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Am I Famous Yet? Making it Big With (or Despite) Your Satire Site

WEBSITE | NOV. 7, 2005

Eleven years ago, The New York Times created a team to begin work on a digital newspaper that would be distributed via the newly emerging World Wide Web. There were many issues regarding a Web-based newspaper to be resolved, but none was more vigorously debated than whether or not to charge digital readers for access to the online edition.

One side argued that a company with a global brand name like The New York Times should never give away content. The world would beat a path to the digital edition's doorway and happily pay to enter. The opposing argument said that in the Web of tomorrow, eyeballs on Web pages would matter most, content would be free, and advertising would pay for it all.

The eyeballs won. Today, several million people around the world take advantage of free access to enormous amounts of Times content. The only cost is registering. (The Wall Street Journal went the subscription route. They now receive on the order of $100 million a year in subscription revenues for their online edition, plus they run ads, just like everyone else.) While the Times did finally add a paid subscription option this year, making some in-depth features and editorials accessible only to paying "Times Select" members, a large majority of its content, including virtually all the daily news content, remains publicly accessible.

H.L. Mencken is famed for this quotation: "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one."

Why does this matter to satire and humor sites? I believe that the Times decision was one of the most powerful progenitors of the now deeply embedded concept that all content on the Web should be free. As a result, satire and humor sites give their content away. In fact, not only do you give it away, you beseech people to take it from you. You hope that somehow this will bring you more readers and more clicks to the ads that load up your pages as you scramble to wring some revenues from your satire passion, or perhaps satire addiction.

Breathes there not a satire webmaster who doesn't dream of oceans of requests for reprints at, say $100 a pop? Well, how about $10? Who wouldn't love to use the Web site as a springboard to a spot as a paid syndicated columnist, either on the Web or in print? And, of course, there's that ever present dream of a fabulous "'book deal."' Look at Jon Stewart and his 2004 bestseller.

In this multi-part report, we'll provide brief assessments of the possibilities of such things, and, more importantly, a map of the potholes. In this installment, we'll examine the world of reprints.


H.L. Mencken is famed for this quotation: "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one."

Today, one of the truly great things about the Internet is that virtually anyone can become a publisher. For less than $100 a year, you can have a domain name and an ocean of bandwidth. Armed with a hand-me-down computer, you become a publisher, free to say whatever you want to as many people as you can attract to your Web site. This is also one of the worst things about the Internet.

Web clutter is enormous, gargantuan. The combination of the all-content-is-free ethos and the prevailing search engine dogma intensifies the quest for eyeballs, links, page ranks, and the like. With each request that one satire site makes to another for a reciprocal link, the message is, "you help me give my material away and I'll help you give your material away." Maybe both prosper as a result, or maybe not. Small wonder that the Internet satirist who spends twenty-plus hours a week creating content and publishing it looks for additional ways to generate hard currency for original literary works.

Spend some time searching the Web for sites that look like they might pay you actual dollars for an original, exclusive piece of satire or humor. It's unlikely you will find any. Think about it. Why would a webmaster, even at a private, password-protected, subscription-based Web site pay for satire and humor? He needs only to pull down any or all of the RSS feeds that dozens, if not hundreds of satire sites make available at no charge in order to increase traffic. Or, he could incorporate one of HumorFeed's java scripts into his site.

What about Slate and Salon? Both sites, when they do publish satire or humor, generally use their own people. Who among the satire webmasters who participate in HumorFeed wouldn't be delighted to see a reference in either of these online publications to their site and a link back to the site? On the forums where satire webmasters hang out, what gets the participants really agitated is not that they weren't paid something when a site picked up some of their material, but that the site didn't link back to them.

Or, consider Andrew Sullivan, a well known political pundit, formerly of The New Republic and a frequent author of op-ed pieces and magazine articles on politics and social commentary. Based on where and how often he is published, it would appear he has a decent annual gross income from such writing. He also has a very popular political blog, which he runs at his own site. Borrowing a page from public broadcasting, once a year Sullivan sets aside a month during which he daily implores, pleads, cajoles, and begs his online readers to make donations to him. He doesn't disclose how much he receives. But how much income do you think he derives from articles he writes exclusively for online consumption that are published other than at his own Web site? Very little is the likely answer.

In my view, what this means is that the Internet satirist who wants to generate other income must focus on the print world. He or she must become a freelance writer who specializes in humor and satire. In many cases, the Web site might help in getting a freelance assignment, providing a sort of reference. It is also possible the site might be a hindrance in other cases.

