‘The Onion’ Rolls On

By: Seth Porges


After 15 years, it looks like The Onion — both lover and mocker of daily newspapers — is here to stay. As the kooky brand continues to gain popularity and expand, both in print and online, a host of new projects and products are currently in the works at Onion, Inc. “We are working on a movie,” says editor-in-chief Carol Kolb, from her New York City office. “We have this thing called ‘Onion Radio News.’ We have another book that just came out. We’re working on a pay section to our Web site.”

The site will continue to be free in its present form, however. “We’re just going to do a bunch of new material (as a premium),” Kolb says. “A lot of it will be complete archives. Older things that people haven’t seen. Things that don’t fit into a newspaper or Web site.”

With a print presence in five cities, the Onion has attracted a loyal weekly readership of 300,000. But this figure pales in comparison to the online version of the paper, which Time magazine called “The funniest site on the Internet.” The site tallies a staggering 5,000,000 visits and 31,500,000 page views per month.

The Onion dates back to 1988 in Madison, Wisc., when Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, two students at the University of Wisconsin, created it mostly as a parody of campus life and the college town. The publication remained primarily a local phenomenon until 1996, when its Web site was launched. In 2000, the Onion relocated to New York City.

The Onion became nearly a textbook example of a newspaper using the Web to further its presence. The paper’s national renown allowed it to expand its print edition into other cities, move a series of best-selling books and merchandise, and sell subscriptions to the print edition. In all, Onion, Inc. currently generates an annual revenue of over $7 million, and is profitable.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Onion, which bills itself as “America’s finest news source,” has been its ability to pull a profit from its Web site — something that has eluded many “serious” online news outlets.

Still, it remains fixed to its newspaper roots. “We’re basically a parody newspaper,” says Kolb. “A lot of our jokes come from imitating the way a regular newspaper would treat the news.”

At first glance, it is easy to pass the paper off as nothing but a joke. But closer inspection reveals the humor weekly to be a calculated and poignant satire of mainstream newspapers. The Onion is in many ways a reaction to traditional newspapers, as Kolb says, but its success also presents a lot of lessons for other papers.

The newspapers that most influence content in the Onion “are things like USA Today,” Kolb says. “That’s just because they’re more ridiculous and easy to parody.” Because papers like The New York Times are viewed by Onion staffers as higher quality “they don’t influence us so much,” Kolb explains. They prefer the “stupidity of USA Today and the charts and dumbed-down repetitive text.”

With headlines such as “Lowest Common Denominator Continues to Plummet” and “U.S. Government to Discontinue Long-Term, Low-Yield Investment in Nation’s Youth” — and a regular “STATshot” feature (an obvious parody of USA Today‘s “Snapshots”) — it is not difficult to understand what Kolb is saying.

But the brains behind the Onion get their story ideas from just about everywhere. “A lot of them come from just sitting down to write your headlines while flipping through the paper,” Kolb says.

“A lot of them come from simply walking around, and you have an idea that you form into a headline. We try to react to the news and we want to be topical. But on the other hand, we don’t want to be chained to topicality. We’re very lucky that we don’t have to be, unlike a regular newspaper. If we don’t have something that is funny to say about a certain topic, we don’t have to cover it, unlike a normal newspaper. We can just skip something altogether.”

Other times, Kolb says the Onion will do a story on an issue they feel is inadequately covered by the mainstream press, in an attempt to bring more attention to it. “Like the AIDS crisis,” Kolb says. “It’s such a huge story, but you don’t see it a whole lot in the newspaper. So we might just want to do it.”

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