Thursday, July 10, 2014

To Get It Right

I was reminded again yesterday of how difficult it is to do what "The Onion" does. It is, of course, a satirical news site- something that didn't really exist before it did, so far as I know- and it's fantastic. Whether it's as good now as it has been in the past is debatable, but they are still very good at doing the critical things that all imitators I've seen so far fail at. Someone eventually will manage it, but for one reason or another, they all fail catastrophically somehow.

A big thing is that you have to have some kind of real world grounding. You can get crazy, but it has to fit into some kind of realistic framework, if that makes any sense. The Onion had an article where Obama is an Anti-Christ figure bringing about a dark age of hell on Earth, but it worked because it was playing on an incredibly heightened version of how some people see him. Obama was not acting or sound like he would, but since the joke was not on him, it worked.

 You also have to have an obvious joke. There's no value in being coy about your point, or else you wind up with one like I saw yesterday. It was an article about the violence in Chicago. The Onion did it well, presenting an environmental report stating that Chicago's air quality is poor because it's mostly bullets. This other site slightly exaggerates the figures on shootings, says the military is stepping in, and calls that a satirical article. The only reason I knew it was not true was that the military is prohibited from playing the role of a police force by the Posse Comitatus act.

Something else that these sites mostly fail at is writing in the proper style of a news article. Typically those articles are written at something like a third or fourth grade reading level, but I guess you have to be a lot smarter than that to actually capture the feel of their language. Satirical articles often are very wrong tonally, or are riddled with poor grammar and spelling. One of the best things these sites could do is study that one thing.

Obviously I like to think I know how to do this, or I wouldn't be critiquing these sites, but I don't think there's adequate profit in trying. They say you can be first or you can be best. The Onion was effectively the first to think of doing this, and they are also the best. To be better is such a low probability proposition that there seems to be no good reason to try and do it. People running these lousy imitators would be well advised to try something else- something where they can be first.

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