The Heartland Billionaire Destroying the Working Class
Joe Ricketts’ memoir tells of making it on his own—while crushing unions, scamming customers, and undermining local media
In a recent episode of HBO’s Succession, Kendall Roy, heir to a vast media fortune, personally lays off the entire staff of the fictional website Vaulter: a digital media mashup of BuzzFeed, Gawker, Vox, and Vice. With Kendall’s brief announcement, a few hundred millennial journalists are suddenly without work, all so that Waystar Royco, Vaulter’s parent company, can both trim a bit of fat and smother a potential union.
If you happened to be on Twitter while the episode aired, you probably heard about this scene, because it was painfully familiar to nearly every journalist on the platform. In the past several years, all of us have seen friends lose jobs as sites shutter, restructure, or “pivot to video,” often in retaliation for a union drive. Again and again, sites that provide unquantifiable value to real audiences are being cannibalized and resold by billionaires or private equity groups who don’t understand what journalism is, hold journalists in contempt, and eagerly ruin journalistic careers out of sheer petty malice. The only thing about Vaulter’s demise that felt even slightly unrealistic is that the executive had the guts to lay off his employees face to face.
On November 2, 2017, many journalists witnessed an especially egregious version of the same scene, when Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, abruptly laid off the entire staff of Gothamist and DNAinfo, two networks of local news websites he had recently merged. He also shuttered both networks, replacing tens of thousands of articles with a letter justifying his decision. “DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure,” he wrote. “And while we made important progress toward building DNAinfo into a successful business, in the end, that progress hasn’t been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”
This was, to be blunt, bullshit. Ricketts had purchased Gothamist, which employed…