Either the Best or the Worst Thing That Ever Happened to the Onion

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 5 2013 12:50 PM

A Disturbance in the Force

What happened to the Onion? Two words: The Internet.

(Continued from Page 1)

Overall, under the new process, everything about the Onion is bigger and faster than it was a year ago. It now publishes twice as much content as it did last year—not just fake news stories but also fake slideshows, fake news-in-briefs, fake op-eds, and fake headlines. The Onion now works just like the news organizations that it’s making fun of. In some ways, that’s part of the joke. “If part of our mission is to accurately and comprehensively parody what a news organization does, then we needed to adapt by doing more timely stuff, by making our company feel more digital, by adapting to social media,” Tracy says. “If we do that, we actually look more like what we’re trying to parody.”

Considering the magnitude of the change (and the fact that, for much of the past year, the paper hadn’t filled many of the positions left vacant during the move), the Onion’s transition has gone remarkably well. The company says that traffic to the site has grown 30 percent over the year. Last week—which coincided with the paper’s 25th birthday—The Onion received nearly 6 million page views in a single day, a record. The traffic surge was due to the popularity of “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning,” a fake opinion piece that carried the fake byline of Meredith Artley, managing editor of CNN.com.

It was a typical piece for the new Onion: reactive, biting, and instantly viral. (It has earned almost 400,000 Facebook likes.) To me, though, the CNN piece illustrated one of the weaknesses of the new Onion. Whereas in the past, its political jokes were absurdist, surprising, and rarely partisan—an abortion point-counterpoint from 1999 pits “Life Begins At Conception” against “Life Begins At 40!”, a piece that I’m pretty sure elicited my life’s only legitimate spit-take—the new Onion sometimes aims for Jon Stewart’s game: ultra-clever but also a little scoldy, oversmart, and lacking much nuance. In an attempt to make a viral joke, the new Onion often makes an easy one. And even as a media criticism, the CNN piece wasn’t especially thoughtful—that cable news emphasizes shallow sensationalism isn’t much of an insight, after all.

Advertisement

Tracy pushed back against my idea that the Onion has abandoned being funny. “I think there are different genres of funny,” he says. “There are a lot of stories in the Onion that you’ll read and know it’s comedy, but you don’t laugh while reading it—and that’s OK. With a lot of great comedy, you don’t laugh at it, and that’s fine.” When I wondered if the paper had become too topical, Tracy argued that isn’t the case—the off-the-wall, evergreen stuff is still there. (He’s right. See “God Feeling Down In Dumps After Death Of Grandmother,” published this week.) He also disagreed with my view that the paper isn’t as consistent as it used to be. “Anything we put out I think is great,” Tracy says. “I also think if you look back at past issues, you might be surprised to find many things of equal quality to the things you now think are not great. Comedy is subjective, but everything I put out I think is great, or else I wouldn’t publish it.” 

I ran my criticisms by some former Onion staffers, and a few agreed with my take. (Though none for the record: “I lived in fear of articles just like this one pointing out that the Onion wasn’t funny anymore,” one former editor told me.) But they also suggested something I hadn’t considered—that with the CNN piece and many others, the Onion’s writers might be making fun of themselves as much as they’re taking on the rest of the media. “If you look through the Onion over the last half-year, there’s a ton of stories about how horrible it is to work for the Onion,” one former staffer told me. Among them: “Executive Creative Too,” about the CEO of a media company who claims “his sensibilities are very refined and even edgy, and that he thinks of himself as ‘at heart, more of a writer and idea guy than a businessman.’ ” In January, after the Atlantic ran a “sponsored” story by the Church of Scientology, the Onion shot back with, “SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement.” But that joke (and “Sponsored Content Pretty Fucking Awesome,” from May) was likely aimed at the paper’s bosses, too, who’ve been warring with the editorial side over whether the paper should run sponsored stuff.

In other words, now, more than ever, the Onion is in the same boat with the rest of the media. Writers and editors at the Onion face the same pressures as their straight-news brethren—a mandate to be faster, to do more with less, to have insta-opinions on everything even if it means sometimes being wrong. One former Onion staffer told me that when he worked at the paper, the primary formula for comedy was to keep the publishing volume as low as possible. “I felt it was better to produce five funny things a week than seven funny things and three unfunny things,” the staffer said. “It had to do with the way people perceive comedy—even if you have more funny stuff, the unfunny stuff does harm.”

I’m not sure if this is right; some people might argue that more funny is more funny, even if it comes with more unfunny. But the whole argument is moot, because whatever its merits, the model that sustained the Onion for decades is simply unworkable in today’s grinding, instant-reaction age. If the Onion published just 20 jokes once a week in 2013, nobody would read it. It would be far too little and always too late.

As one staffer put it, “If your argument is that the Onion has gotten less funny because it’s had to adapt to the Internet, then OK—but that’s not the fault of anyone but, just, you know, the world.”

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.