By now, you've undoubtedly seen Waterford Whispers News being shared across social media. Their articles are sharp, topical, and acutely funny but it's their eye-catching headlines that make them stand out in a scrolling newsfeed; Study Finds Stress Increases By 76% When Making Someone Else’s Tea, Local Teenager Gives Parents House Stinging Review On Airbnb, Girlfriend Was Fine Until You Mentioned It.
We caught up with Colm Williamson, the man behind the headlines, to find out how Waterford Whispers News grew from a local joke to a satirical enterprise.
Q1. How and why did WWN start?
I started WWN in June 2009 for a laugh as I was unemployed at the time after moving from Dublin to Waterford the year before, right as the recession hit. It was down to sheer boredom really.
Q2. How did you grow WWN from a Facebook page to a website with live shows and videos?
I managed a bar previously, and then a restaurant. I hated working for other people. I knew I was a handy writer, so took up journalism in 2010 to keep the dole off my back. I realised from college that I was onto a good thing as everyone in there knew WWN.
Q3. What was the first article to really go viral for you?
Depends what you mean by viral. I've seen newspapers report 'viral videos' and they would have only 100k views. My first viral hit was the story North Korea Lands First Ever Man On The Sun. It got millions of views and was taken up by reputable news sources as real across the world. That story is still one of our most-viewed, and still gets traffic every day.
Q4. What have some of the best reactions been?
My personal favourite was after I wrote the story Jesus Not Coming Back By The Looks Of It, Admits Vatican. Pastors in America took to their sermons to read out the story as if it was real. There's actually videos on YouTube of them reading the story to their followers at mass and giving out about the Vatican. We still get emails from people around the world asking if it was a real story. It obviously struck a chord.
We love making people laugh, but also to make them say "oh yeah, that's a good point actually".
Q5. Your favourite article/headline so far?
I don't have a favourite. I love all my babies equally.
Q6. How big a team do you have now, and what is the process for choosing what to cover?
We're a tiny operation due to it being very hard to monetise the site. There's three writers, Gerry McBride, Karl Moylan and myself, and then we have our genius web guy Alan McCabe, who takes care of all that web stuff. And that's it. It's a tight ship. The two lads pitch headlines to me every morning on the trending news, so it's a fairly simple process.
Q7. Who are your main audience?
We had 13 million readers last year. One quarter of them are from Ireland, one quarter from the UK and another quarter from the US. The rest is then broken down across the world. Our core demographic are 18-35 years old, with an even split between men and women. Most of our audience love current affairs and we're the second most viewed site in Leinster House, coming only second to Facebook, apparently. Which says a lot.
Q8. What is the goal with WWN? Is it purely comic relief, or are you hoping for the media to change their tactics?
Unfortunately, as long as the media is owned by a handful of wealthy people, it will never change, much like the government. Our goal is to engage our readers with humorous satire that helpfully points out some hard-hitting facts too. We love making people laugh, but also to make them say "Oh yeah, that's a good point, actually".
Our average user engagement is even higher than CNN...
Q9. Lately, it seems as if it's more important to be right than to be kind - do you think WWN aims to take some of the outrage out of topical conversations?
Yes, we like to debunk unnecessary outrage online, but it's a losing battle. The problem with the rise of social media is that it's given everyone a platform to publish their thoughts, which isn't always a good thing.
I find in Ireland there's a huge underlying racism problem and that there's several media outlets fuelling that for their own financial gain.
Q10. What are your plans for WWN going forward - TV? Bigger live shows? A podcast?
All of the above. We've been dabbling with TV stations here, but they usually shit the bed when they read our scripts. They want "biting satire", but when they actually realise what that is, they flee.
My main goal for WWN is to get the business end of it, up to a level that we can take on new people and grow the company and really tackle the news at an international level. We're such a small team, but yet we're the most engaged publishers on social media by a long mile in Ireland.
Our average user engagement is even higher than CNN, yet, like most small to medium businesses in Ireland, the tax man cleans out the accounts every quarter.
We're currently working on podcast ideas now, and have just launched our fifth book with Gill, which is in stores on the 28th of October. Our live stage show is on tour now too, so hopefully that will bring in a new audience for us and new opportunities.
Waterford Whispers Live is on tour thoughout October - more details here.