Some like it soft: Indians and satire

BY TANAY SUKUMAR| IN Opinion | 11/03/2016
Satirical news websites are not sharp, witty and edgy. Despite a good start, they have fallen back on a formula.
TANAY SUKUMAR is not amused

 

Unlike other kinds of online content, news satire has evolved shockingly slowly in India. Stories written on popular news satire portals still follow an obsolete, formulaic structure which has not matured much since they started. Despite the continuing lack of enough players, the failure needs to be documented, considering the sheer promise news satire showed at the beginning of this decade.

Some of the issue is to do with the quality of readership, but quality of content and readership have the mutual responsibility of steering each other forward. Now with readership guaranteed, established players like Faking News and The UnReal Times have the space to move the art ahead in a progressive direction, in a professional manner. Yet, in terms of quality and global relevance, we are far behind other international satirical websites.

Before looking at the actual issues, let’s see where the rot lies. For this, one need not go much beyond just the last few headlines, which capture everything that is wrong with Indian news satire:

The field in India has been limited for a long time. Onion Uttapam, a website launched in early 2008, never quite made a mark in those “primitive” days of social media engagement. Faking News, founded in September 2008, and The UnReal Times, since 2011, are the most recognizable websites today. Faking News was acquired by Firstpost in mid-2013. News That Matters Not, the website I myself founded in 2009 (and quit in 2013), has not published for quite a while. Attempts such as Mocking Now, The India Satire and Farzi News have either shown lack of quality, popularity or longevity.

The problems rangefrom clunky headlines to a lack of professional writers.

 

Lack of professional understanding of satire

Websites that try to come up are usually created by amateurs. Unlike a lot of journalistic websites launched by prominent media professionals in recent years, there have been no satirical websites by professionals who understand both good satire and good news writing.

Therefore, industry trends developed based on how reader responses were then, given that most Indian social media users were fresh in their engagement with satire. Quick, clever humour, featuring the day’s news and celebrities – without much opportunity to think deep – served the purpose of having casual readers gape at the wonder that news satire was.

But, the newness soon gave way to clichés, with no platform willing to lead readers into the actual depths of what satire could mean for public discourse.

The skills needed for a good satirical platform – quality satire going beyond plain humour, engaging the reader, creating viral content, good news writing, and multimedia prowess – are not coming together.

The best that established media outlets could think of doing was acquisition. While Firstpost acquired Faking News in 2013, another large media conglomerate was in talks with NTMN in early 2013 for a similar deal. Unfortunately, there was not enough to acquire: websites would die  before they could make a mark. The Times of India website decided to have its own news satire section called Mocktale, which is more of a jokes portal than a work of satire.

 

Clunky headlines

Headlines nearly always lack brevity and subtlety.The average length of a Faking News headline has grown from around 9.4 words in January-February 2013 to 14.2 words in January-February 2016.Satirical headlines increasingly want to tell it all, as just five recent random headlines show:

“Kanhaiya Kumar offers solution to Indo-Pak World Cup match imbroglio, suggests JNU as venue” (The UnReal Times, March 5, 2016)

“IT employee takes bath and shaves after gap of 6 months, HR mistakes him for new employee and conducts joining formalities” (Faking News, March 2, 2016)

“Jaitley all set to announce Rs. 30,000 crore package for celebrating cricket victories against Pakistan” (Faking News, February 29, 2016)

 “Aamir urges Maharashtra Govt. to consider him as ambassador to tackle drought, says his crying spells more reliable than monsoon” (Faking News, February 17, 2016)

“Terror outfits honour Indian columnists with lifetime achievement awards for their constant support” (The UnReal Times, January 16, 2016)

It’s possible to rewrite each of these briefly and subtly.These headlines show the websites are giving up: they are admitting that headlines are far more important than the story to get a Facebook like. Due to the short attention span of readers, who have had an overdose of satire in recent years, it seems preferable to give the entire story in the headline itself.

While text-based web journalism and opinion writing is still popular, text-based satire is now uninteresting. Tell-it-all headlines mean that dressing stories with a catchy lead paragraph and a closing witty line, and filling the rest up with clichés, is a farce.

 

Same old, same old....

