There are many, many different versions of the vampire’s tale, but in its most timeworn Eurocentric telling, vampires are evil’s upper crust: beautiful, blue-blooded aristocrats draped in velvet, exuding idle menace. Dracula and his cursed kin are the undead 1 percent and act accordingly: terrorizing villages, murdering peasants, siphoning off others’ lifeblood, and turning up their aquiline noses at the slightest hint of dissent.
An entire cottage industry operates around their stories, and vampire lore does not always confine itself to the page. In the 17th century, the very real and very sadistic Countess Bathory—she of Hungarian legend and historical infamy—is said to have broken the bodies of more than 650 village girls and bathed in serf blood to retain her youth. For that, history remembers her with a strange sort of fondness: as an unfathomably wealthy, castle-dwelling noblewoman always depicted as lavishly dressed and dripping in jewels. She was monstrous in an elegant sort of way, the kind that inspires gothic novels and Swedish black metal records. Vituperative inhumanity, but made fashionable.
Vampires’ modern-day counterparts, on the other hand, leave much to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint. Unlike the ancient Romanian moroi, Irish dearg-due, or Ghanaian sasabonsam, today’s vampires are parasitic new money. Vulgar, ugly, and smug, their wrists are cluttered with hideous statement watches, their torsos clad in power suits or, worse, upmarket hipster threads. Some call them vulture capitalists, after the great birds who feast on carrion. While catchy, this term doesn’t quite fit; these monsters do not focus on the dead—they go after the living. They run hedge funds, trade stocks, and manage private equity firms, flush with generational wealth but always hungry for more. Instead of hot blood, these fancy fiends hunt for cold cash—and much like their spiritual predecessors, care little for how others must suffer in their pursuit thereof.
They’ve plundered every industry available, and, as of late, have trained their eyes on the crumbling edifice of digital media. Unlike the countess, who secreted away the evidence of her cruelty in a dungeon, this new generation commits their horrors in the open.
Their latest victim is Deadspin—which was ostensibly a sports website, but ultimately more of an offbeat culture publication with a penchant for football-themed mockery and commemorating various guys. Earlier in 2019, Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, acquired a number of former Gawker Media properties, including Gizmodo, Deadspin, Splinter, Jezebel, Kotaku, The Root, and The Onion, from Univision, who’d originally purchased the portfolio following Gawker Media’s 2016 vivisection cum bankruptcy. Great Hill slapped together a new media company they called G/O Media, hired a bunch of aging Forbes bros to run the show, and set to work dismantling their new purchases. The first to fall was Splinter, a razor-sharp politics site that kept the rebellious spirit of Gawker alive; on October 10, a memo went out that the site was being shut down and seven of its staffers were being laid off. Two weeks later, another memo was sent, this time to Deadspin’s staff, ordering them to “stick to sports,” and a beloved longtime editor was fired for resisting the mandate; the writers and editors called G/O’s bluff and quit en masse.
The entire tragedy played out on social media, specifically on Twitter, and watching Deadspin collapse in real time was both awful and inspiring for those who have already been through the digital meat grinder. It felt different than the hemorrhages at Vice, Buzzfeed, and so many others; those happened suddenly, without much warning, and the workers were rendered powerless to stop the cull. The layoffs were handled in-house, with as much sterility as HR could muster. All that the public saw was a sudden influx of “I guess I’m freelance now” tweets. All the viscera were carefully packed away in Kafkaesque severance packages and non-disclosure agreements.
But with Deadspin, the axe didn’t fall swiftly. The staffers knew that the worst was yet to come but didn’t allow themselves to be led quietly to their doom. With their union’s backing, they resisted. They yanked their heads off the block, and walked away with middle fingers held aloft. In the spirit of Gawker’s very public 2015 unionization campaign, former reporter Laura Wagner’s investigation into their craven new CEO, and former Deadspin EIC Megan Greenwell’s magisterial explanation of what went wrong, they took on this challenge the way longtime readers have come to expect: bravely, irreverently, with the most beautiful “Fuck me? Hey, buddy, fuck YOU” energy imaginable. As site founder Will Leitch said on Twitter, “They refused to give in to the bad guys.”
