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Hayibo! Extinction

by Andy Davis / 13.09.2010

10 days ago a rare, strange and tellingly poignant species of the South African independent media biosphere, emaciated and red-eyed, shuffled to the edge of a cliff and quietly, head raised in a dignified final salute, euthanized itself onto the rocks below. Much like the kwagga, to keep this conservational analogy going, the demise of Hayibo! has further reduced the bio diversity of South Africa’s media savannah and silenced a crucial voice. It’s starting to feel like a ring-fenced skietplaas in here. But how, with hundreds of thousands of unique visitors, could a source of such compelling and often hilarious South African satire, not make it? We ask Hayibo founder, Tom Eaton, some questions.

Mahala: How did Hayibo come about? Whose idea was it? Who was involved? What was your role?

Tom Eaton: Back at the end of 2007 I was still a bit of a current-affairs junky (no longer!) and I wanted to write satire. Ant Pascoe was a former colleague who was pretty web-savvy, so we hatched it together. His business partner, Steve Porter, is a tech guru, so in one short meeting we had a content person, a brand person and a back-room wizard, and we were ready to roll. My role was as writer, writer, writer and writer. I wrote almost everything at first. Later on when we had a couple more writers I suppose I was a kind of editor, although I can’t spell and my punctuation, is, horrible, so I think I wasn’t so much supervising as just observing.

You guys seemed to have a massive audience. Were linked to Independent Newspapers, etc. Why do you think it was so difficult to translate that into money?

We SEEMED to have a massive audience but I think we stayed pretty niche. Somehow the figure of 80,000 unique users has been floated around on the Intertrons. I think it was considerably lower than that – I know we were averaging about 60,000 visits a month, and maybe 35,000 or 40,000 absolute uniques. Of course, then there was the Saudi vagina story which the whole of the American Midwest believed and we got about 100,000 visits in a couple of days.

I don’t know much about the business side of running a website but from talking to people I got the impression that people loved our content but were just too chickenshit to associate any major brands with it. And yes, speaking of chickens, we did approach the brands everyone thinks are funky and “out there” – you know who they are. And they all said thanks but no thanks. Twice. Ironically enough one of our biggest potential money-spinners was an offer from the ANC last year before the elections, offering moolah for campaign ads. We discussed it for about nine seconds and decided if we were going to run a site flinging poo at politicians we couldn’t in good conscience take their money. We decided that we wouldn’t accept ads from any political party, and that was that.

We briefly considered charging for content, and I’m sure some of our biggest fans would have paid a small subscription, but there would have just been too few of them to warrant losing all the rest.

Was the business model for Hayibo built around selling advertising? What was the downfall? Where did it all go wrong?

Initially the business model was built around my vanity and Anthony’s wildly delusional optimism: the thinking was, “We are awesome, people will throw money at us for being awesome.” Anthony also kept me motivated by telling me that we were “almost there”. He was telling me that two months after we launched when we had 9 users (including our parents) and I think he last said it the day before yesterday. He’s been infuriatingly positive. But I think once we calmed down we realised that we needed ads, because the shop, while profitable, was too small to carry the whole enterprise. T-shirts can make you money but then you need to be in the business of selling T-shirts, not writing satire for free and posting off the odd T-shirt when you remember.

What ultimately killed us was a cash-flow double-whammy: the Mail&Guardian ended their syndication deal and about a week later Kagiso Media canned our little radio slot. Both had good reasons: the M&G was cutting their freelance budget, and Kagiso’s listeners wanted something newer, bigger and better and we were too small and poor to go the “naxt lavel” as Die Antwoord would say. Once that happened we were operating at a loss.

Where it all went wrong? I just have no idea. I mean, sure, South Africans aren’t that comfortable with satire, and most prefer their comedy to involve exploding long-drops, overdoses of laxatives and porcupine quills stuck in arses, and sure, we are a country that hates reading, but….oh, wait…

So yes, we probably picked the most un-sellable product and put it in the most unpopular medium in the country, and then didn’t market ourselves, but I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Ultimately Hayibo wasn’t a business. It was a compulsion. I wrote just over half the stories on the site myself and you don’t produce that much verbiage essentially for free unless you’re a little bit obsessed.

Since we announced our demise we’ve got a huge amount of support but also a few people saying “good riddance”. Some have suggested that there remains a space for satire in SA but that Hayibo failed to fill it because it wasn’t good enough. This is an almost universal reaction to comedy: ‘X didn’t make me laugh therefore X isn’t funny. And if X isn’t funny then it is Crap’. It’s a very human position to take, but of course it’s also profoundly narcissistic, making yourself the centre of a comedy universe and arbiter of all possible tastes. Once you move beyond this, and realise that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different senses of humour in this country, ranging from exploding toilets, cruel practical jokes and outright torture porn to uber-self-referential internet memes (I can haz comedic variety?) you have to admit that anyone who gets South Africans of all races, ages and political backgrounds laughing at the same things isn’t doing too badly.

What are you going to do now?

I’m going to rediscover what it’s like to do nothing on Sunday and Monday nights. I’m also writing two TV series as well as a rom-com that starts shooting in January next year, so I’m pretty much snowed under for the rest of the year.

Goodbye Hayibo. We are going to miss you.

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