The Onion, New York City

By: Joe Strupp

The Onion? Hey, don’t laugh. Well, actually, do laugh ? because that’s what they want.

But the success of the Onion, the weekly mix of outright fake news, commentary, and real arts-and-entertainment coverage, is far from a joke. Promoting itself as “America’s Finest News Source,” the witty chronicle has grown from a small student publication at the University of Wisconsin to a major circulation and advertising powerhouse, equipped with a formidable, user-friendly Web site with all of the modern online offerings of any 21st- century newspaper.

And what other newspaper can boast a 60% circulation increase in just three years, especially in today’s diminishing newspaper market?

Editor in Chief Scott Dikkers, who was with the paper when it launched in 1988, says that smart writing always has to come first. Then there are its trademark headlines, including gems like “Decency Accidentally Bred Out of Human Race,” “Buttery Goodness Now America’s Top Domestic Product” and the classic “Clinton Forced to Kneel Before Zod.”

“I think people get enough real news,” says Dikkers of his paper’s slant. He notes a distinct difference between Onion humor, which has little basis in real news or fact, and “The Daily Show” (which the paper undoubtedly influenced) and SNL’s “Weekend Update.” They mostly satirize actual people or events.

Many cite the Manhattan-based Onion’s Sept. 11, 2001, coverage as a turning point, as the paper was the first comedic outlet to take on the tragedy. That approach earned discussion of a prize by one Pulitzer jury, but fell short. “It was a time that no one was using humor,” says President Sean Mills, who joined the paper that year.

After 2004, when the Onion had a 433,000 weekly circulation, the free tab grew to 482,000 in 2005, 549,000 in 2006, and today tops out at 710,000. Along the way, the publication has expanded to publish in 10 cities, most recently this year in Washington, D.C. “It felt like a great city for us to get into, especially since we are the paper of record for the nation’s capital,” quips Mills. Partnering with The Washington Post ? which prints the Onion there ? didn’t hurt either, says Mills, who adds the Post also handles all local advertising.

The Web site, which launched in 1996, has posted the daily “Onion Radio News” reports since 2001, which also are available as podcasts via iTunes and some radio stations. Its Web videos appeared in March as the Onion News Network, which provides two reports each week. Plans are in the works to expand to three later this year.

The paper also has Web deals with CNN and Slate. CNN posts at least one Onion story per week online, and links to others. The Slate agreement is a straight cross-promotion of Web sites. And that’s no joke.

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