Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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When in crisis, turn to comedy: How satirical news might help European media

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You might not want to go all the way down the comedic route, but it is sure helpful to look that way

“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.

Ways out of news fatigue

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.

Could satirical news be an alternative to serious news? 

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.

Satire in Europe 

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”?

  • Le Chou. “Europe’s answer to a question nobody asked” as they brand themselves, is a satirical media in English that has a separate site and a column at The Belgian TimesLe Chou takes on a brave mission to make fun of European politicians and institutions like the European Parliament and European Commission. (The name seems to be a pun on The Onion – “le chou” means “the cabbage” in French).
  • Der Postillon. A German satirical news website whose audience regularly reaches over 4M visitors monthly. Run by ex-PR expert Stefan Sicherheitman, Der Postillon jokes about politics, both international and domestic, economics, science and many other subjects. Angering some of the right-wing readers, The Postillon deals with them by posting their quotes in their “Letter to Editor”.  Der Postillon also has an English version
  • El Mundo Today. A Spanish satirical news website; its name alludes to one of the biggest Spanish newspapers El Mundo. It loves to poke fun at Spanish and international politics, Real Madrid and the Spanish Royal Family, especially the king – creators Xavi Puig and Kike Garcia said that he “has given us a lot of play”.
  • Le Gorafi. Not to be confused with the French news media Le FigaroLe Gorafi first saw the world in 2012 as a Twitter account that was making jokes about French presidential elections. Later that year it turned into a blog. Now it is a satirical news website with half a million visitors monthly. It still covers French presidential elections along with internal politics, science, sports and, delightfully, horoscopes. 
  • The Daily Mash. A satirical news website that was founded and is led by former media executives and journalists. The founders are former The Sunday Times correspondent Neil Rafferty and the former business editor of The Scotsman Paul Stokes; the commercial side of The Daily Mash was led by former national newspaper executives Nicola Young and Kirsten Morrison. Launched in April of 2007, it was trying to fill in the onion-shaped hole in the UK’s satirical market. Last month it recorded more than a million visits to the websites. The media is also proven to be commercially successful, as they are quite popular among advertisers promoting humorous or youth-oriented content. 

What traditional news outlets can learn from satire 

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.

Anastasiia Shevchenko

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.