of course, most digital media sites use various social platforms like these.) It also says that traffic to the sites it actually owns and operates is up 63% year over year.
"The digital network is a relatively small division that sells ad inventory for partner sites," Alex Detrick, a Vice Media spokesperson, told CNN.
Detrick also noted that Vice's core properties didn't decline. "People coming for Vice exclusive content didn't drop at all," he wrote in an email.
In a separate statement, Vice defended the size of its audience and spoke in global terms.
"Today Vice programming reaches over 100 million viewers a month on our channels globally; captures tens of millions of additional fans a month on each of our mobile, linear and digital partnerships; and is experiencing record watch time across the board. All this adds up to us being the number one brand in the world for our target demo and the world's most coveted audience, young people. So we're doing just A-OK," the statement said.
However one measures Vice's digital performance, the true extent of Vice's reach is difficult to quantify.
Nevertheless, Vice has succeeded in attracting the financial backing of media giants like Disney (, A&E Networks and 21st Century Fox. Last May, Vice told The New York Times that it was projecting $1 billion in revenue for 2015. (It has yet to announce what its actual revenue for the year was.) )
Vice is familiar with the critique that it is a paper tiger. The media columnist Michael Wolff once wrote that Vice CEO Shane Smith had a "Pied Piper ability to attract ever-more media executives and the ever-larger multiples they and their colleagues seem willing to pay for a piece of Vice."
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Smith asked: "You think I could hoodwink Bob Iger, Jeff Bewkes and Rupert Murdoch?"
Perhaps not. But the biggest test of Vice's audience is yet to come. On February 29, Vice launched Viceland, a 24-hour television channel that features original programming.
Unlike the tricky world of digital, television has a clear ratings system. Months from now, media executives will be looking to see just how many millennials actually tuned in to watch. And on that platform, at least, Vice's real audience will be quite clear.