There’s a famous episode of This American Life that takes listeners into a planning meeting at the Onion. It was first broadcast in 2008, far into the digital age, but what’s striking about the story, listening now, is how slow, time-consuming, and even pre-modern the Onion’s editorial process feels. That process was born with the satirical newspaper’s founding, in 1988, and for more than two decades, while the rest of the media blew up, the Onion continued to work exactly the same way, week after week after hilarious week.
Every Monday morning around 10 a.m., the paper’s dozen or so writers and editors, each of them armed with tons of headline ideas, would troop into a small conference room. One by one they’d read out their funny headlines to the group—and almost every idea would be shot down as not funny enough. The Onion launched its website in 1996, but for most of its history its premier product—the one its staffers spent all their time producing—was the weekly print newspaper. The printed form imposed its own level of quality control. There was only so much room in a paper, so only the very best stuff made it in. Every week, the Onion’s comedians would come up with more than 600 headline ideas. Fewer than 20 would make it into the paper—about 3 percent. It was harder to get your joke into the Onion than it was to get your kid into Harvard.
Getting the headline approved was only the first step. It would take about two weeks to produce a typical Onion story, and by the time it hit newsstands, every single thing in the piece, from the fake names to the profanity to the punctuation, had been pored over by a team of editors. “We put out one piece of content each week, and there was endless fussing over it,” says Stephen Thompson, a writer and editor who spent 12 years at the paper. (He founded the entertainment section, the A.V. Club, and edited it until 2004). For a time Thompson was the Onion’s “verisimilitude cop”—he’d read every word to make sure it conformed to pitch-perfect journalist-ese. The very fact that such a position existed suggested the paper’s absurdly high standards.
The Onion doesn’t work that way anymore. You’ve probably noticed. Like the rest of the media, over the last year the Onion has gotten faster, bigger, more strident, and, to me, a little inconsistent. One of my colleagues described what’s happened to the Onion as “a disturbance in the Force.” It used to be that you could open any issue and expect a laugh riot. Now you can’t make that bet. You’ll still laugh—but not as often, and not as hard, and sometimes you won’t laugh at all. Dave Weigel, another of my Onion-obsessed colleagues, is more critical. Pointing to its coverage of the Syrian civil war—from Bashar al-Assad’s “Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People” to “ ‘Syrians' Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight” to “Obama Throws Up Right There During Syria Meeting”—Weigel worries that the paper risks turning “into a hivemind version of Andy Borowitz, telling liberals that what they already think is not only true but oh-so-arch.”
But in the New Republic last week, Noreen Malone marveled at the new Onion. She called it “the country’s best op-ed page,” arguing that its increasingly topical coverage “elegantly locates and dismantles a problem with an economy of words.”
Whether you like the new Onion or not, something has clearly changed at the paper. What happened to the Onion? Two words: the Internet. About a year ago, the Onion went through one of the most profound transitions in its history—a change you could see as ruinous or necessary, either the best or the worst thing that’s ever happened to fake news.
As a cost-cutting measure, the paper’s corporate overlords—which, according to several former staffers, is very much the way editorial team has always thought of the business team—decided to move the comedians from New York to Chicago, where the business side operated. The move was traumatic, and many writers and editors, including then-Editor-in-Chief Joe Randazzo, left the paper. At the same time, the Onion adopted a new Internet-focused publishing process; to use a bit of jargon that has infected the rest of the media, the Onion went “digital first.” The Onion still publishes a weekly newspaper in several cities (though the paper in its founding city, Madison, Wis., ceased publication in July). But in every way that matters, the people who produce the Onion now think of it as a website, not a paper.
“We now have one of those pitch meetings every morning,” says Editor-in-Chief Will Tracy. Writers and editors pitch just as many headlines as in the past, but because the paper’s news hole is bigger, and because it can publish much more quickly, the Onion is now free to consider the sort of timely, up-to-the-minute jokes that could never work under its former two-week cycle (for example, one of this week’s Syria pieces, “Obama Assures Americans This Will Not Be Another 1456 Ottoman Siege Of Belgrade”). Some Onion stories are now ready to be posted within a few hours of being pitched; others take just a few days rather than two weeks. Tracy notes that the paper still does just as many “evergreen, ‘area man’-type stories” as it did in the past.
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