“Belgium files for copyright infringement against Boris Johnson as UK government chaos ‘is clear breach of our trademark’”, reads a recent headline from Le Chou News, a satirical news outlet that brands itself as an European alternative to The Onion.
Satirical news as a genre has a long history, including The Onion itself, which was founded almost 35 years ago. However, today even “serious” news publishers have more and more to learn from news satire.
The news fatigue has been a constant presence recently, in the wake of the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. As Reuters 2022 Digital News Report shows, people are tired of bad news stories and feel stressed from reading them. That poses a problem for the news media.
You can’t stop reporting on important issues, but you can’t ignore your audiences’ behaviours. Columbia Journalism Review in their recent piece about Ukraine coverage noted that “audience fatigue is not a good reason for us to stop putting difficult truths in front of them”, but it also highlights that “you can’t force people to care”. One of the ways out of readers’ weariness, in the author’s opinion, is the quality and prominence of journalists’ work.
The other answer lies in the tone of content. The Fix already tried to answer the question of what kind of content about the war in Ukraine is the most engaging. Entertaining content, like celebrity news or human stories with a dash of humour, is attracting more readers even in times of war. On TikTok, infotainment news sources are frequently ahead of “hard” news.
A healthy portion of comedy and satire might also be a way forward.
Satire news, through humour, can show the essence of the situation in a much lighter tone instead of the contextualised reporting by traditional media. At times of news avoidance, where the direct cause of this avoidance is emotionally draining news, satire might help solve this issue.
Political parody, satire and infotainment have been extremely popular and influential in the US. For example, according to media researcher Jeffrey P. Jones’ book “Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, U.S.”, the comedy show Saturday Night Live influenced Sarah Palin’s (who was parodied by actress Tina Fey) capacity to become a vice-president. Jones argues that even though traditional media questioned Palin’s capabilities, it is Tina Fey’s parody that recontextualized Palin’s running and caused more damage for Pailin’s chances. At some point, mainly in 2014, U.S. viewers, as a Pew Research study showed, trusted satirical news more than traditional ones.
While these trends were promising, satirical news sources can’t compete in numbers with traditional ones. The study by Peifer and Myrick shows that traditional media that uses satire in its material will still be more popular than satirical material covering the same issue. One of the classic examples of satirical news is U.S. digital outlet The Onion, which calls itself “the finest news source”. With monthly traffic of 5.2M visitors, The Onion can’t compete with top dogs like CNN or MSNBC or other purely digital news platforms like BuzzFeed. But its ability to stay in business for 35 years and maintain its readership is impressive.
Despite not being able to reach the readership numbers of news giants, satire news often has high levels of audience engagement. The same study by Peifer and Myrick indicates that users are more likely to share satirical content with others rather than content from traditional news, partly because satirical stories can be more emotion-evoking.
An example of this tendency is Le Chou, a satirical media covering European politics. Le Chou has a website and a column in The Brussels Times. Interestingly, Le Chou has more followers on Twitter (21.3K) in comparison to The Brussels Times (16.9K); it seems to have more reactions from followers under each post than a publication that hosts them. Just think, this video tweeted by Le Chou of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scaring the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the NATO summit reached 10M views; you won’t find that kind of activity on The Brussels Times page.
A need for comedy and laughs is universal, so of course, The Onion can’t be the only “finest news source” on the planet. Who are “the Europeans finest news sources”?
Traditional, hard news isn’t going to go anywhere. However, what managers can learn from satirical news sources is that humour and satire can benefit your media organisation.
You might not want to go all of the way towards The Onion and turn your publication into a comedy club, but an injection of satire might be worthwhile. Media researchers found out that while using satire might be a bit of a risky move, some satirical elements raise the likelihood of the content being shared.
To avoid risk you can follow the model of many European publishers who collaborate with satirical news and include them as a part of their content or programming. There are many ways to do that. The Belgian Times has integrated the satirical Le Chou as a separate column. German network NDR collaborated with Der Postillon on an infotainment program called “Postillon24”, which airs at night, long after regular news. Spanish newspaper El Pais has had different versions of collaboration with El Mundo Today, first as a section of the magazine, then as a regular contributor. In 2014, Le Gorafi presented a chronicle on a nightly news talk show of Canal+ Le Grand Journal.
This move can be quite smart, as it lets the satirical content into the hard news realm, but strictly distinguishes it as a separate entity.