The Onion: Challenging ConventionMay 23, 2017
“They gave us the framework for what news satire looks like and what it can be.” Sarah Pappalardo, co-founder, The Reductress
The Venture is hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This episode features:
Mike Sacks, contributor, Vanity Fair, and author of Stinker Lets Loose! and Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy WritersBaratunde Thurston, former Onion director of digital, author of How to Be BlackSarah Pappalardo & Beth Newell, co-founders and editors of Reductress, and authors of How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having it All – And Then Some!Scott Dikkers, former Onion editor-in-chief, and author of Trump’s America: Buy This Book And Mexico Will Pay For It, and How to Write FunnyMarnie Shure, managing editor of The OnionMike McAvoy, president and CEO of The Onion
To learn more about The Venture, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
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This is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative, about pioneering businesses and the people who made them possible.
I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. We’re talking this journey alongside Virgin Atlantic, a company that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates challenging the status quo.
These are stories about visionaries and makers who changed the face of their industries.
Before there was a president tweeting about fake news … before viral videos … before The Daily Show … there was The Onion. A satirical newspaper, full of snappy, hilarious headlines that were so good — or so BAD — that people wanted to read them out loud to their friends.
MIKE SACKS: It was the first time that I saw a sensibility geared towards my generation comedically. It was just very Generation X.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: I mean The Onion was good at clickbait before there was a term for it.
SARAH PAPPALARDO: They gave us the framework for what news satire looks like and what it can be.
Satire done so well, that it created a wide field of imitators, and an entire new WAY to make people laugh. The Onion has both observed the world, and changed it. A generation of Onion alumni have gone on to jobs across comedy — jobs at late night talk shows, sitcoms, and websites that now compete with the very institution that created news satire on the web.
The Onion has survived every platform shift that the internet has thrown at media companies. This is the story of that paper’s history, and the story of how its biggest challenge may be its own success.
The Onion was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1988. The proud parents were Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, two University of Wisconsin students. Their ambitions weren’t grand — like most college kids – they were interested in making some cash, in their case, by selling newspaper ads to local pizza joints.
But first they’d need a paper. And that’s when they met a popular local cartoonist named Scott Dikkers.
SCOTT DIKKERS: And they offered to pay me an extraordinary amount of money to draw a bunch of different cartoons for them, $20 per comic strip which was four times the going rate in that campus newspaper market, at that time.
Scott was The Onion’s first paid contributor … and he says the early days of the publication were extremely ragtag.
SCOTT DIKKERS: They didn’t have a computer. They went to Kinko’s to print things out and they had no money. It was all very seat of your pants.
But even sustaining that very low level of professionalism was a stretch. Tim and Christopher were swamped, trying to write articles, sell ads, create the paper, and distribute it. It was so much work, that they were considering throwing in the towel, just two issues in.
SCOTT DIKKERS: They had been planning, with issue 3, to take a photo of the two of them mooning the camera. And printing it on the cover of issue 3 with the big banner headline that said “fuck you, readers we quit.” And that was going to be it, because they had just had enough.
So Scott stepped in.
He took on editing responsibilities. With an extra set of hands, they were able to keep their butts off the front page. But money at the paper was still tight.
In fact, one of the reasons the paper was a paper at all, was because making a magazine — like the National Lampoon and Spy — was too expensive.
SCOTT DIKKERS: Those guys asked the printer like OK what’s the cheapest kind of paper we can possibly print on. And they said well that’s easy newsprint. When I first heard that I was very disappointed because all humor publications are magazines, there’s never been a humor newspaper, like what is that. But, this name The Onion, seemed like a great name for a newspaper because it’s like you peel back the layers to get at the facts.
That idea would only develop later though. Under founders Tim and Chris, the paper wasn’t yet focused on mocking the NEWS — it was focused on mocking EVERYTHING. And eventually, they got bored.
So in 1989 they sold The Onion to a small group of contributors, one of whom was Scott Dikkers.
ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: Why did you buy The Onion and how did you get the money?
SCOTT DIKKERS: This was a chance to put my money where my mouth was or you know follow up my passion with my money, and it just was a no brainer to me. It was a little nerve wracking because I didn’t have a lot of money. You know the life of a professional cartoonist is probably not in the top 10 percent of income earners. But I did have some savings and I was able to scrape together every penny of savings that I had, cash in every bank account, to come up with the money that I would need to buy in, which was $3,000.
The total sale price, in 1989, was less than $20,000 dollars.
