There has been a lot of discussion lately about fake news in the wake of one of the most polarizing elections in our nation’s history. Large companies like Google and Facebook have made varying stances against websites that produce fictionalized news content, some of which very likely influenced the election. In all this discussion the sites producing this content have remained silent. While my point of view is certainly different than most, here is my stance on the whole discussion.
I launched Rock City Times in 2012 before the huge surge of fake news sites. It was always from the very beginning set up to be a local equivalent of the Onion, Borowitz report, Daily Show, and Colbert Report.
That is a key difference for me. Satire, in the correct form, is meant to provide a different look at a real perspective through, often through the use of humor. Myself and the other people who have written for me over the years write in the original form of Horatian Satire. It was developed in 65 BC and is defined as writing that “playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour”.
There is a real need for this type of literature in today’s world. People are more frustrated than ever, regardless of what side you sit on. This goes from the national level to the local level. It is my belief that sometimes we just need a good laugh to keep from going crazy. If we reach the point as a society that we cannot step back and laugh at the overall situation, then we are in real trouble. Sadly I believe that is the point we are reaching.
Being satire focused, I have always been very clear about the fact that everything we write here is fake. Yes, as a writer I stay in character with each article, but I would use a mixture of quotes and absurd situations to make sure the reader knew it was fake. In fact, I found myself most frustrated when people did not understand that it was fake. It lost much of the art form when it was not read through the lens of humor.
Since launching we have been read over 10 million times with visitors from every single country in the world except North Korean (where I suspect we are blocked). Not bad for a little publication based out of Arkansas focusing on local and regional satire.
Everything was fun. It was all going well for me and the team here. We would frequently use our large audience to help drive attention to different worthy causes and help spread the word of good local businesses around. In large part through the name recognition of Rock City Times we were able to launch several very legitimate digital media outlets in Rock City Eats, Rock City Life, and NWAeats that all focus on helping small businesses succeed. Those have gone on to become award winning publications that have a huge community impact, and are the base of our successful media group.
A couple of years ago something changed though. It had a lot to do with how easily fake news sites, satire or otherwise, went viral through Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. In that was a lot of money, and the crazier the story the easier it went viral. There was a great deal of money to be made in it as well. Like I said, we hit around 10 million people over our lifetime. We are catering largely to a state with around 3 million people. Fake news sites focusing on the country or world as a whole could easily clear 10 million readers in a week.
It is a lot of the reason Google is kicking fake news sites off their ad network. Google Doubleclick sucks for payments, let me be honest, but even there some of these sites are making $30-40,000 a month. If you are a little smarter and constantly look for the best CPM rates (cost per thousand) you can very quickly make $60-100,000 per month if you are one of these more widespread fake news outlets.
However there is no glory in producing news that is fake. Like I said, I hated it every time people read something of mine and did not catch that it was satire. The fact that Rock City Times started being lumped into the mix with other sites that write fake news for the sole purpose of deceiving people is a large part of the reason I have essentially shut things down around here. In the past year I have only put out 4 articles.
To put that another way, receiving multiple death threats from people who felt offended never once made me consider shutting down. I got tired of it when it stopped being funny. When there was an oversaturation of people who used the general style not to be funny or convey a broader message, but just to trick people.
If you write fake news, even if it is under the guise of satire, to trick people then you are an asshole.
I supported Facebook when discussions originally began to include a “satire” tag on all fake items, the more I can get people to see what we did here through the lens of satire the better, and it helps keep the literary style pure. Unfortunately that never materialized, I wish it had.
I still get asked multiple times a week about Rock City Times. People loved it and embraced what we tried to do here. In many ways it brought a frustrated community together and gave them something collectively to laugh at regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or party affiliation. It allowed us to discuss important issues and laugh about things that didn’t really matter. Unfortunately a handful of people ruined it for everyone.
As for the future here, who knows. I have tried a time or two to start focusing on real news, maybe with a bit of snark. We have done so with mixed results, because people enjoyed the old style. I have put together some quality publications focusing on local food, arts, and community, and we have a great team over on that side that produces some really amazing work. Keep up with it on Rock City Eats, Rock City Life, and NWAeats
If you want to see this all come back in a real, but maybe snarky form, let me know. It is something I frequently consider. Until then stay in touch and find a way to laugh.