So much vitriol has been aired about management issues at embattled publisher G/O Media that a card game's entry into digital media as the unlikely new owner of one of its websites has been met with almost universal relief.
Cards Against Humanity, the game where you pair odd questions with funny or morbid answers, has acquired satire site ClickHole in an all-cash deal. The amount has not been disclosed but The Wall Street Journal reported in November that its asking price would be less than $1m.
ClickHole's been around the block. It was sold to Univision in 2016 and then sold again along with other sites Deadspin and Kotaku to G/O Media. Now it leaves behind sister title The Onion at the private equity firm which has recently seen a vote of no-confidence in Jim Spanfeller, the former Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) board member. G/O has been in a spin ever since it issued Deadspin with an edict to "stick to sports" coverage, which prompted a high-profile revolt. Deadspin hasn't published any content in 2020 due to a mass walkout of staff.
Under new ownership, ClickHole will be relaunched, with its archive intact, on a new website. It will operate independently.
Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin said: “We’re not going to tell them how to run their business. Our goal is just to give them every creative tool that we have.
"We don’t want to be a publisher and we’re not really thinking of this as an investment with a huge return. We just want ClickHole to be around for 100 years.”
Was the survival of ClickHole at risk? Referencing the friction at G/O, Tempkin told BuzzFeed News: “Our goal is to take some of the pressure off of them so they can shake some of these managerial shakes ups they’ve had and just focus on making amazing comedy.”
ClickHole was launched in 2014, originally as a parody of sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed. It's home to silly parody news stories that speak volumes about modern society – holding fast as an important, albeit untruthful name while a 'fake news' backlash rocks the wider news industry.
Cards Against Humanity and ClickHole, both Chicago-based, are said to have had a pre-existing relationship and mutual respect. The former's community manager Jenn Bane said that “ClickHole is probably the funniest thing we’re aware of,” and that many of its writers can “recite at least a few ClickHole articles from memory”.
The group said: “ClickHole is a big honking comedy website whose main goal is to create the funniest things possible. We believe in experimenting and trying new things in order to produce a unique type of content that you can’t find anywhere else, even on TV or at the opera. Our goal is to be more funny than the animals at the zoo, and if we can do that, we believe we can become the most powerful website in the world.”
Ben Collins, a reporter at NBC, perhaps best summed up the industry response. “I am so used to bad things happening to good websites like this it's almost hard to process this news,” he tweeted.
Esther Kezia Thorpe, co-host of the Media Voices Podcast, explained G/O media has been plagued with difficulties since its formation last year, often centred around its staff feeling a growing lack of editorial independence.
"This acquisition itself would have been a perfect ClickHole headline, and as long as we're sure they're not all playing a massive joke on us, this is an interesting and growing trend of non-media companies buying up media outlets," Thorpe said.
"While Cards Against Humanity said it will be a distant owner, allowing independence, there's a very obvious crossover from each audience that could be used to shift goods. You'd suspect ClickHole writers wouldn't mind putting their talents to use helping to create games and products too.
"It's been sold to them cheaply at a price which enables them to scoop it up without much worry about future profitability. The second is that Cards Against Humanity sees it as a potential content marketing opportunity in the future, in short, a way to sell more of their irreverent products. It's something we will undoubtedly see more of as brands see content as an increasingly important way of selling their products."
Richard Beech, a digital media consultant and founder of The Ginger Agency, said that ClickHole is a low-cost base, high impact venture, that “speaks to the same slightly fed up generation of elder millennials as Cards Against Humanity”.
“The failing of so many digital media businesses has not been in their editorial staff's abilities to connect with large audiences, but in their commercial and sales teams' lack of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit when approaching monetisation.," Beech continued. "You need a commercial team to connect with the product, and Temkin can do that if called upon. It's a great move for both parties, and most importantly, for the audience.”
Cards Against Humanity emerged as a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 with $3,000 and is shifting around 100,000 units a month, atop millions of sales, after inspiring a new wave of irreverent card and board games in its wake.