Don’t [Blank] Around with The Daily Blank

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

[Update: Based on suggestions made here on Chicagosphere, the Daily Blank editors have made or are exploring improvements to their site. For more, see this comment.]

“Fuck you, I’m from here!” Such was the reply from Justin Vestal, a staff writer at The Daily Blank, Chicago’s new news satire site that yesterday launched into beta. Sitting down with their stable of comedy bloggers earlier this month, I had asked him what people should make of the fact that this Windy City-centric comedy blog got its start–and seed funding–from an Iowa newspaper. His response was instructive: don’t [blank] around with the Daily Blank.

The Blank aspires to be an online showcase for young, local comedy writers, who practice their chops writing satirical riffs off of Chicago-based news stories. They’re unpaid, but it in for the glory. (“We’re emotionally bonded to each other, not contractually,” writer John Stiffler would later tell me.)

Of course, they’re much younger than me, too. I wasn’t about to let that faze me.

“I’ll be right back,” I said as I found their table in the back of a Lincoln Park coffee shop. “I’m 10 to 15 years younger than all of you and my bladder’s the size of a walnut.”

Five minutes later and green tea in hand, I asked them the point of a satire blog in a city full of live comedy. The reason, according to webmaster Nick Peters: no one else was doing it. (Regular readers may recall the same foundational reasoning behind the popular Daily Daley blog.)

“It can be hard for a writer to get in the door and prove they’re good enough,” said Peters, describing why satire is a useful way to get noticed. “The whole point of satire is to help people get to the truth through humor.”

Comedy based in truth has been the point of the juggernaut print rag, The Onion, since its inception. I asked the youngsters how they would differentiate themselves from the popular aromatic.

“The Onion has no bylines,” said staffer Tia Ayers. “This is more promotional for the authors.”

Of course, they’d toss each other to the dogs if they thought it would get them paid work. “Collectively, we’re nothing,” said Vestal, with a mischievous gleam in his eye that made me hold my green tea in my mouth before swallowing. “We want freelance work.”

Other writers were more blunt. “These are my life goals,” said comic Kristy Lueshen. “Climb Kilimanjaro, write for The Onion. But sometimes you’re too young to be heard. So instead, I’m gonna fight against them. My role is to destroy The Onion.”

I looked at Peters and told him to let Lueshen write the site’s elevator speech.

How The Daily Blank came to be is a more inscrutable story. Yesterday I talked with Abe Abreu, CEO of e-Me Ventures, Peters’ daytime employer and the Blank’s founding company. “I really care about the Internet,” he told me. “The community comes first, then the technology.”

It’s the technology that caused the Blank to be. Consulting as an online tech specialist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Abreu developed the beginning of a “semantic repository” product. For the technically unwashed masses like you and me, that means a website database capable of figuring out the meaning of the words contained in a post or personal update (like an IM or tweet) and putting on the same page relevant content from other places.

Those other places could be third-party websites or–more important to this story–back-catalog content from a media outlet’s own archives. And that kind of content-awareness would make Abreu’s product highly marketable. So with seed funding from the Gazette and anonymous “angels”, he set to test his concept in the real world.

Of course, he needed actual content, first. (Can you see where this is headed?) Deciding to develop an in-house laboratory, Abreu tapped Peters to come up with leverageable topic ideas for a wholly owned virtual community, and satire rose to the top of the list. (How better to test a meaning-based API than with content based on shifting meanings?)

In April, Peters put out a call for comedy writers on Craigslist, and by May had a core team ready to produce content.

Unfortunately, the entire story of Daily Blank’s corporate genesis and experimental underpinnings is absent from its About page. Now I love a win-win situation, and I’m all for making the Internet a more convenient environment. And as a ChicagoNow scribe, I obviously don’t mind helping out a startup blogging concept. But that’s a problem. Transparency is a fundamental rule of the Internet, to be broken at one’s own risk.

Much as I think The Daily Blank is a killer concept, no one wants to join a virtual community only to find out they’re part of a commercial thought-experiment later. Yesterday, I urged Abreu to detail the Blank’s origins on the website, itself.

As for the Blank’s actual content, on recent review I’m saddened to say the authors were a lot funnier in person. Face-to-face there was less blue language and a much more thoughtful reliance on wordplay and punditry.

Online, however, they’ve taken a page from Chicagoist, and decided to pepper their pieces–and their headlines–with obscenities. I’d love to offer you some of their headlines for review, but I can’t print most of them on ChicagoNow. Word to the Daily Blankers, who were son engaging in person: this niche is filled–and better–by Chicagoist. You’d do better to find and develop your own voice.

For my readers, you can decide for yourself whether Daily Blank is a hit or a misfire. Consider these articles from the Blank’s Best Of channel–but be warned, I’ve paraphrased them all: Illinois lawmakers say “no” to wet bowling shoes; high school bio teacher “has relations” with dropout; Hannity hopes fundraiser will get him “companionship”; fewer CTA complaints leading to better service; or Chicago outlaws ugly people.

“I’ve been harassing my friends with it for the past three weeks,” said author Ian Penrose in early June.

At the time, I thought you might want to do the same. Now I’m not so sure. The potential is there for greatness, if only Daily Blank would let go of its reliance on shock language and trust in its own originality.

If you’re under 25 or have a cast-iron ear towards scatalogical language, give Daily Blank a browse. Sure, you’ll join an audience of guinea pigs, but now at least you’re informed. Everyone else, however, may want to wait until the Blank makes it out of beta, hopefully with a more considered choice of words.

Most of all, try and forget the site’s Cedar Rapids origins and remember these guys are Chicago comics. Otherwise, you may have Vestal and company suggesting you go [blank] yourself in an entirely different manner.

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