It’s a Friday afternoon, and The Sack of Troy staff members sit in roundtable formation at their regular meeting grounds. Armed with loose-leaf paper covered in contemplative sprawls, writers enter the filtration process that comes with pitching.
The college humor organization dubs itself “USC’s second best parody news publication — after the Daily Trojan.” There are facets of The Sack of Troy’s production that mirror the inner workings of a typical news organization — articles are green-lit due to their time-sensitivity and drafts cycle through rounds of edits. Other practices make it clear that the publication is uniquely satirical. The pitching process, for instance, consists of writers rattling off headlines instead of content.
“The headline comes first,” managing editor Thomas Marshall said. “We emphasize — in comedy terms — the game. Every single joke in the piece follows that main joke in the headline.”
Upwards of 100 pitches float around the room, drawing gasps, chortles and eruptions of laughter. Only five headlines, however, pass through the publication’s gatekeeper.
Like a piano tuner identifying a musical sweet spot, Jack Hackett, The Sack of Troy editor-in-chief, identifies the headlines that present the most promise. “Scandal Erupts After Anthony Bourdain Caught Leaving Applebee’s with Wing Sauce on Collar,” for example, contains that certain joie de virve.
“I always say, ‘I’m the dumbest person in the room — look at the SAT scores, it shows,’” Hackett said. “So if I’m the dumbest person in the room and I don’t understand what you’re talking about, then other people probably won’t as well. If I don’t find it funny, then other people won’t find it funny.”
Hackett severely underplays his abilities — a combination of instinct, attention to detail and restructuring carry the momentum The Sack of Troy has gained since its infancy. Engagement is up, drawing hundreds of likes on each article posted to Facebook. Student recognition of the publication has climbed. Earlier this month, the publication received “Best Article” for at the Intercollegiate Humor Conference, judged by industry stalwarts from the Onion and Clickhole.
As The Sack of Troy leadership turns over for the upcoming school year, Marshall, Hackett and President Kim Rogers, look back at their accomplishments and the legacy they hope to cement.
Off the ground
The Sack of Troy was conceived in 2012 by a group of three friends. Axel Hellman, one of the founders of the publication, identified the absence of a satirical voice on campus.
“The Sack of Troy was actually the result of a typical elevator idea,” Hellman said. “I was in the elevator in my dorm with my friends freshman year, and the thought just came to me: Other schools have satirical newspapers. Why don’t we have that?”
After the website launched in January 2013, the production process was still very much fueled by grassroots efforts. They aimed to publish an article a week, and slowly, USC students started paying attention.
Hellman moved on from taking the publication at the helm, and Rogers was elected The Sack of Troy president at the top of her sophomore year. And that’s when things accelerated.
Hackett joined shortly after, and together, they implemented an application process. At first, this move was just for show, to add a layer of responsibility to new members. Over time, it became a method of screening talent.
“When I first came on, it was sort of casual and you just showed up to the meetings,” Rogers said. “That was fun, and people liked that, but people didn’t prioritize things because [the organization] didn’t seem super legitimate. When we were really trying to make a name for ourselves, Jack and I established the application system … Over time, that really upped our interest.”
But perhaps it’s the partnership between Rogers and Hackett — confidantes that have consolidated The Sack of Troy’s values and set a tone for the rest of the staff. According to Hackett, Rogers takes on an administrator role while he wields creative energy.
“She does a really good job with the business side of things, which I want nothing to do with,” Hackett said. “She’s also a good editor, and a really good writer, so she and I collaborate. I’ll go to her and ask, ‘Is this funny?’ Because I don’t always really know.”
It’s a collaboration that has caught the attention of Hellman, now removed from leading the pack.
“I’m pleasantly surprised about how long the club has lasted — I’d like to think it’s because I’m no longer involved,” Hellman said. “There’s a lot of organizational talent behind the scenes, and that’s why it’s so successful. I think the main thing is they have fun with it.”
A day in the life
At its core, The Sack of Troy is about comedy. But as Rogers and Hackett have strived to imbue upon their staff, their craft is a precise act, at times more science than art.
“The biggest thing I tell our writers is to know your source material,” Rogers said. “If you want to make fun of something you have to know what you’re making fun of. I always tell people to read news and really base their stuff off of that voice.”
That part comes easy to Rogers. As a junior majoring in journalism, she said she found a lot of those skills — writing in pyramid style, storytelling and communicating with other people — to transfer over to satirical news.
“They’re very intertwined,” Rogers said. “It’s definitely something that I have been able to share with my writers because it’s a very unique medium.”
In the fall, the senior editors on staff hold seminars to coach new writers into the world of comedy. The writers are taught the foundation of everything they will eventually build off — game, point of view, rule of threes.
The development of these technical skills ultimately paid off. Rogers’ article “Grandma on Oxygen Tank Pretty High and Mighty About Kids’ Technology Dependence” took “Best Article” at the Intercollegiate Humor Conference, establishing The Sack of Troy’s presence on the collegiate humor scene.
“It was our first year there, and [our publication is], like, four years old when a lot of these humor magazines have been around for decades,” Rogers said. “I think for everyone who was there, it was really fruitful, and it really made us appreciate how far we’ve come.”
Making an impact
The rise of The Sack of Troy comes at a time when conventional news organizations are criticized for their inability to hold institutions and public officials responsible for their actions. Earlier this month, Vox analyzed CNN and satirical news program coverage of the Trump administration side-by-side. The comparisons suggested that CNN, committed to objectivity, failed to effectively hold President Donald Trump accountable. Talk show host Seth Meyers, however, demonstrated a low tolerance for the president’s claims.
It’s a phenomenon that The Sack of Troy members absorb and harness.
“Satire is more powerful than you think, especially now in this political climate,” Hackett said. “I don’t know if it affects Trump in the slightest — it might affect his personal ego. But I think [satire] has larger effects than we initially see.”
Underneath the bite and grit of the humor, The Sack of Troy understands the onus it shoulders. According to Marshall, the best stories examine the discrimination of marginalized people.
“[The responsibility of The Sack of Troy] is more than the responsibility of the USC memes page, which is a great community of comedy,” Marshall said. “What we do a little differently is cut through some bullsh-t and really get at the issues. At least for me, a lot of where I come in in my articles is not, ‘this is a joke’ — I want to actually help people.”
It’s in today’s political climate that Rogers and Hackett step down as president and editor-in-chief, respectively. Before they bow out, however, in true satirical form, their staff members will host “The Sack of Troy Presents: The Roast of Kim Rogers & Jack Hackett” to honor their leadership.
“You only roast the ones you love, and we barely tolerate Kim and Jack,” the Facebook event page reads, “so this should be interesting.”
Of course, the members of Sack of Troy are just being satirical.
Because the energy as the Friday meeting concludes is still tangible, and it’s obvious that this group of people share a bond weaved together by their creativity. It is, after all, a writer’s room.
“This writer’s room is super fun to be in because it’s a lot of bouncing ideas off each other,” Marshall said. “The atmosphere is so uniquely supportive, and I hope that’s the lasting impact.”