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I’ve been reluctant to add my voice to the hailstorm of opinions surrounding the ongoing Huffington Post South Africa ‘Shelley Garland’ saga (you can read a full summary of the events here).
Suffice to say it’s a mess.
People have used the opportunity to settle personal scores, throw around racial slurs, and defend ethically questionable journalism. Not only is this not helpful, it means that some of South Africa’s most senior journalists have wasted energy venting anger, rather than trying to find practical solutions.
That’s a pity, because there are solutions.
They don’t require slamming shut the gates of publishing, or burning the whole online edifice down and starting again. There are publishers who foster new writers, create their own original content, and have audiences numbering in the millions.
Huffington Post SA found itself in hot water after it published a blog calling for the disenfranchisement of white males, written by ‘Shelley Garland’
One of the best such sites doesn’t deal in hard news or inflammatory opinion. Heck, it doesn’t even produce that much content on a daily basis.
I am, of course, referring to Cracked.com.
Those of you familiar with the site might be wondering what lessons a specialist comedy site could hold when it comes to building trust in the local media landscape.
I hope to answer that question in due course. But first, it’s worth digging a little deeper into what Cracked’s achieved since its 2005 launch.
Taking its name from Cracked magazine, a competitor to Mad Magazine founded in 1958, Cracked.com was launched under editor-in-chief Jack O’Brien, a former ABC News producer. Its growth attracted the attention of Demand Media, which acquired the site in 2007.
From there, it saw explosive growth, rapidly becoming one of the most visited comedy sites on the web, going head to head with the likes of The Onion, Funny or Die, and CollegeHumour. Today, it lays claim to around 200-million monthly page views and 16-million unique visitors.
Remarkably, it’s achieved this growth without dramatically increasing the amount of content it publishes. Every day, it publishes a handful of long-form articles, interspersed with video content, photoshop contests, and a weekly podcast.
A major reason for this success, and perhaps its greatest gift to online publishing is its writers’ room.
More than a forum
The writers’ room is an online forum, where prospective writers go to pitch their stories to the Cracked team. Rather than just accepting a story as is, the team (comprising O’Brien and several other editors) works with the prospective writer to ensure that it meets the site’s tough editorial standards.
“Nothing gets on the homepage without heavy editing,” former Cracked general manager Oren Katzeff told the Wall Street Journal in a 2011 interview, adding that writers “pitch the site’s on-staff editorial team, who give out assignments and feedback to writers after an idea is greenlit”.
Sure a “Shelley Garland” might potentially slip through such a system, but it’s a lot less likely.
Importantly, the published writers don’t just get a fleeting shot at internet glory. They’re also paid and given the chance to become regular writers.
At some points in its history, over 90% of the stories on the top spot of Cracked’s homepage have come from the virtual writer’s room. It’s unlikely that would happen if Cracked didn’t put in the effort with its guest writers.
Making it work
At this point, there are probably queues of people lining up to tell me why such a system wouldn’t work in South Africa.
The country’s media houses, they’ll say, are underfunded, their employees chronically overworked. While that’s true, I’d argue that they’re just further evidence that the current system isn’t working.
Sure a ‘Shelley Garland’ might potentially slip through such a system, but it’s a lot less likely
Certainly, a lack of funding and resources contribute the country’s journalists and editors being overworked, but so does their approach to publishing.
Far too many media houses try to publish everything. And when that happens, quality suffers.
Journalists can’t concentrate on the kind of in-depth stories that build a publication’s following and reputation. Editors meanwhile feel pressured to accept everything that comes their way.
I’m not saying this as an outside observer either. I’ve been there.
When I was at Memeburn, there were periods when I felt exactly that kind of pressure. Things only started to change when, as a team, we realised that it was okay to miss a Samsung chip story if it meant being able to chronicle the rise and fall of Mxit.
I’d also argue that spending time with prospective contributors works to everyone’s benefit.
It’s something, in other words, worth investing in.
Space for innovation
When you use a model liked Cracked’s, which concentrates on quality, you also create a lot more room for innovation than exists in the content farms that dominate the web.
You could, for instance, help your best writers create and build Patreon profiles, giving them an alternative revenue stream to whatever slice of ad revenue you can afford to throw their way.
And surely, surely, that is more likely to transform the local media landscape than publishing whatever lands in your inbox?
Reputation, reputation, reputation
We can’t promise that the Cracked model will help you avoid every controversy (the media owes it to the public to push boundaries), but it does go a long way when it comes to building trust.
And, when you’ve got that trust, when you’ve built that reputation, you’re going to receive a lot more goodwill when something does go wrong.