Amusing Ourselves to Depth

Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?


In August 1988, college junior Tim Keck borrowed $7,000 from his mom, rented a Mac Plus, and published a 12-page newspaper. His ambition was hardly the stuff of future journalism symposiums: He wanted to create a compelling way to deliver advertising to his fellow students. Part of the first issue's front page was devoted to a story about a monster running amok at a local lake; the rest was reserved for beer and pizza coupons.

Almost 20 years later, The Onion stands as one of the newspaper industry's few great success stories in the post-newspaper era. Currently, it prints 710,000 copies of each weekly edition, roughly 6,000 more than The Denver Post, the nation's ninth-largest daily. Its syndicated radio dispatches reach a weekly audience of 1 million, and it recently started producing video clips too. Roughly 3,000 local advertisers keep The Onion afloat, and the paper plans to add 170 employees to its staff of 130 this year.

Online it attracts more than 2 million readers a week. Type onion into Google, and The Onion pops up first. Type the into Google, and The Onion pops up first.

But type "best practices for newspapers" into Google, and The Onion is nowhere to be found. Maybe it should be. At a time when traditional newspapers are frantic to divest themselves of their newsy, papery legacies, The Onion takes a surprisingly conservative approach to innovation. As much as it has used and benefited from the Web, it owes much of its success to low-tech attributes readily available to any paper but nonetheless in short supply: candor, irreverence, and a willingness to offend.

While other newspapers desperately add gardening sections, ask readers to share their favorite bratwurst recipes, or throw their staffers to ravenous packs of bloggers for online question-and-answer sessions, The Onion has focused on reporting the news. The fake news, sure, but still the news. It doesn't ask readers to post their comments at the end of stories, allow them to rate stories on a scale of one to five, or encourage citizen-satire. It makes no effort to convince readers that it really does understand their needs and exists only to serve them. The Onion's journalists concentrate on writing stories and then getting them out there in a variety of formats, and this relatively old-fashioned approach to newspapering has been tremendously successful.

Are there any other newspapers that can boast a 60 percent increase in their print circulation during the last three years? Yet as traditional newspapers fail to draw readers, only industry mavericks like The New York Times' Jayson Blair and USA Today's Jack Kelley have looked to The Onion for inspiration.

One reason The Onion isn't taken more seriously is that it's actually fun to read. In 1985 the cultural critic Neil Postman published the influential Amusing Ourselves to Death, which warned of the fate that would befall us if public discourse were allowed to become substantially more entertaining than, say, a Neil Postman book. Today newspapers are eager to entertain—in their Travel, Food, and Style sections, that is. But even as scope creep has made the average big-city tree killer less portable than a 10-year-old laptop, hard news invariably comes in a single flavor: Double Objectivity Sludge.

Too many high priests of journalism still see humor as the enemy of seriousness: If the news goes down too easily, it can't be very good for you. But do The Onion and its more fact-based acolytes, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, monitor current events and the way the news media report on them any less rigorously than, say, the Columbia Journalism Review or USA Today?

During the last few years, multiple surveys by the Pew Research Center and the Annenberg Public Policy Center have found that viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are among America's most informed citizens. Now, it may be that Jon Stewart isn't making anyone smarter; perhaps America's most informed citizens simply prefer comedy over the stentorian drivel the network anchormannequins dispense. But at the very least, such surveys suggest that news sharpened with satire doesn't cause the intellectual coronaries Postman predicted. Instead, it seems to correlate with engagement.

It's easy to see why readers connect with The Onion, and it's not just the jokes: Despite its "fake news" purview, it's an extremely honest publication. Most dailies, especially those in monopoly or near-monopoly markets, operate as if they're focused more on not offending readers (or advertisers) than on expressing a worldview of any kind.

The Onion takes the opposite approach. It delights in crapping on pieties and regularly publishes stories guaranteed to upset someone: "Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack." "Heroic PETA Commandos Kill 49, Save Rabbit." "Gay Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years." There's no predictable ideology running through those headlines, just a desire to express some rude, blunt truth about the world.

One common complaint about newspapers is that they're too negative, too focused on bad news, too obsessed with the most unpleasant aspects of life. The Onion shows how wrong this characterization is, how gingerly most newspapers dance around the unrelenting awfulness of life and refuse to acknowledge the limits of our tolerance and compassion. The perfunctory coverage that traditional newspapers give disasters in countries cursed with relatability issues is reduced to its bare, dismal essence: "15,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere." Beggars aren't grist for Pulitzers, just punch lines: "Man Can't Decide Whether to Give Sandwich to Homeless or Ducks." Triumphs of the human spirit are as rare as vegans at an NRA barbecue: "Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer."

Such headlines come with a cost, of course. Outraged readers have convinced advertisers to pull ads. Ginger Rogers and Denzel Washington, among other celebrities, have objected to stories featuring their names, and former Onion editor Robert Siegel once told a lecture audience that the paper was "very nearly sued out of existence" after it ran a story with the headline "Dying Boy Gets Wish: To Pork Janet Jackson."

But if this irreverence is sometimes economically inconvenient, it's also a major reason for the publication's popularity. It's a refreshing antidote to the he-said/she-said balancing acts that leave so many dailies sounding mealy-mouthed. And while The Onion may not adhere to the facts too strictly, it would no doubt place high if the Pew Research Center ever included it in a survey ranking America's most trusted news sources.

During the last few years, big-city dailies have begun to introduce "commuter" papers that function as lite versions of their original fare. These publications share some of The Onion's attributes: They're free, they're tabloids, and most of their stories are bite-sized. But while they may be less filling, they still taste bland. You have to wonder: Why stop at price and paper size? Why not adopt the brutal frankness, the willingness to pierce orthodoxies of all political and cultural stripes, and apply these attributes to a genuinely reported daily newspaper?

Today's publishers give comics strips less and less space. Editorial cartoonists and folksy syndicated humorists have been nearly eradicated. Such changes have helped make newspapers more entertaining—or at least less dull—but they're just a start. Until today's front pages can amuse our staunchest defenders of journalistic integrity to severe dyspepsia, if not death, they're not trying hard enough.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.