SYDNEY, Australia — The theme was fake news, and the crowd of young Australians at a pub in Sydney was eager to hear more. At the front of the room, two of Australia’s most popular (fake) reporters grilled a panel of (real) journalists from some of the country’s most established news outlets.
The fake reporters, known by their pen names Clancy Overell and Errol Parker, called a popular right-leaning newspaper “one of the last great bastions of news satire.” A progressive journalist on the panel, they joked, probably owned 18 Guy Fawkes masks, associated with anarchists.
Why couldn’t Australia’s news media, Mr. Overell and Mr. Parker asked in October, be more like The Betoota Advocate, the small independent newspaper that they run to great success?
It was a joke that the crowd, and a growing audience of Australians, was in on. Australia’s “oldest and favorite newspaper,” The Betoota Advocate is increasingly one of its most widely read. It is also completely made up.
Some of the site’s recent headlines include: Weekend Ruined By Adult Responsibilities, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby Also Come Out As Gay and Australia Enjoys Another Peaceful Day Under Oppressive Gun Control Regime.
For three years Mr. Overell and Mr. Parker have remained steadfastly in character as proprietors of a rural newspaper. Often compared to the satirical news site The Onion, The Betoota Advocate has become the sardonic voice of disenchanted millennial Australians.
“Everyone is extremely jealous of Betoota because they get to write funny stuff and everyone clicks on their stuff,” said Osman Faruqi, a panelist at the pub and an editor at Junkee, a pop culture website.
But as The Betoota Advocate, which receives more than a million page views a month, has become increasingly popular, it has also risked losing its outsider status.
This year, Mr. Overell and Mr. Parker, wearing their signature Akubra bush hats, met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and had a beer. That beer, Betoota Bitter, is just one of their lucrative side projects trading on the Betoota name. They also own a clothing line, Betoota Outfitters, and produce advertising content for companies like Virgin Australia. The prime minister even appeared at an event at which the pair promoted their most recent venture, “Betoota’s Australia,” a book about contemporary Australia.
The site’s founders are tight-lipped about just how profitable their business has become, but said it became their primary source of income three months after bringing it online. Their Facebook page has close to 500,000 members, a majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 30, a coveted advertising demographic.
To their fans’ delight, Mr. Overell and Mr. Parker insist on staying in character for public appearances and refuse to acknowledge that their journalism is really just comedy.
“We’d just like to point out we’re independent regional news; we don’t go by the term satire, Mr. Prime Minister.” Mr. Overell told the country’s leader in October.
On one hand The Betoota Advocate purports to be written in the voice of the rural working class, or what the men call “conservative.” But Mr. Overell and Mr. Parker concede that their real mission is to make content that is inclusive and accessible to all sorts of people from all across Australia. In the past, they said, journalism was an exclusive club, limited to graduates from the country’s elite universities.
While Australia’s spiritual heart is in the Outback, more than 70 percent of the population lives in cities. If urban elites are the butt of many of the site’s jokes, they do not seem to mind.
“The comedy is very disarming,” said Liam Brown, 19, a student at the University of New South Wales who attended the pub panel. “They get to the heart of the issue surprisingly effectively.”
Mr. Brown said he would prefer to read The Betoota Advocate than Sydney’s main newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. “No one trusts the media anymore,” he said. “Especially after the American election.”
Clancy Overell and Errol Parker are as fake as the stories they write. Two former journalists from Queensland, their real names are Archer Hamilton and Charles Single.
Their unwavering commitment to staying in character makes for good watching, but it means learning about the men’s origins is difficult.
A reluctant conversation about their real ages, for example, revealed only that each was about 27.
The men, who were friends before they were business partners, started with a print version of the paper. In 2014, with the help of Piers Grove, who is their publisher, they brought the operation online. Three years — and several side businesses — later, the men were drinking beers with the prime minister.
Though a few freelancers now contribute, the men still run the business and write the bulk of the articles, they said.
“It’s quite daunting in a way, how you have to focus so much building up the organizations,” Mr. Parker said, adding that he had to learn what to do when he received emails for accounts payable. “You’re just like, Jesus Christ, well what does that mean?”
As the site achieves mainstream success, questions about whether they can preserve their outsider status have inevitably risen. The writers now team up with politicians like Mr. Turnbull and billionaires like Richard Branson.
But the men reject the idea that they have become insiders.
“They’ve all had the laser put on at some point,” Mr. Overell said of the politicians the site frequently lambastes. “There’s been no favors.”
The site has also duped several real news outlets and earned the ire of celebrities and institutions it has mocked. In 2015, the American sports website Deadspin published an erroneous article pegged to a Betoota Advocate story that claimed 3-on-3 basketball would be an event at the 2016 Olympic Games. In February, a member of Parliament complained that the site made light of alcohol-fueled domestic abuse.
The only real thing about The Betoota Advocate is Betoota itself. A genuine town in a remote part of western Queensland, Betoota has been uninhabited for years.
People who live close to Betoota seem amused by the new attention. Lorraine Kath, 40, who runs a cattle station near the town, said she often saw tourists in the area wearing Betoota Advocate T-shirts.
“I think the stories that the boys put out there are just a good laugh,” she said.
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