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What Game of Thrones did to the media

What Game of Thrones did to the media

Image: Alex Parkin and Cath Virginia / The Verge, Getty Images

For a crucial decade in print media’s transition to the internet, HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones was a boon in traffic… for everyone. But what happened when every publication started chasing the same thing?

In the summer of 2017, I was brought on to be the third host of a weekly Game of Thrones recap show that streamed on Facebook Live. At the time, I was an editor at GQ, and I found the assignment beneath me. I was supposed to be squirreling away at the dark art of turning shoddy copy into less shoddy copy; I never wanted to be on camera.

Also, I barely knew anything about Game of Thrones. I watched it casually, but I hadn’t read any of the books. I was allergic to “lore.” I had trouble distinguishing the show’s various bearded white guys. But my boss had tasked me with de-nerdifying the Facebook Live show after someone had derogatorily suggested that the two current hosts, Scott and Josh, don fedoras on the stream.

“Pivot to video” is a phrase now associated with any boneheaded move in media, but there was a time before it was a joke. The spring of 2016, Facebook attempted to jump-start its new livestreaming feature the only way it knew how: with money. Publications were baited with small payouts. The higher-ups at Condé Nast, the parent company that owns GQ, handed down instructions to participate, and at least at the magazine level, there was some acknowledgment that the whole thing was silly. A year later, we were still playing ball, taking the easiest pitches imaginable. Game of Thrones was one of those things that people couldn’t get enough of. It didn’t matter if our coverage was smarter or better written than what was available on the hundreds of other sites running the same thing. We were all chasing the roulette of Google Search traffic, and the most embarrassing part was that it worked. So why not try the same thing for Facebook Live?

Despite my protests — about the show’s lazy concept, my forced involvement, the entire emphasis on Facebook streaming, a thing everyone seemed to agree was stupid but unable to opt out of — I actually had a good time doing the Game of Thrones series. Scott took on more of a play-by-play role, with Josh coming in for color commentary. I’d interject unhelpfully every once in a while to mispronounce the name of a major character. Scott and Josh showed up diligently and enthusiastically, despite it not being part of their contract and not being compensated extra. I turned into a decent foil as the show’s grump, and my inability to remember any character’s name became a running gag.

Each episode allegedly racked up thousands of views — not too shabby given the low production lift. In 2017, there weren’t a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the future of media. Most magazines and newspapers were sustained by advertising revenue. But in the transition to digital, that business was subsumed by the web’s two largest advertising products: Google and Facebook. They controlled the flow of distribution and therefore had a stranglehold on journalism. When they fed your publication scraps, you lapped them up; if they told you the future was video, you lapped that up, too.

For a moment in 2016, Facebook Live appeared to be working. Nearly every other major media company was chasing the same high in various forms: Canada’s National Post tried to get its reporters to eat as many slices of cheese as possible; TechCrunch broadcast their annual $2,995-a-ticket conference; ABC News aired pre- and post-presidential debate analysis. But no one would top BuzzFeed — in both numbers and ingenuity — which had come out of the gate livestreaming a watermelon, placing rubber bands around the fruit, one by one, until it exploded.

Less than a year later, Facebook would stop paying publishers to support its livestreaming product. Then it would be revealed that the company had greatly inflated the metrics it reported. Facebook would settle that class action suit for $40 million, an amount of money that the company generates every three hours.

People have joked that the BuzzFeed watermelon is the perfect metaphor for journalism in the Facebook Live era. But in hindsight, I think the watermelon got off easy.

Each time it appeared that a publication had figured out a repeatable way to attract web traffic, everywhere else would follow suit: jockeying for the top search hit for “what time is the Super Bowl?”; aggregating viral tweets; competing to be the first to post clips from Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (before The Awl went bottoms up, John Herrman facetiously congratulated each week’s winner).

Yet, with Game of Thrones, the attention was sustained for nearly a decade — a crucial one, when a number of digital media properties emerged and the legacy print magazines saw the writing on the wall. No one knew where the industry was going, but everyone agreed Game of Thrones was a good way to garner traffic.

