Thursday, March 20, 2008

Internet news is no longer a funny business

The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism released a study with an ominous message for the state of news reporting everywhere. According to the report, financial woes are now the number one concern for journalists, overshadowing such minor things as quality and credibility. Staff is being cut at news organizations around the country, with more and more local news outlets (on and offline) relying increasingly on content generated by fewer and fewer sources.

This affects those involved in the production or dissemination of news satire, because most of us have fairly strong opinions about journalism. Usually, news satirists opt for a pseudo-journalistic approach precisely in order to highlight the problems of the real media. In other words, we care about good reporting, and challenge the mainstream media when it doesn't deliver by exaggerating (and thus highlighting) its flaws.

The web has had some positive effects on journalism, enhancing transparency of sources, for example, and making it easier to link related information. But it has had deleterious effects on the business end of the news, and ultimately, the bottom line is what it's all about. It's not just satire webmasters struggling with low AdSense rates of return - even the big media guys are having trouble making their websites a worthwhile return on investment. As a result, they're cutting corners, and the product suffers as a result. The drop in diversity and quality of news online may provide extra material to satirists, but we're not laughing about it.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Requiem for a satire site

In the past few months, a small bastion of wit and wisdom passed silently from the web. Thinkdammit (no link because the domain has changed hands) was a site not unlike many; in this case, two talented writers set out to periodically offer unabashedly biased views of current events, media culture, and foreign and domestic policies. Via the tried and true format of pseudo-news stories, Thinkdammit aimed its very sharp and largely accurate rapier wit at the foibles of modern politics from 2002 through 2007.

And then... it didn't. What happens when writers move on? It is easy to forget how ephemeral the world wide web can be. Even the oldest sites are often not more than a decade old, and many last far less long. The fact that domains must be actively maintained and paid for makes archival survival of inactive sites far less likely.

This is troubling, because a lot of good writing is poised to vanish into the wind. It may be easier to get published online, but it's much harder to establish a lasting legacy. The Wayback machine notwithstanding, if a site passes from its owner's hands, it's essentially gone, leaving behind a fragmented patchwork of broken links and, perhaps, quoted excerpts in forums. Compare this to the average age of the books on your bookshelf. Odds are, most of your books predate the web by years. On the other hand, who among us is prepared to, essentially, assume a lifelong commitment to maintain a website that was active for perhaps a few years? Few writers, unless they are professionals, would do so. Some (present company included) seek to make the leap from HTML to hard copy, though it's not easy to accomplish. Most humor-based websites surely won't result in a book.

It's hard to think about what will happen with our websites down the road: the web is, for better and for worse, a product of the "now". So live in the now. Raise a glass of something suitable to toast the departure of a fine collection of humor articles, and thank the writers for sharing their vision with us, however briefly.

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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.