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Vaulter isn’t real, but Succession season 2’s ripping from the headlines

The ups and downs of ‘pivoting to video’

Kendall Roy lays off almost all of the Vaulter staff in Succession season 2 HBO

The second episode of Succession’s season 2 arrives in post-pivot-to-video world. The next hour, at least in part, focuses on the world of digital media and the maze of online content.

Kendall and Roman are sent to investigate Vaulter, the online media company that Waystar spends most of season 1 trying to buy. The site’s traffic has been down ever since the sale and they need to figure out why, and whether or not it’s worth saving. But just like everything on Succession Vaulter’s rise and fall has some complicated, real-world history behind it.

First: Is Vauter real?

How Vaulter lost all of its traffic in the time between when Waystar bought the site and when it was gutted isn’t exactly explained, but Succession clearly has some ideas. In particular, the phrase “pivot to video” is mentioned by Jeri as something they’ve already tried. If you pay attention to the digital media industry, as the writers of Succession clearly do, you’ve probably heard the phrase “pivot to video” at least once or twice. Around 2015, with Facebook videos all over users’ timelines, websites starting looking to video as an untapped vein of potential profit.

The numbers backed it up. Viewership stats looked massive, with millions of viewers per video, far higher than most sites would get for a single piece of written content. These higher numbers could then be given to advertisers who would be eager to grab at any opportunity to get their ads to millions of people at a time. According to the numbers broadcast by Facebook, there were a billion users just waiting for videos to be put in front of them.

In turn, companies like Vice, Mic, and Mashable laid off employees and expanded their video teams. But many quickly found that video wasn’t performing quite as well as they had planned. And video is a big investment, it doesn’t spin up overnight. Videos took time to make, were expensive, and at the end of the day, the Facebook numbers themselves just seemed lower than they had in the pivot planning phase.

In late 2018, the hammer dropped. Details of how Facebook calculated and reportedly inflated video stats came out in thorough investigations. It had been clear a few years earlier that Facebook had occasionally overestimated its views, but it wasn’t until 2018 that digital media companies learned that the reported views may have been as much of 150 percent to 900 percent higher than they actually were.

In the world of Succession, the digital media implosion happened exactly the same way. Vaulter sold itself to Waystar Royco on the basis of sparkly Facebook numbers. Straight from the company’s founder Lawrence, in the episode, we hear that it’s due in part to Facebook changing their algorithm. The result of these struggles is Waystar, or at least Logan and Roman, choosing to gut the company.

Lawrence and Kendall stand just outside a glass window, in view of the Vaulter offices
Lawrence explains to Kendall why the site’s traffic is down
HBO

“Gut it”

When Waystar Royco, specifically Kendall, bought Vaulter back in season 1, it was bright and shiny. It had all the potential in the world and seemed to be a growing digital media brand. Now, however many months later (really, how does time pass on this show?) the company is in a downward spiral. Lawrence calls it just a few bad traffic months, but for Waystar, it’s a more complicated. A segment of the business stopped making money, at a moment when everything needs to. If they’re going to survive Sandy and Stewy’s takeover, then Logan has to prove that he can make Waystar profitable, so they cut Vaulter down the minimum.

At a site like Vaulter, which seems to cover many different topics (“These Old Photos of Soviet Dental Schools Are Peak Dystopia Porn,” “Wait, Is Every Taylor Swift Lyric Secretly Marxist?” “5 Reasons Why Drinking Milk on the Toilet Is Kind of a Game-Changer”) certain things are bigger traffic draws than others. These high traffic areas are supposed to help prop up areas that may not get as much traffic as the time that has to be put into them. In the case of Vaulter, that would mean “food and weed,” which Kendall mentions as the two successful verticals, would help support things like in-depth reporting. But since all that matters is maximizing the site’s profit, Kendall cuts them down to just the verticals that are still performing.

Kendall cuts the site’s staff down to an editor, some interns, and says that they’ll rely on user-generated content. In other words, Kendall is trying to pair Vaulter down to its cheapest and most essential elements. What’s the absolute minimum he can pay to keep the traffic rolling in.

The Mic connection

While there are, sadly, quite a few examples of Vaulter in the real world, it was hard to ignore the similarities to Mic. Mic was founded in 2011 and quickly established itself as a growing online media company. However, in 2017, the company shifted its focus to “pioneering new forms of visual journalism” in the form of social media video. The ad dollars never rolled in; about a year later, the company sold for just $5 million, far less than the millions it would have been worth just a few years earlier. That same week, the owners fired a majority of the site’s staff, not unlike what we saw Kendall do in this episode.

When Lawrence explains to Kendall that it’s just a few bad traffic months and a change in the Facebook algorithm, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Mic co-founder Chris Althchek. During what would be the final meeting for many of Mic’s employees Althchek said, “Facebook caught us by surprise at a really bad time.”

A number of Vaulter’s writers and other staff stand by their desks listening to Kendall
Vaulter’s staff listening to Kendall explain why they shouldn’t unionize
HBO

Union problems

In the episode, Kendall makes it clear that the staff forming a union is his worst case scenario. It’s a line many in digital media have heard in the past few years as, often in response to quick pivots in strategy, online newsrooms have unionized. Some of the early high-profile efforts were undertaken at Vice and Gawker in 2015, but since then sites like Vox Media (which owns Polygon) and Mashable, have formed unions of their own.

The purpose of unions in digital media, among many other things, is to give the sites’ employees an assurance that they fair and equal pay, strong benefits, and have a seat at the table at key decisions. But none of this is why Kendall is particularly worried about the looming threat of unionization. One of the very likely demands of the union would have been fair severance packages, guaranteeing several weeks of severance pay and compensation for unused vacation days — basically all of the things that Kendall explained the fired employees of Vaulter wouldn’t be getting.

Succession’s vision of Vaulter may feel cruel and cold, but it’s not entirely an invention of the show. The history of online media over the last five years has been complicated, and in a bid to increase profitability some outlets are now in precarious places. In Succession, Vaulter’s really the only example of online media we know about so it sits in its dire straits alone, but in the real world it’s got plenty of company.

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