But while they’ve grown in type and popularity over the years, parody news outlets have struggled to stay afloat in a digital publishing world reliant on advertising and the whims of ever-changing algorithms. So now dozens of them are doing something they haven’t before: banding together as a network.
This week, sites as different as the Hard Times, Reductress and the Weekly Humorist are launching a $5-a-month membership through a micro-donation platform called Coil. Instead of throwing up paywalls, selling their own subscriptions or selling out to a corporate owner, the sites will remain independent and offer exclusive content, ad-free browsing and other perks to members. Coil will then divvy up the money to the publishers according to how long readers spend on each of the sites.
Their hope is to eventually get rid of ads altogether.
“I think we all reached that breaking point, and now it’s an organic groundswell saying, let’s try this new thing,” said the Hard Times co-founder Matt Saincome, who organized the comedy collective. “We joke [that] worst case, it doesn’t work out, we’re right back to where we started. What’s that saying? ‘Desperation is the mother of all innovation’?”
The situation has become dire across digital publishing, with the pandemic bringing record readership but plummeting ad sales. Even high-profile digital players such as BuzzFeed, Vice and Quartz had to furlough and lay off workers. Revenue from automated ads — “our bread and butter” — dropped by 70 percent for the Hard Times, Saincome said. “Overnight, that idea stopped working and I wasn’t sure if it was going to work again.”
But even before covid-19, satirical news sites were facing similar woes to the ones confronting all digital publishers, which have had much of their ad dollars go to big players such as Google and Facebook. Funny or Die went through a couple of rounds of layoffs in recent years. In 2016, Univision bought a collection of sites, including the Onion. A few years later, the network sold them off to a private equity firm. ClickHole, a parody of Upworthy and early BuzzFeed-style listicles and clickbait, was sold by the Onion to Cards Against Humanity earlier this year.
It seems to be a time of experimentation for independent Web publishing. ClickHole relaunched in May, with staffers made the majority owners. The staffers at the irreverent sports blog Deadspin quit last year in protest a new owner’s directive to “stick to sports” and are now starting a new media company, with worker ownership and an $8 monthly subscription, the New York Times reported.
Smaller, independent satire outfits rely on freelancers and are often run by people with day jobs, so even trying to launch fundraisers or create paywalls has been too daunting of a task for most to tackle individually. Satire sites also deal with a unique problem of the Trump age — getting mislabeled by social media platforms as “fake news,” confused with the intentionally misleading and propagandistic kind that Facebook is trying, with varying success, to block. Such a designation can cause advertising and online placement rates to plummet.
“We’re all trying to find ways to keep our sites going, and not only that, but pay people, and in the world of online content no one is immune from that [struggle]," said Robot Butt founder Steve DiMatteo. “In online comedy, it sometimes feels like you’re a cockroach in that you’re just trying to survive to the next day.”
Given their common quandaries, Saincome reached out to sites as different as the Broadway Beat and satirical sports site What The Fuss News. Now that many of these publishers are in contact for the first time, they’re talking about promoting one another’s work and even organizing theme weeks within the Coil network. “Normally this wouldn’t happen with competing sites,” Saincome said. “We’re thinking, hey, all the big guys are doing consolidation, but we don’t have the resources to scoop up different sites.”
But will people pay for online comedy? It’s historically been a difficult pitch. The Onion — the most recognizable news satire outlet — experimented with a paywall for overseas readers. CollegeHumor, which had launched a subscription service in 2018, laid off nearly all of its employees this year after its corporate sponsors sold the 20-year-old media company.
Traditional news outlets have urged readers to subscribe in exchange for presumably valuable information. Satire sites have to make a different kind of pitch. Instead of buying a commodity, a membership is framed more like an avenue to financially back artists you care about. “I don’t know if satire is essential to everyone, but I really would hope that for our fans who support us in other ways — they buy merch and come to our events — that this is just a different way to support and really be a patron of a brand you believe in” said Sarah Pappalardo, editor and co-founder of Reductress.
And now that the news cycle is just full of grim news, pieces like the Reductress’s “How to Do Winged Eyeliner Now That You’ve Forgotten What Makeup Is” can provide a kind of catharsis unique to satire.
“It does seem people need a break in their feed because we’re online so much more,” Pappalardo said. “It’s nice to have punctuation between one horror and the next.”