August 2019, Week 4


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 		 [In a climate when so many digital media companies are being
reorganized by new leadership and moving to unionize, it’s easy to
relate Successions episode to countless mini-crises of the last couple
of years.] [https://portside.org/] 




 Winston Cook-Wilson 
 August 19, 2019

	* [https://portside.org/node/20834/printable/print]

 _ In a climate when so many digital media companies are being
reorganized by new leadership and moving to unionize, it’s easy to
relate Succession's episode to countless mini-crises of the last
couple of years. _ 

 , CREDIT: Peter Kramer/HBO 


“You know they have, like, a beehive upstairs?” Roman Roy
[https://www.spin.com/2018/08/hbo-succession-review-roman-roy-dirtbag/] mutters
to Kendall early in the second episode in _Succession_
[https://www.spin.com/tag/succession/]’s second season
[https://www.spin.com/2019/05/succession-season-two-trailer/]. The
brothers (played by Kieran Culkin and Jeremy Strong, respectively) are
scrutinizing the offices of Vaulter, the digital media property that
their father’s company, Waystar Royco, acquired during the series’
first season. Projections of the site’s trending lifestyle blog
posts surround them (including “Is Taylor Swift Secretly
Marxist?”). Roman continues: “Is that, like, a business model:
conflict porn and hipster honey?” The episode quickly sets up a
clear picture of the kind of company Vaulter is: a millennial-forward
content farm, bloated thanks to a couple of rounds of generous VC
funding. It’s an archetype is familiar to viewers with even modest
awareness of the digital media landscape, or who have perused a
listicle after Googling for information about something; there’s no
need for the writers to delve into too much detail.

In “Vaulter,” both over-ambitious media startups and the pitiless
businessmen who chew them up and spit them out are played for the
grimmest possible laughs. As an all-too-credible exploration of the
worst antics of the corporate American one-percent, _Succession_’s
plots usually revolve around financial and ideological deregulation in
some form. But the episode is one of its most eerily specific and
timely investigations to date, embodying everything that makes the
show so idiosyncratic and effective. It’s also a candidate for the
best portrayal of the state of modern journalism seen on scripted film
or television in at least the past five years.

In the episode, Kendall and Roman are tasked with investigating the
situation with Vaulter, consulting with the site’s snide and
ruthless CEO Lawrence (Rob Yang). Last season, Lawrence seemed to
think he could exploit Waystar’s organizational tumult and dated
priorities to gain leverage at the organization. He also clearly
believed his brand was untouchable—valued in the public eye and by
investors, ahead of the curve while Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his
maladjusted sons were on the way out. Ultimately, though, Royco made
Lawrence an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the digital media
landscape changes very quickly. 

Kendall and Roman have been set loose on Vaulter because Logan worries
that he “might have acquired a giant pile of bullshit.” It’s
quickly clear that he was right, at least from a business perspective.
Though culture blogs like Vaulter are crucial to contemporary media
conglomerates’ portfolios, their actual utility is largely
subjective—that is to say, they are usually more important from an
optics perspective than a financial one. Therefore, once acquired,
sites like Vaulter must continually make themselves still seem worth
the continuing investment to the people who own them—for instance,
by demonstrating short-term growth in a fashion that looks impressive
in the context of a PowerPoint.

The problem in “Vaulter” is that its eponymous brand has clearly
gotten too big for its britches. The implication is that the site is
in crisis mode, or at the cusp of it: attempting to jack up traffic by
any means necessary, chasing trends rather than finding new stories,
aiming for “solid” numbers at the expense of their credibility as
a brand. Eventually, a desperate Lawrence informs Kendall that the
site’s effectiveness has been stunted by a change in the “Facebook
algorithm.” (This, of course, is a real issue that sent many digital
media companies into a tailspin a couple of years ago.
A recent_ HuffPost _post-mortem
the downfall of Mic—a hip multi-vertical publication once valued at
over 100 million that was ultimately sold for $500,000—explains how
the site grew rapidly based on “gaming Facebook” for engagement.
Once the platform began to restrict the reach of the site’s posts,
Mic higher-ups “decided to start throwing everything that wasn’t
guaranteed to generate virality under the bus,” as one staffer put


CREDIT: Peter Kramer/HBO

After a cursory glance, Roman—impatient, sadistic,
anti-intellectual, anti-liberal— sees no reason to bother with
putting Vaulter on life support as it scrambles to find a new traffic
lodestar. He asks Gerri (J. Smith-Cameron) if the company could
“pivot to video,” but she explains that they’ve “tried that
already.” Even though he can see that the company is a mess, Kendall
initially takes a more holistic and sympathetic view of the situation.
“It’s still a killer business: the platform, the brand, ethos and
culture,” he explains to his father in a meeting. “All they need
is adults in the room: accounting team, analytics team,
investments…we burn $50 million the next few years.” 