Despite the proliferation of online publishing, the number of print outlets that will pay for original content continues to grow. The pay may be low, but it is better than giving away your work. Unfortunately, the number of hungry freelance writers out there who compete for assignments is vast. In fact, go to some of the online sites that, borrowing a page from Ebay, actually auction off freelance writing assignments and you will find yourself vying with freelancers from India. Yes, outsourcing of freelance writing has arrived. Peruse the writing samples of a typical New Delhi freelance and you often will find work as good as that of an experienced freelance based in the United States. Not surprisingly, these Indian freelances consistently underbid their American colleagues.

In my view...the Internet satirist who wants to generate other income must focus on the print world.

Nevertheless, there is a market out there for satire and humor. Start small and focus locally. Begin looking for local or regional publications that have a spot for satire and humor. Or, look for publications that don't publish satire or humor, but might if they received the right proposal. Write pitch letters to editors. Follow up. Search for unusual outlets. For example, many lawyers and accountants send their clients periodic newsletters that are actually canned newsletters published by someone else but customized to appear local. Locate the newsletter publisher and convince them you could write 500 funny words about accounting. Yes, accountants do laugh occasionally, though never during tax season.

Another potential outlet is newspaper op-ed pages. Although it is no longer available in the Washington Post free archives for you to read, a recent funny, satirical op-ed piece about President Bush written by Michael Kinsley (Slate and CNN's Crossfire, among other credits) received a splashy display in the op-ed pages. The piece could have been written by any number of the webmasters who participate in HumorFeed. If you want to reach high right away, go the Post op-ed area on their Web site and look for the link where they invite readers to submit ideas for op-ed assignments. (Be sure and give them a new idea, not something recycled from your Web site.)

Alternatively, start trying to play the funny, satirical op-ed game by thinking locally and regionally. Just about every newspaper now features op-ed articles, and editors want local or regional writers. Writing an op-ed article that compels an editorial page editor to print it is harder than you might think. Writing one that is funny or satirical is even harder. On the other hand, the typical local newspaper op-ed writer is clueless when it comes to trying to be funny and pithy at the same time. Hone your idea. Write a pitch letter. Follow up. Try to get an appointment to drop by and introduce yourself to the editor who makes the op-ed decisions, even though one of your ideas has already been rejected. Keep after them. Remember, editors have space to fill, just like satire webmasters. Sometimes their cupboard is bare. Remind them that you have ideas, that you can be funny, that you can write to space and on time, and that you take editing well. Coax them into looking at your Web site. Something you've published there might spark an idea for something they want you to write exclusively for them.

Next, turn to local and regional magazines, free distribution newspapers, alternative newspapers, even newsletters.

Satire and humor webmasters come from widely varying backgrounds. For those who are professional writers, the advice above seems rudimentary, Freelance Writing 101. For the webmaster who comes from the IT side or some other profession, such advice is just the first step down a long path to building a name as a print writer who can be funny and get paid for it. If you're not already a professional print writer, browse any bookstore and you'll find guides about how to get started. Buy one and study it. You've already developed considerable skill at writing satire and humor. Now you want to extend your reach into the print world. It's a very different ball game, largely because you don't own the press.

A couple of personal notes. I have a monthly humor column gig with a tabloid entertainment and arts guide that is given away at a hundred or more locations in an affluent area between New York City and Philadelphia. It's 1,000 words on anything I want to write about. They send me a check every month. I try to strike a balance between columns with a local theme and national themes, including politics. I never recycle anything from the Web site in the print column. After the print column has been on newsstands for a week, I post the column at Satirium. The web site gets a mention in the About the Author box at the bottom of the print column.

Not so long ago, I would prominently mention my Internet satire and humor site when pitching myself for any freelance writing assignment. I still mention it if I'm angling for a satire or humor assignment. But I don't list Satirium on the resume I send in support of a non-satire freelance writing quest. I don't mention it in non-humor query letters. I think the Web site has cost me jobs, though I can't be absolutely certain. I speculate that it manages to put off some editors, who find it politically or culturally offensive. Maybe they look at it and decide I will be difficult to edit and unable to give them what they want. Perhaps Satirium trivializes my writing skills in the eyes of some editors. Don't automatically assume your satire site is an excellent reference every time you pitch yourself for a print writing assignment.