When I was at Condé Nast, I’d accidentally been given companywide permissions to the metrics dashboard, and I witnessed Joanna Robinson’s Game of Thrones coverage at Vanity Fair climb the charts every Sunday evening after new episodes aired. Even The New Yorker, the company’s platonic ideal of a prestige publication, was doing recaps (though still, an overwhelming amount of their page views were attributed to “satire by Andy Borowitz”).

This was happening outside of Condé as well. It felt like it was happening everywhere. Suddenly, The New York Times was doing the same thing as BuzzFeed; The Guardian, Time, and NPR were generating identical kinds of stories as sites called FanSided, Ranker, and Den of Geek. (The Verge’s series was called “Game of Game of Thrones.”) Publications are differentiated by their coverage areas, identity, and voice. What happens when they all start running the same kind of pieces?

Image: Cath Virginia / The Verge, Getty Images

“You end up getting a lot of sites chasing the same numbers, and at the same time, those numbers become self-reinforcing because every site is writing about Game of Thrones and everyone’s reading,” said Jared Keller, who was in The Atlantic’s digital newsroom. “It’s the only thing there is to read, and therefore you start seeing numbers on end. It becomes a snake eating its own tail. It really does homogenize media.”

Keller started at The Atlantic as an associate editor in 2010, initially at its digital offshoot, The Atlantic Wire. At the time, the magazine was the magazine — a prestigious print publication that had existed for over 150 years; The Atlantic Wire was the website, which had been around for only one year. Keller eventually became The Atlantic’s first social media editor, a role tailor-made for him. The job involved looking at a lot of metrics to inform the newsroom of “trends.”

Social media — Facebook primarily, but also Reddit, Digg, and StumbleUpon — was beginning to drive substantial numbers, only the traffic was unpredictable. What went viral often felt random and chaotic. Keller spent a great deal of energy trying to control the flow of social traffic, often by posting links to Reddit, with varying degrees of success. But for a publication with legacy trappings, Keller says, The Atlantic was very forward-thinking, more so than many of its contemporaries.

“If there was a down week and all the percentages fell in terms of week-over-week traffic, I would get questions: ‘Where did the traffic go?’” Keller recalled. “I’m 22 and I don’t know where the fuck the traffic went. I had to tell everyone to relax and try and create content that’s more conducive towards getting picked up on these social networks.”

But it didn’t take long for Keller to see the steady stream of page views coming for stories about Game of Thrones, then beginning its second season. It was like clockwork, spiking on Sundays when episodes would air.

Game of Thrones was the first thing where we didn’t have to do anything to see it generate traffic,” Keller said. “We just had to create the content, and then people would come to it. If you built it, they would come.” It was the first time Keller could identify a consistent social media trend and program against it. So The Atlantic did what every other website was doing: publish episode recaps. Game of Thrones aired Sunday, and follow-up content went live the next morning.

“They’re making bullets. I’m just the gun,” Keller said. He’d look at the analytics, see what was generating attention, and try to convince writers and editors to assign stories from the data. “You find a button or a lever and you just push it and pull it as much as you can.”

(One source told me: “I remember all the clueless senior editors talking about [Keller] in awed whispers like he was a wizard.”)

Despite his success as a social media editor, Keller never liked the job, even with the power he wielded. “I was not happy doing it. Honestly, it felt like the most important and simultaneously least important job in the newsroom.” He’d grown up reading narrative magazine features and always wanted to write them — not “dig harder for content in the content mines.”

Keller has since had a tumultuous career in media, though, through it, you can track the ebbs and flows of the industry. He left to become the director of social media at Bloomberg, where he was let go after his DMs shit-talking management leaked. Then he was the editor of Al Jazeera America before being laid off. (The site eventually closed in 2016.) After that he was news director at Mic.com, which, for a moment, was thought to be the voice of news for millennials. He was let go after a Gawker piece accused him of plagiarizing stories. He got tapped to be the digital director for a relaunched version of Maxim — he got laid off from there, too. Keller was at home at Task & Purpose, a trade publication geared toward military veterans, for six years, before it was bought by Recurrent Ventures, a venture equity-backed media company that buys up flailing web publications and pushes them into e-commerce.