Of course, Logan Roy scoffs at that last part. He is the most
uncompromising type of media mogul, in large part because he is
old-fashioned. (Roman notes at one point that Logan continues to fund
the production of “Xerox machines in the Philippines.”) He
despises unions—Roman has discovered Vaulter staffers are talking to
the Writer’s Guild—and remains unable to gauge what exactly it is
that the site “does.” Deciding to shut it down is an easy decision
for him. And as we know from the finale of the show’s first season,
Kendall is no longer in a position to challenge his father on

The most harrowing part of the episode, then, is the pep talk Kendall
gives to the Vaulter staff, after his meeting with his father, to
gently dissuade them from unionizing. It’s a way of stalling for
time while Waystar figures out how to seize the archives and the site
over to their control, though we’re briefly allowed to entertain the
idea that Kendall may actually be trying to save the company and defy
Logan. Kendall promises “a pay bump” and serves up team-building
platitudes: “Let’s try to figure this out inside—keep it in the
Waystar family. Now go back to your desk and generate 5, 10, 100 ideas
and hit me and my man here up,” gesturing at an defeated-looking

In a climate when so many digital media companies are being
reorganized by new leadership and moving to unionize, it’s easy to
relate the episode to countless mini-crises of the last couple of
years. Recent reporting
[https://deadspin.com/this-is-how-things-work-now-at-g-o-media-1836908201] on the
new leadership
[https://www.thedailybeast.com/deadspin-editor-quits-rails-against-bosses-ive-been-repeatedly-lied-to-and-gaslit] at
G/O Media (formerly Gizmodo Media Group) describes new CEO Jim
Spanfaller’s stentorian, editorially questionable, and often strange
directives for the company’s sites, which include Deadspin, Jezebel,
Gizmodo, Splinter, and the A.V. Club. (Under Spanfeller’s direction,
a survey about reader satisfaction was posted on Deadspin without
consulting its top editors; allegedly, one of his hires later told
Deadspin’s leadership to “stick to sports.”) After 25 top
staffers were laid off in April—directly following promises of no
wrote to staffers that the rationale for the blood-letting was “not
performance driven but rather process motivated.” Read and re-read,
the phrase is meaningless; there’s no polite way to say “we
don’t care how ‘good’ the work you did is; it is not winning us
any favors from advertisers.” Kendall’s first speech has the same
empty, equivocating quality.

Waystar’s choice in “Vaulter” is whether to overhaul
“process” within the company in the manner of the Spanfellers of
the world—or, perhaps, poachers of underperforming smaller brands
like Bryan Goldberg
[https://www.cjr.org/the_profile/bryan-goldberg-bustle.php]—or to
simply cut their losses and “gut” the place like a fish, to use
Logan’s preferred verbiage. Coked out and dead-eyed, Kendall
delivers a second speech—the one that really needed to be delivered
to the staff in the first place—very shortly after the other,
faux-encouraging one. The hundreds of people working for Vaulter are
all fired and told they need to clear out of the office in 15 minutes.
Vaulter, the now-former employees are informed, will continue to exist
with the oversight of just one editor and five interns. The company
will “fold in” the verticals that actually do well—“Food and
Weed”—and maintain the domain name to exploit the archive for all
its worth. 

To those who don’t keep up with media news, this might all seem like
exaggerated Batman-villain behavior. We are used to seeing the Roys
being wretched to service people and business competitors, but seeing
Kendall coldly destroy the livelihoods of a whole room full of young
and eager employees he doesn’t know feels like a new brand of
horror. In truth, the episode only marginally
[https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-story-behind-the-unjust-shutdown-of-gothamist-and-dnainfo] exaggerates
the reality
[https://thinkprogress.org/daily-news-layoffs-abadae70e9c3/] for many
media companies who have either been shuttered or reduced to a shadow
of themselves after acquisition. Mixing a nuanced take on one of
America’s most doomed industries with its typical air of high
melodrama, “Vaulter” stands as one of _Succession_’s best
episodes to date, illustrative of what makes the show so engaging and
discomfiting—a sterling example of its merciless, 360-degree
approach to sociopolitical and cultural satire. 

	* [https://portside.org/node/20834/printable/print]







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