Tim eventually moved to Seattle, and went on to co-found The Stranger, the city’s alt weekly paper. Christopher would become an owner of The Alibi, Albuquerque’s alt weekly.
Scott Dikkers and fellow investor Peter Haise were running the paper. They made a simple agreement, that governed the Onion.
SCOTT DIKKERS: And our deal was he couldn’t tell me what I could write and I couldn’t tell him what he could spend the money on.
Scott’s tenure was marked by tightening up the paper’s tone — his team introduced the idea of strictly parroting Associated Press style. His reasoning: If The Onion was going to LOOK like a paper, the comedy would have the most punch if it BEHAVED like a paper.
The Onion started running editorial pages, a weather map, and fake stock reports.
MIKE SACKS: And at that time, the parody of the newspaper was new.
This is Mike Sacks, a Vanity Fair writer.
MIKE SACKS: It was like a zine or something. It was a real local thing, going after specific mayors and governors and using, you know things now that you would even look twice on the Internet. But at that time sexually related stuff and other things that I just thought well that’s pretty bold. If they’re getting money through advertisements and they’re willing to piss people off. These weren’t people in it to make money. These people were in it just for the love of total comedy geekery.
The paper was coming into its own.
MIKE SACKS: And it was a very clever conceit. It became a Trojan horse where you can get a lot of ideas through. And it became a very readable thing.
In 1993, The Onion launched The AV Club with music and film reviews, to provide content that was a little safer for advertisers.
To extend their reach beyond Wisconsin, The Onion started selling subscriptions and distributing the paper to other college towns.
And then, in 1996, The Onion went online.
Scanned images of the paper’s articles had already been making their way to inboxes and forums, through users who found them hysterical and passed them around without attribution.
Having a website allowed The Onion to get credit for its work.
Baratunde Thurston was a fan of The Onion before joining up as a web editor in 2007. His favorite headline is from a “historical” issue, a sort of fake archival edition.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: From that 1800s edition – 40,000 Pounds of Slave Lost at Sea. I like the dark stuff man.
Baratunde says as soon as The Onion began putting its paper online on Wednesdays, it became the bane of bosses everywhere.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: Cause people would show up at work on Wednesday, and not work. And they would read The Onion and pass things around.
Going online also helped The Onion attract Hollywood’s attention. The Onion’s writers were tapped to create fake news segments for The Dana Carvey Show
In 1999, The Onion won a Webby.
The same year, The Onion released its first book, “Our Dumb Century,” capitalizing on a craze for end of the century retrospectives. The book won the Thurber Prize for Humor. The Onion would go on to sign deals with Miramax and Fox Searchlight to develop articles into films.
The Onion was officially a multi-platform powerhouse, in print, publishing, TV, film, and the web.
But The Onion hadn’t always consistently turned out comedy gold, according to Scott Dikkers.
SCOTT DIKKERS: We put out a comedy CD that had very little to do with fake news. And it was so off brand it was like confusing to people. And then we tried to do a sketch comedy TV show. We did two pilot episodes of the show with a bunch of Second City performers. And again it was very off brand it just didn’t feel like the Onion at all. And I learned a lot from those two enterprises about how not to do it. You know, you have to stay within the brand voice that people know, but you can’t just port the voice from one medium to another. You have to reinvent it in every medium to suit the needs of that medium. And that was a lesson we learned hard.
The Onion decided to stick with what they knew — skewering the news — starting with the headline. And the way they wrote them back then, is still the way they write them now.
MARNIE SHURE: The process of developing an Onion story from the initial germ of that idea to what you see on the website is exhaustive.
Marnie Shure is the managing editor of The Onion today. Several times a week the writers get together to brainstorm headline ideas.
MARNIE SHURE: Nobody has nobody has laptops in front of them. Everybody has come to that room with a printed list and they’re all read aloud and people vote, in this one communal space. The pitches are each discussed. And if that discussion leads to excited brainstorming of the idea, we usually tend to select it for publication.
The process is designed to efficiently surface the funniest stuff, according to Baratunde Thurston.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: It makes the initial round of judgment swift and fair. You don’t know who wrote the headline. And so you’re just judging on the merits. So there was sort of like a blind admissions policy for the material.
That blindness continues beyond the pitch meeting. Onion stories aren’t bylined. You don’t know who REALLY wrote them, because often they’re written by several writers. Scott Dikkers enforced the no-byline culture when he was editor in chief.