Satire is still limited to few pet contemporary newsy characters. 2010: Kapil Sibal, Manmohan Singh. 2016: Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi. When I edited NTMN, I observed how Manmohan Singh’s trivial “theek hai” made it to the satirical stories of those days, across websites, even months later. Topics are juiced intermittently to the point where they become boring and repetitive.  For example, Shahid Afridi’s age and retirement and Rahul Gandhi’s “youth” still invite humorous stories, even though there is no meaning left.

 

Reactive,  not creative

Often,  the satire is an immediate thoughtless reaction to something else, thus rendering the story irrelevant very soon. This also puts websites at the risk of reacting to even the most trivial of incidents, or treating important events with shallowness. Consider this UnReal Times headline: Ravish Kumar at it again; blackens screen after pizza delivery boy denies him extra sachet of sauce. And this NTMN headline last year: Lalu hug made me feel like a Shakti Kapoor victim: Arvind Kejriwal”.

Making insane, far-fetched connections needlessly is not really intelligent. Connecting unrelated topics effectively requires wit and context and that’s where we fail.

 

No self-deprecation

There is hardly any satire written on daily life and our everyday idiosyncrasies.While Faking News has about eight out of 32 posts in March that can be called “social satire”, UnReal Times has just one in 17. Headlines such as “Traffic police to parade black cats at major crossings for curbing signal jumps” and “Gurgaon couple arrested for breaking the mandatory rule of visiting shopping mall on weekend”(Faking News) are good recent examples of daily life satire, and we need more of these.

 

Overused templates

Some overused templates are still used to write headlines, resulting in stagnation.Inspired by…, …” and After…, …” are two popular templates for headlines made up of two parts, separated by a comma:

“After taxing EPF, Government to tax children’s Piggy banks” (Faking News)

“Inspired by MCD workers, disgruntled IT employee dumps garbage outside his boss’ cabin” (Faking News)

“Unable to beat India in Cricket, Pakistan to use Non-State cricketers to beat India” (Faking News)

“Inspired by ‘StartupIndia’, local kabaadiwala renames shop to BlueKabaadi dot com, seeks funding” (Faking News)

“After Jallikattu, cooking Pongal in earthenware now banned via petition” (The UnReal Times)

“After Deepika reads her dad’s letter, Salman Khan to read his court verdict at next Filmfare awards” (The UnReal Times)

Most Onion headlines show it isn’t impossible to write stories that have a satirical identity of their own, independent of other things in the news. But with some practices now well-established among satirical websites, there seems to be no scope or will to improve.

 

The path ahead

In 2013, The Hindu had high hopes: “The new age satire, spoof and parody sites have gained cult status in recent years […] More than providing escapist entertainment, these websites have started contributing food for thought and focusing on bringing about changes.”

Today, rather than going up, trends seem to be regressive. Not just poor quality satire, but also local satire, based on only Indian characters, renders stories irrelevant to global audiences.

It is encouraging that text still remains the preferred medium of content on the trend-setting satirical websites. But now they must leverage their large readership to redefine what satire means to our readers. More self-deprecating humour, satire on daily life and idiosyncrasies, using satire for a meaningful purpose rather than to just crack jokes, and satire that is globally relevant: these are some ways which can take us forward. It would also be interesting to see if leading media houses experiment with news satire, bringing in professionals, as Firstpost has done.

On the web, producers and consumers are converging in terms of content being written. In satire and humour, this holds even truer because all humour needs is armchair creativity. You can never differentiate where the best Twitter joke of the day has come from: a well-known humourist or a random teenage user. So it becomes even more important that trends in satire come from professionals who can actually take the field forward. When professionals fall to trends created by random users, the art is dead.

As it stands today, while it’s easy to distinguish a “professionally satirical” Onion or Newsthump headline from a regular American or British Twitter user’s satire, humour on Indian satirical websites does not sound very different from what a regular Indian user might also post online.

While the reader who writes random satirical one-liners has no obligation to take Indian satire forward, a prominent satirical website does.  

 

Tanay Sukumar is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore. Earlier, he founded and edited an award-winning satirical website, and is a Teach For India alum. He can be contacted on tanay.s91@gmail.com.

 

 

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