Continuing our series of interviews with prominent bloggers and pundits, News Editor Sam Bookman chatted to Ben Uffindell. Ben is creator of the popular THE CIVILIAN (www.thecivilian.co.nz)
What prompted you to start the Civilian?
It’s a question I’m asked often and it’s one that I haven’t pinned down a decisive answer for yet. I suppose the simplest reason for it – and the most noble reason that I can possibly give – is that I began The Civilian out of a desire to see the space in New Zealand satire filled. There’s actually a lot of New Zealand satire out there – I don’t think people realise how much there is. But none of it has broken through into a mainstream satirical news outlet. There are a few people who tried things like it, but they are usually students who don’t have the means or the time to upkeep something like that. My goal was to put together something that would have the commitment behind it to establish a network, unlikely anything we’ve ever had before. In the great tradition of what The Onion used to be, rather than what it is now. Something that remains topical and relevant, and satirises the news at it happens. Not something that lags behind or comments on mundane facets of everyday life, which I feel The Onion is very good at doing now.
This must be something that takes a lot of time. There’s all kinds of rumours swirling around out there asking “who is this guy Ben Uffindell?”
What do you do with your life other than the Civilian?
Not a whole lot at the moment, to be honest! The Civilian has consumed the vast majority of my time. It’s something that I’m presently trying to monetise, and I believe that I can. The traffic we have is sufficiently large to make something of it. Not an enormous amount, it’s still internet advertising at the end of the day. But I’m working on several things in that realm.
I don’t think it matters much who I am. I’m no one interesting. That’s the essential part. There’s nothing about me that you could discover that is interesting. I was a student like everyone else, and I graduated like most everyone else, and I worked like most everyone else, and then I did this! It’s safe to say at the moment that I’m not presently working full-time because I have this now and I’m trying to build it into something viable in the long term. It’s something I think I can do, but it does take all of my time. In part, that’s because I don’t have any other writers on board right now. I am working on changing that, but I even think when I do have other writers on board it’s not something I want to stop doing. The more the better, as far as I see it.
A lot of people who run political or current affairs websites in New Zealand really try to market on the strength of their own personality. I’m thinking of Cameron Slater or Bomber Bradbury. So is that something that doesn’t interest you?
No, The Civilian isn’t about me and I certainly hope it never becomes about me. The Civilian is about The Civilian. It’s a faceless satirical organisation, and I think it should remain that way. That’s not to say I don’t care about myself at all. I have other projects that maybe will come from this, and those will be more about me. But that’s certainly not what The Civilian’s about, and I’ve been frustrated at times that it’s been referred to as a “blog”. I think a blog has those connotations of being about the author. And that’s fine – I’m not begrudging anyone who has a blog. I just don’t think The Civilian’s a blog. It’s a misnomer to say that.
Have you been surprised by how much the Civilian has taken off?
Yes! I think I would be a fairly arrogant person if I had not been surprised. I can scarcely believe that I am sitting where I am two months after launching. It’s baffling to me, but it shows the power of social media and how quickly something spreads. It takes a matter of minutes. And while I always knew that, you never appreciate an action until you see it before your own eyes. It has been really surprising. I had an initial goal to have 500 likes on Facebook. One of the problems now is that I’m so far ahead of my own goals for the site that I don’t know what to do next.
And obviously the exposure around the Colin Craig incident helped as well.
It did, but less in terms of traffic numbers than people think. People are constantly saying “you must have quadrupled your traffic!”, but actually the week after the Colin Craig thing went back to what I had before. It had a wonderful effect of raising awareness to people who otherwise may not have known about The Civilian. The Colin Craig thing was a big boost, but less of a big boost than you’d imagine.
The great thing about the Colin Craig thing was not so much the publicity, but that it was a hilarious saga. It demonstrated quite clearly that no matter the satire you write, reality is always funnier. Part of the reason it’s funny is because it’s real.
If you don’t mind revealing it, what is your weekly readership?
It’s changing all the time. It can be frustrating to pin down, because every week it seems to grow. But to give you an example, yesterday The Civilian had 32,000 page views. That’s quite high, normally I’d expect 20-25,000 a day.
You don’t consider yourself a blogger, but your site is certainly rivalling a lot of those big sites in terms of numbers – the likes of Kiwiblog and Whale Oil. It’s impressive!
I hope so! I’m starting to learn what “good numbers” are. I’m happy with how many there are. I would have been thrilled with a lot less.
You say that you feel that you’re ahead of your goals, which makes it hard for you to conceptualise what your future goals are. Having said that, are there any major things you would like the Civilian to achieve?
I want to see The Civilian grow. I don ‘t intend for it to remain the way it is today. I want it to take on more people and become a satirical news outlet. One of the challenges is juggling change with quality and making sure it is still good. I want to be there to make sure that it is – having said that, you just don’t know where things will go. I hope The Civilian will become a place where people go to see a different take on the news, something that makes them laugh about something that happened today rather than angry or depressed. An outlet for the best news satire that I can accumulate from many people. I intend it to grow, although I don’t know exactly how.
It seems to have struck a chord, particularly with our generation. Do you think that’s a response to our frustration with the quality of news journalism in New Zealand?
I think that’s up to each individual person to ask themselves why they appreciate it. Some do appreciate it for that reason, but I think with our generation in particular, news satire is something that we appreciate more than the older generation. I’m not saying the older generation don’t appreciate it – I’m actually surprised with how much this has been cross-demographic. But the biggest readership is students. Students are well-educated, and they like to laugh. It’s a simple as that at the end of the day. And it’s something we’ve grown up with – I grew up with The Onion as a formative thing. This is just a foray into that format for New Zealand, rather than having to look overseas. There has been a hunger for one of these.
Do you plan to follow The Onion in going multimedia?
I can’t say at this stage, but I don’t anticipate that I personally will go there. But then again, I haven’t anticipated a lot that’s happened so far.
When I asked people what they thought I should ask you, one that really stuck with me was this. What did your parents think when you told them that this is what you were doing with your life?
They’ve known for a very long time that my personal writing projects are what I’ve been trying to do with my life. I may have worked post-University but that was never the end goal. I never pursued a definitive long-term career because I always perceived a job as a means to an end, not an end in itself. I never sought employment to make money, have children and then live vicariously through them for the rest of my life. That’s never where I intended to go. Every job I’ve taken has been geared toward having enough time to pursue my own writing.
I think a lot of people with talent can get bogged down with the necessities of life. It’s very easy to get lost in that, but I’ve always been very determined. No matter how poor I have to be or how hard I have to work, I’ve never wanted a regular job. My parents have always been very supportive of that.