“I fucked up a lot… I made a lot of mistakes in a lot of different jobs, and a lot of them were very public mistakes,” he said. “But I’m happy that I’ve been able to redeem myself at least a little bit in the last 10 years or so.”

He’s had eight jobs since 2010. Now, Keller is settled at Military.com, where he is a managing editor. He’s grateful that he gets to keep working in the industry.

When Kim Renfro moved to New York at age 18, her dream was “to frost cupcakes all day.” She got the chance at a venerable bakery called Buttercup Bake Shop. After she graduated from college, her new dream was to have health insurance. Renfro landed at Business Insider as a temporary office manager, setting up desks for new hires and stocking the kitchen with seltzer and soda.

Even though she wasn’t a journalist, she loved the camaraderie of the newsroom. In the office kitchen, she talked about her favorite show, Game of Thrones. A huge fan of the books as well, Renfro spent a lot of her time on Reddit. By the end of the fifth season, the TV series had outpaced the plot of the novels — that gap opening a rich vein of theories and conspiracies about characters’ identities and fates. Eventually, an editor, overhearing Renfro’s enthusiasm, asked, “Why do you know so much about this thing?”

Surprisingly, the site didn’t have anyone covering Game of Thrones, so Renfro started pitching stories about the show in her free time and was eventually moved into an entry-level culture writer position. She would be, among other things, the site’s Game of Thrones person.

By the time she was entering the recap cycle full time, in the show’s sixth season, Game of Thrones coverage was an established machine. Readers who wanted recaps already knew where they wanted to get them. To differentiate herself, Renfro positioned herself as an expert on the texts. She’d pored over George R.R. Martin’s work and was able to pick apart the ways it was reflected in the show or, more crucially, deviated from it. She offered an obsessive’s expertise — of the books, of the mythology, of the subreddits.

“I would try and make people feel smarter about the show that they loved,” she explained to me, imagining the “water-cooler conversations on Monday mornings.” (After all, this is exactly the kind of chitchat that had gotten Renfro her job.)

Unlike most TV shows, HBO chose not to provide writers with advanced screeners during the later seasons, meaning they were watching it live on Sunday nights alongside the rest of the world. But it would take Renfro’s whole weekend. Starting on Saturday, she’d prep articles, making bets based on her own deductions of where the storyline was going or, mercifully, if there were any leaked plot details. She pre-wrote as much as possible, including Google-optimized headlines.

Then, Sunday evening would roll around. “I would watch the episode live with a notebook in hand and eyes glued to the screen, messily scribbling everything in my notebook,” Renfro said. After a quick break to survey online chatter, she’d start the episode again, watching more closely this time, with captions on. And then: writing.

Image: Cath Virginia / The Verge, Getty Images

“I would try and have at least one article published that night, if not more, if I could sleep for a few hours. It was an adrenaline rush on Sunday nights for sure,” she said, recounting the experience excitedly. “I would sleep a little bit, wake up early, get to the office, sometimes rewatch the episode again in the morning just to sort of soak it in, especially if it was a good one. And then, yeah, I would really try and write as many articles as I could between Sunday night and Tuesday evening” — the publishing “sweet spot,” according to Renfro.

That first season of her coverage, she published over 150 stories. As she continued, she kept pushing. By the end of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones in 2019, she estimates she had published hundreds more.

According to Renfro, Business Insider was “metrics focused.” Many writers were held to traffic goals. With Game of Thrones, the page views were often in the millions. Renfro describes the internal pressure as “stressful” but admits she also thrived on it.

“There were some Sundays where I just didn’t sleep at all. I would just stay up,” she said. “I was on the West Coast, so I would stay up until my East Coast colleagues came online on Monday morning and then be like, ‘Okay, I’m handing this off. Now I’m going to go try and nap a little bit.’”

Watching the finale — famously disappointing to many fans — Renfro cried, particularly during a final montage of the Stark family. She was moved by her last glimpse of those characters, her time with them coming to an end. Then, over the next 24 hours, she put up 10 articles.