SCOTT DIKKERS: Looking back like that was literally the biggest self-sabotage I could have possibly done to my own career. Because when you leave The Onion and you like go out to Hollywood or you try to sell a book, it’s like well yeah I know The Onion but who the hell are you.
But over the years, the writers got used it.
SCOTT DIKKERS: Now people come on and they not only embrace it but they defend it heartily and it’s almost like you’re going against the culture if you try to take any credit for having done anything at The Onion.
Throughout the 90s, The Onion’s popularity grew.
SCOTT DIKKERS: It was super fun. It was like the party office. You know everybody was young and excited to be on this seeming rocket ship when we went online.
And in the spring of 2001, The Onion piloted the rocketship to New York City, to feed off the energy of the city as a comedy and media hub. The writers moved into a converted warehouse in Chelsea. The Onion was online, and it had grown its print editions to half a dozen cities or so.
But New York wasn’t yet one of them.
They were excited to put out their New York edition. It was scheduled to be printed September 11th, 2001.
You’re listening to The Venture, brought to you by Virgin Atlantic.Virgin Atlantic is known for its irreverent brand, and friendly service. And training employees to create that vibe on transatlantic trips is a big part of Jon Yates job. He’s the vice president of “cabin” at Virgin Atlantic.JONATHAN YATES: Service training at Virgin always begins with what are our values, what is our culture.And that culture comes from hiring people who have that certain … something.JONATHAN YATES: The Virgin personality and flair, you know when you’re sitting down with someone for 10 or 15 minutes, you know whether they’ve got that or not.JONATHAN YATES: I’m an absolutely believer in recruit for attitude and behavior, not for skill. You can train for skill. And you can train skill, but attitude and behaviors, you either have it instinctively or you don’t.The Virgin team love being up in the skies — and they love to make flying a fantastic experience for their guests, by working together as a team.Just like writers at The Onion pull together to create a great — and hilarious — experience for readers, Virgin Atlantic crews all work together to create amazing memories.JONATHAN YATES: I’m very much a believer of if we get it right with our teams then our teams will get it right for the customer.Virgin Atlantic… playing together is serious business.
To learn more, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
Welcome back to The Venture. I’m your host Ashley Milne-Tyte.
On Sept 11. 2001, The Onion was scheduled to print their very first New York City edition. But it never got printed…
CNN: The Trade Centers here in New York have been hit by airplanes. And there as you can see perhaps the second tower, the front tower, is collapsing. Good lord. There are no words.
When the smoke cleared, nearly 3,000 people were dead. And the comedy world — centered in New York City — had gone dark.
The late night shows ran reruns. Comedy websites like College Humor posted “Definitely not a time for humor” and urged people to give blood. Not knowing what to say, Saturday Night Live delayed the start of its season. The nation’s attention was riveted to the news.
But on the news, the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani was beginning to implore people to carry on.
David Letterman was the first late night host to answer the call, returning less than a week later. He struggled to strike the right tone in his monologue, and erred on the side of sensitive, rather than funny.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Uh this is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked and I need to ask your patience and indulgence here …
Other late night hosts grappled with the same impossible challenge: What to say about the unspeakable.
And then on September 27th, The Onion returned. Their very first paper printed in New York City was finally out.
Vanity Fair’s Mike Sacks remembers looking for the issue:
MIKE SACKS: People were looking for something tangible to hold in their hands to try to sort of understand and digest what had happened.
When he found it, he discovered that The Onion had delivered the impossible — with headlines like:
US Vows To Defeat Whoever We’re at War With
American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie
Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake
MIKE SACKS: And the overwhelming response was thank you for doing that. The fact that the Onion came out a very risky thing to do because the margin of error was very very thin and they managed to hit it right on the head.
Beth Newell is the co-founder of The Reductress, an Onion-inspired website that lampoons women’s magazines. The 9/11 issue had a big influence on how she approaches tough subjects like sexual assault, in her publication.
BETH NEWELL: It was really inspirational and just proving that you can make comedy out of some of the darkest times and the darkest feelings.
The Onion had only been in New York for a matter of months — but they had managed to make the best of the city’s worst moment.
MIKE SACKS: These writers that came from Wisconsin they recently moved to New York.
Again, Mike Sacks.
MIKE SACKS: And to be here to witness something like that must have taken a tremendous toll. So the, what they accomplished under incredibly trying circumstance and the fact that they pulled it off I think it was almost historical.
