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

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Sept. 5 2013 12:50 PM

A Disturbance in the Force

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

The Onion, in print

Photo courtesy Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr via Creative Commons

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.

Farhad Manjoo Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of True Enough.

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.

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.

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.”