I should hate Succession. Not because it’s bad — it’s the most lauded drama on TV right now — but because its characters’ lives are largely devoted to destroying my own.
HBO’s sleeper hit follows the self-destructing Roy family, a multi-generational media empire (and Murdoch proxy), as they jostle for power. The characters are extremely rich and morally desolate titans who (along with many more grave sins) dismantle the digital media landscape. At one point eldest son Kendall acquires and eventually slaughters Vaulter: a multi-vertical youth media giant that’s a clear mix of VICE, BuzzFeed, Vulture, and Gawker. It was a tough watch for me: someone who, until earlier this year, was a longtime staffer at VICE.
Last season Kendall spent more than $100 million acquiring Vaulter, a shiny new toy he hoped would help his family’s lumbering media behemoth speak to the kids. But by the second episode of season two, the family decide to gut the business for parts. Kendall stands in front of staff and CEO and brutally dismantles the publication in minutes. Floors of young journos are thrown out without fair severance. Only sites covering weed and food are deemed profitable enough to survive, but they’ll be populated by interns, user-generated content, a handful of editors, and I assume a lot of poorly paid and managed freelancers.
It felt like it was mapped on real accounts out of BuzzFeed, VICE, Mic, HuffPost, and most recently Bustle.
There’s a long-running joke that journalists hate seeing themselves on screen. Not because the depictions are bad, but because they’re good. Sex and the City, The Bold Type, Gossip Girl, and Gilmore Girls show dream careers where you have endless budgets, support, and time to write one masturbatory personal essay a week. But, in reality, being in the media is kind of horrible. The pleasure of Succession isn’t only that it shows that, but that it illuminates who is to blame.
Succession’s horror show reaches beyond the recent waves of redundancies and closures to examine a more insidious sickness that’s been metastasising in digital media for years. The show doesn’t just vilify the suits who come to ruin the party, but also points to the publishers, systems, and greed that welcomed them in.
The Vaulter CEO is arrogant and acts untouchable. He thinks Kendall is a poser and the company behind him a sinking ship, but he still takes its money. And, as things progress, it’s revealed why Vaulter isn’t the prize it first seemed. It’s riddled with issues: management is chaotic, editorial integrity is shaky, analytics are a mess, site numbers inflated, it’s haemorrhaging money, and its clickbait content has seen traffic ravaged by Facebook’s algorithm change.
While we feel for Vaulter, as we glance at headlines like “Is Taylor Swift Secretly Marxist?” we’re forced to ask: is Vaulter actually kind of shitty?
None of this is news to the staff who churn out content in these publications. From my experience, they are almost always the smartest people in the room. They know what good work looks like, and what is required to make it. They are frustrated by the flawed culture of maximum editorial return for minimal investment far before the finance guys start to sweat. They don’t need Facebook to bottom out to know the danger of replacing good reporting with fast clickable content.
When younger and increasingly astute son Roman looks at Vaulter’s content and asks “Is that, like, a business model: conflict porn and hipster honey?” he kind of has it in one. While it’s horrible to see the staff thrown out, there is something cathartic in seeing the frustrating system that burnt out so many young writers revealed to be a mirage.
There is a scene in episode eight of the latest season when the Roy family travel to Scotland to celebrate the opening of a journalism school that will carry their father’s name. The irony isn’t lost on them. Not only because their Fox News style of reporting is hardly a format to celebrate, but because they all know they’re sending graduates into a broken industry. At one point they openly laugh at the situation, joking “a whole school for how to intern at a clickbait aggregator” and “10 reasons why you’re never getting paid”.
Working in these places, balancing narrowing time and resources with ballooning targets, you’re often made to feel like there is some code you can eventually crack; that if you just work harder, have a better idea, go bigger, give more of yourself, you can make things work. But that’s a lie.
The disposable digital media formula was never going to work. And, while seeing it fall apart on Emmy Award-winning television is painful, it’s also a reminder that there was nothing I could have done to stop it. The forces that made my job feel impossible were in play long before I graduated university with a degree in “never getting paid”.