Scott Dikkers was a long time editor in chief for The Onion.
SCOTT DIKKERS: Comedy is a great coping mechanism for tragedy it’s a wonderful way to return to our humanity after a tragic event. It’s a wonderful way to move out of our sort of lower brain fear into higher brain intellectual processing and be able to laugh which is it’s a very healing thing.
Comedians and historians alike cite the 9/11 issue as a watershed. A national tragedy had strangely become a high point for The Onion. And that made the paper an appealing investment for David Schafer, a money manager.
He bought the paper for, according to at least one report, 4 million dollars … a far cry from the initial sale of less than 20-thousand.
The infusion of capital helped the paper expand but it also included new management — and new priorities.
Baratunde Thurston was the director of digital a decade ago, back when The Onion published more like a newspaper, than a website.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: Nothing on the weekends. Nobody consumes content on the weekends. Those were days of rest. Remember we used to have rest? So I showed up in that era.
As the digital guy, it drove him crazy. The internet was changing the entire media industry. There was more competition for the ad dollars, and more demand for content from readers. Baratunde began to slowly convince the staff to adopt Twitter and other social tools.
And eventually, just as The Onion had with other platforms, it started making social media on its own terms.
BARATUNDE HTURSTON: Cause I was even playing by some conventional rules and I was like no no, what is The Onion. It’s media satire. What is media. It’s all this interactive stuff now too it’s not a print newspaper it’s barely a cable news. It’s like journalistic voices on Twitter and you gotta be on social media.
The company was moving toward thinking about itself as a digital publication, rather than strictly a newspaper, according to former editor in chief Scott Dikkers.
SCOTT DIKKERS: And we stopped referring to things as for example front page stories, or this is our page 2 story whatever like that. That’s just how we always talked about it. But once we made the switch it was all about the Internet. It was all about you know the most e-mailed story, or the mix on the home page.
That change was happening across the industry. Just a few years after The Onion’s 9/11 issue had been widely applauded for helping people laugh again … the media landscape was fracturing.
Websites that made money by selling ads — like The Onion — found themselves struggling to boost profits in a saturated media environment. More options for advertisers were pushing down prices.
MIKE MCAVOY: Sometimes brands have a hard time being around anything that doesn’t seem PG.
Mike McAvoy is the president and CEO of The Onion.
MIKE MCAVOY: Getting comedy to be financed it the way that it needs to be is always is always a challenge. In part because you give writers full autonomy to write whatever they want to write about. Sometimes the best satirical takes are not necessarily the best solutions for advertisers.
And vice versa.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: There is a battle for attention happening in our world.
Baratunde Thurston says writers sometimes chafed at the ads that would show up on The Onion’s homepage.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: And I just remember this specific fucking Cheetos ad where you would you would go to the home page and you’re like oh I’m on the Onion homepage getting my content, and it was like what the … because there was like Cheeto dust being sprinkled.
For Baratunde, seeing Cheeto dust sprinkled all over The Onion’s headlines was a flashing orange sign that the paper was moving away from its underground roots.
BARATUNDE THURSTON: There’s a larger moral challenge in a place like the Onion which is counter-cultural which speaks truth to power which parodies everyone else who caves. It’s not like Investor’s Business Daily. For a place like The Onion whose audience trusts authority less, you have to know who your people are and know what your voice is, and The Onion voice is pretty clear.
CEO Mike McAvoy argues that The Onion DOES speak truth to power — which can sometimes make it HARDER for the paper to sell ads … but that advertisers never prevent the paper from speaking its mind. Instead, it’s more about balancing HOW The Onion crafts messages from brands.
MIKE MCAVOY: You need to be ad friendly because advertising’s an extremely difficult business, in that Google and Facebook take up the lion’s share of digital advertising. You need to be clever to carve out your niche within the advertising community. As long as the user can control the experience in some meaningful way, it’s not too intense, it’s not a bad user experience, if that’s the best way to finance journalism …
The Onion is not alone in struggling to walk the line between retaining creative independence and wooing advertisers. But Scott Dikkers says he’s seen a shift in the culture of The Onion as it’s grown.
SCOTT DIKKERS: Cause it’s like a big company now and it’s got you know over 100 employees and it’s got a board of directors literally these guys and blazers who would come in the office and act like they ran the place and I’d be like “Who is that?” But it’s just a different culture now in the office feels like an accounting firm, whereas for much of its history prior to that it felt like a dorm lounge.