In the months that followed, Renfro felt like “a shell of a human,” one who had been taken over by “a weird burnout sort of depression.” Like many young people, too much of her self-worth was wrapped up in her job. “I had to unpack that a bit and address that and start getting my priorities in order. It was just a TV show.”

Game of Thrones concluded in May 2019. Since then, Renfro says she has been “a consistent therapy attender.”

James Hibberd spent the better part of a decade writing about Game of Thrones. By the time the show was over, he was, understandably, sick of it. “After the finale, the last thing I wanted to do was write more about Thrones,” he said. “I’d probably written over a thousand stories about the show across my time at The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly.”

But a literary agent approached him about the possibility of doing a book, and Hibberd decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Anyone who’s spent most of their career writing on the internet dreams of publishing something that lasts. Blog posts are ephemeral; a book is permanent.

Being on contract with a publisher ended up being, in his words, the toughest assignment of his career. The book was supposed to be 300 pages; Hibberd wrote nearly 500 over the course of nine months, while working his full-time writing job at Entertainment Weekly. (“If I had more time, I would have made the book even longer,” he said.)

According to BookScan, Hibberd’s Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series has sold a little shy of 10,000 copies. While books rarely have the reach of web media, readers have loved the book: it has an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon and sports an approving blurb from George R.R. Martin himself. Kim Renfro had also written a book, The Unofficial Guide to Game of Thrones, published by Atria Books in 2019. (Also a glowing 4.6 stars.) “I knew people were going to write books about the show, and I just decided to try and be one of them, which I’m very glad that I did,” Renfro said, and similarly described it as both a massive and satisfying undertaking. For both writers, writing books — thoroughly and quickly — was the thing they’d inadvertently spent the last decade preparing for.

“Doing such a long project on my own while on a deadline made me realize something about the making of TV shows and movies that I had never internalized before: what you see onscreen is never the best a creator can do,” Hibberd said. “It’s the best they can do with the time and resources they have.”

When Renfro covered the first season of House of the Dragon — a prequel series to Game of Thrones released by HBO in 2022 — she also began podcasting, a medium that she found much healthier. (Again, therapy.) But the overall attention paid to Dragon was much smaller than it had ever been with Thrones. The hunger from readers just wasn’t the same.

Everyone I spoke to agrees there will never be another phenomenon like Game of Thrones. There are various theories why — the fracturing of monoculture, the binge model, the fact that there’s too much TV, the fact that it sucks now, TikTok — but it also means there won’t be another Game of Thrones moment for journalistic outlets.

That’s likely because, as much of a singular phenomenon as Thrones was, it was the focus of a brief era when Facebook was sending a flood of traffic to publications, and nearly every major media company sold out the things that differentiated its publications in order to take a sip. I don’t think there was any illusion about how precarious a reliance on social media would be, but it was surprising just how quickly that source evaporated. Internet platforms shifted away from distributing articles, the page view boom times ended, and still today, publications are reeling.

Image: Cath Virginia / The Verge, Getty Images

Earlier this year, Renfro was laid off from Business Insider as part of an 8 percent staff reduction and an even larger, bleaker trend of a shrinking media industry. Over 2,000 media jobs were shed in 2023. We might never repeat the Game of Thrones moment solely because there won’t be enough publications left.

“It feels like this bananas, bananas cultural event that I don’t think a lot of people will ever experience the same way again,” Renfro said. She was still talking about the fantasy TV show, with an equal measure of relief and nostalgia, and as I listened, I hoped it would not one day be how people spoke about journalism, too.

My amateur Game of Thrones recapping crew — Josh, Scott, and I — have long since left GQ and become good friends, a bond that could only be forged in the humiliating fires of Facebook Live. In the years since the spring of pivoting to video, I had attended each of their weddings. As we sat down for dinner at Scott’s reception, he played, as a gag, the music that scored Game of Thrones’ notorious “Red Wedding” scene — when the Stark family is massacred and several major characters are killed off.

It was pretty funny, especially when the Nerf arrows started flying. I glanced around at the room of laughing people, many of whom were or had been writers, being “murdered” one by one. It was quite a scene, and I thought about how we might, at long last, have a more appropriate metaphor for what happened to journalism than the BuzzFeed watermelon.

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