For now, Deadspin is still technically alive, albeit in a somnambulant fugue state. It likely won’t last long: Vampires and zombies are seldom found in the same place, and one can only imagine how G/O management will react to the relentless and deserved storm of criticism that greets their every boneheaded move. Vampires prefer their victims to be left lifeless. If the usual pattern holds, G/O will suck out what it can, and move on. Your favorite website could be next, and one can only hope they’ll be able to take a stand the way the wonderful freaks at Deadspin did.
This wrongheaded corporate plundering did not start and will not stop with Deadspin; vampires are forever in need of new hosts. Private-equity firms have quietly taken over a large swath of the American economy: buying up companies, selling them off for parts, then stealing away unscathed. There’s a reason presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has been so outspoken against them. Private equity is a danger to the free press, and a scourge upon the already weakened state of journalism. In just under two years, these firms have turned LA Weekly into a lifeless husk, ravaged The Denver Post, gutted Sports Illustrated, and silently strangled dozens of local newspapers across the country.
Media is far from their only target, though private equity does have a taste for the most vulnerable. Over the past decade, they have killed 1.3 million retail jobs, and the Los Angeles Times reports that 10 of the 14 largest retail chain bankruptcies since 2012 were at private equity-acquired chains. A famous example of their brutal negligence is Toys “R” Us, which was driven into bankruptcy after being acquired in 2014 by a pair of private equity firms, KKR and Bain Capital. Some 33,000 workers were laid off, and it took months—and a class-action lawsuit—before workers got the severance payouts they were owed. Today, Bain Capital holds over $100 billion in assets, and continues to seek new victims.
Not even the ill and injured are safe from this particular strain of supernatural avarice. The Carlyle Group, a massive private equity firm, came under fire in 2018 when conditions at ManorCare, a nursing home chain that it had purchased in 2007 and driven into bankruptcy, were revealed to have been so understaffed that residents were frequently left to wallow in their own filth. Some reported rooms overrun with roaches and ants, while others sustained grievous injuries due to neglect. In 2018, Hahnemann University Hospital, a 171-year-old facility in Center City Philadelphia, was purchased by Joel Freedman’s Paladin Healthcare via a loan from MidCap Financial, a subsidiary of the notorious private-equity firm Apollo Global Management, whose founder Leon Black was allegedly friend of billionaire sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein and who up until recently counted Blackwater USA—the architects of a horrific massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007—among its many holdings.
Freedman ushered the hospital—which is Drexel University’s main teaching hospital, employs thousands of unionized staff, and provides care to low-income, underserved, predominantly black and Latinx communities—into bankruptcy, and announced plans to sell its real estate to the highest bidder, hastening gentrification in the area. Locals are devastated at the prospect and have staged several protests. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a rally at the hospital, calling it “crazy” that “a hospital is being converted into a real estate opportunity in order to make some wealthy guy even more money, ignoring the health-care needs of thousands of people.” The hospital stopped accepting patients in July.
Private equity has wiped out entire grocery chains. It controls the price of calling our loved ones in prison. It profits off the bail bonds and payday loans that extort poor communities of color. It bought the Playboy Mansion (for better or worse). It kneecapped millennial fashion staple Forever 21. It even killed Necco wafers—and left the crumbs for the rats. Private equity vampires are gruesome avatars for capitalism itself: They are rapacious, and roam the earth draining communities of their livelihoods. As anyone who’s ever seen a vampire movie or read an Anne Rice (or Twilight) novel knows, vampires stop at nothing until they are satisfied—and this 21st-century subspecies will never suck down enough capital to fill the gaping holes where their souls should be. There is no happy ending here, unless a ruthless new era of regulation swoops in to put a wooden stake through the heart of private equity.