But the reality is, you can’t live in the dorms forever.
Onion Corporate was based in Chicago — along with the AV Club. And eventually the New York City office where the writers were based was too expensive.
By 2012, the blazers in Chicago decided to call the writers back to the midwest.
The writers had to decide — stay in New York, or keep their jobs, and move to Chicago.
75 percent of the writers chose New York.
SCOTT DIKKERS: In this new environment The Onion was a business and they were tired of not making money. I can’t blame them. Like they weren’t going to spend 25 grand on a Web video anymore. They were going to spend money on things that could earn a profit back. The power has definitely shifted from the creative side to the business side at that point.
MIKE SACKS: It was almost like a small band on a small record label being bought out by Warner Brothers.
Again, Vanity Fair’s Mike Sacks.
MIKE SACKS: And then that band going in a direction that they wouldn’t have gone and otherwise. Sort of the underground sensibility disappeared when that happened.
And a year later, in 2013, The Onion stopped printing paper editions. The physical medium that had helped the paper find its voice, and create an entirely new category of comedy was obsolete.
The move to Chicago had challenged The Onion’s street cred … it had been decades since the paper was an upstart.
But The Onion had become legendary. Its alumni were teaching improv in Chicago, writing for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and in every late night show writing room from The Tonight Show to The Late Show.
Onion writers work particularly well in TV writing rooms, according to Mike Sacks.
MIKE SACKS: At The Onion it was putting aside your own differences in your own self for the common good. And I think that’s an important thing to know in TV where it may not be your joke up on the air but as long as the best joke is out there and then that’s what matters and also even if it is you’re a joke on TV you’re not going have a byline on it.
And The Onion had also incubated an entire class of readers, influenced by the paper’s voice, who were inspired to borrow its form for their own publications.
One of The Onion’s heirs is the website The Reductress. Here’s how co-founder Sarah Pappalardo explains her site to people.
SARAH PAPPALARDO: I kind of triangulate, first I’m like, ‘Do you know The Onion? All right. You know Cosmopolitan? So we’re The Onion meets Cosmo.’
The Reductress mocks the tone of women’s magazines. And their style is influenced by teenage years spent reading The Onion. Here’s the other co-founder Beth Newell, with this recent headline:
BETH NEWELL: “Study Finds Straight Women Have Fewest Orgasms But Keep Fucking Jeff Anyway.” I think that’s a pretty typical Onion set up you just start with are sort of more realistic headline I guess and then finish it with an absurdist twist.
SARAH PAPPALARDO: But when we do a headline construction like that we make sure that the content is very focused on women’s issues or something relating to women.
BETH NEWELL: Woman Spends Five Years Grooming Boyfriend to be Great Husband to Lisa. That’s definitely got some Onion influence. Mom Demands to Know How You Plan on Enjoying this Nice Weather. Miranda’s Text To New Guy Currently Under Peer Review.
SARAH PAPPALARDO: I think they gave us the framework for what news satire looks like and what it can be in its highest form. They’ve set the bar pretty high for what news satire is for our culture.
The bar isn’t just high — it’s pricey too. Last year The Onion sold 40 percent of its shares to Univision. For how much, wasn’t disclosed, but reports range from 27 to 200 million dollars.
The scrappy pizza coupon rag is now an empire. Which would make a good headline — Area College Newspaper Gets Last Laugh.
The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo & Partners.
We were produced this week by Rachel Ward and Nicole Wong, with help from Katelyn Bogucki, Julia Botero, Caitlin Dilena, Frances Harlow, Grant Irving, and Abbie Ruzicka. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Thom Cote. We were edited by Wendy Dorr and mixed by Zac Schmidt and Andrew Dunn. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll.
Special thanks to Stephen Thompson and Dr. Sophia A. McClennen and extra special thanks to Kalila Holt, Jonathan Goldstein, Alex Blumberg, Katie Sekelsky, Hallie Cantor, and Brittany Meyer for sharing their favorite Onion headlines with us.
Music for this episode is courtesy of West One Music and Marmoset.
Coming up next time on The Venture … We meet a man who devoted his life to trying to unite the entire human race, spreading his message with soap.
MIKE BRONNER: Most people come up with a label to sell the contents. My grandfather came up with the contents to spread his message.
That’s the story of Dr. Bronner’s – coming up next week on The Venture.
If you like The Venture, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts! And please, leave us a review us to tell us why. It really helps people find our show. To learn more about the show, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks so much for listening!
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