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Amusing Ourselves to Depth

Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?

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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.


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  1. Good article.

    Of course, the best thing The Onion ever did was “Kitten Thinks of Nothing But Murder All Day.”

  2. For once, I have no argument. The Onion is great.

    One interesting aspect of it, however, is that generally you don’t need to read the stories – just the headlines. You can kind of write the story yourself from there.

  3. Dan T – The Onion is no different from the traditional newspaper in that respect.

  4. I’ve been a fan of The Onion for a long while, even buying some of their books. However, I think it is far less funny than it used to be. Not that they don’t still post/print a winner now and then. It may be me reading it long enough that the fun is diminished, or it may be the publication itself.

    In any case, I thoroughly approve of it and wish it continued success. And I think the article is right to look at it as a success story in the print business–it is.

  5. For funny I think the new Cracked.com is the best thing on the net.

    And I too wish the Onion continued success.

  6. Yesterday, Michael Moynihan threw water on the idea that Jon Stewart is America’s best journalist.

    Next, Moynihan will throw water on the idea that Harrison Ford is America’s best archaeologist.

  7. I miss the fantastically cruel movie reviews. They went soft, like Film Threat.

    AV Club on Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. Or you can pull it up on the site itself by keyword searching “assweasels.”

  8. The Onion can be funny but their entire humor style is one-note. Dan is right that if you read the title you not only know what the article will say, but you will also know how it will say it.

  9. Episiarch,

    Dan is right

    Something about stopped clocks… how did that go again?

  10. There are some articles that are worth reading. Still, yeah, you often get most of the joke from the headline.

  11. John-David,

    Cracked.com can be great–I agree. Different kind of humor, of course.

  12. Best point/counterpoint ever in The Onion:

    Point: “Sexual harassment must end in the workplace now”

    Counterpoint: “I love the way your tits jiggle when you type”

  13. I agree with those that wrote it was funnier before. I visit the website occasionally and find reasons to continue doing so less frequently now. Too few of the stories and headlines strike me as particularly original or creative.

    Best newspaper? Not so much. Occasionally clever? Sure.

  14. Oh, the Onion’s videos are pretty awesome.

  15. Best point/counterpoint ever in the Onion

    Point: “The homeless want a hand up, not hand-outs”

    Counterpoint (by a homeless guy): We want hand-outs!

  16. Of course, the best thing The Onion ever did was “Kitten Thinks of Nothing But Murder All Day.”

    Wrong!

    “Smells like Splattered Brains” the week after the Kobain suicide was the best thing The Onion ever did.

  17. I’m partial to “Hitler Saves Europe from Polish Menace” in Our Dumb Century. The accompanying pic was great too.

  18. Their Sept 26, 2001 issue was really good too.

    It’s especially difficult to write anything humorous under such circumstances, but they did it extremely well.

  19. Point: “Sexual harassment must end in the workplace now.”

    Counterpoint: “I love the way your tits jiggle when you type.”

    Sounds like an old Urkobold-Jennifer exchange.

  20. From The Onion:

    Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department
    CHEYENNE, WY – After attempting to contain a living-room blaze started by a cigarette, card-carrying Libertarian Trent Jacobs reluctantly called the Cheyenne Fire Department Monday. “Although the community would do better to rely on an efficient, free-market fire-fighting service, the fact is that expensive, unnecessary public fire departments do exist,” Jacobs said. “Also, my house was burning down.” Jacobs did not offer to pay firefighters for their service.

  21. no. it doesn’t. or it shouldn’t.

  22. Second-best point/counterpoint:

    Point (by an anthropology major): “Nigeria may be a developing nation, but it is rich in culture”
    Counterpoint (by a Nigerian): “Get me out of this godforsaken hellhole.”

    Third best:
    Point: “This War Will Destabilize The Entire Mideast Region And Set Off A Global Shockwave Of Anti-Americanism”
    Counterpoint: “No it won’t.”

  23. Or you can pull it up on the site itself by keyword searching “assweasels.”

    In the book they were called “shit-weasels”.

    Type the into Google, and The Onion pops up first.

    How the hell did they manage that? I’m aware of some of the techniques, but… damn!

  24. My personal favorite

    Jim Anchower’s column is awesome, too. I used to know some guys like that.

  25. “Woman gets reduced sentence under ‘love crime’ statute”

  26. SPD/Edward- Some of us do have senses of humor.

  27. You note that, unlike the loser mainstream papers, the Onion doesn’t have an online section where readers can comment on the story, yet here I am commenting on the story online.

  28. The best experience I’ve had with the Onion is waiting for a history professor who had “Bush To Invade West Nile” on his door. A passing student worked herself into quite a lather about the warmongering bastard until I pointed out that a) it’s a satirical article and b) there’s no such place. Then she switched her ire to the professor who put such a heartless joke on his door, “where anybody could read it”.

  29. Hard to beat this one.

  30. Newly Out Gay Man Overdoing It

    It’s not terribly funny, but I lived through this myself. My college roommate came out (even though everyone already knew he was gay) and he suddenly became super-duper-gay. Seriously, for about a month he was the gayest man on the planet.

  31. destijl:

    happened to a guy I knew in college, too. It was an absolute blast watching (he was an incredibly nice person, but went from reserved to rather flamboyant overnight). By graduation, he was past the super-duper phase.

    His parents were also the coolest people!

    Hope he’s doing great!

  32. Of course watchers of the Daily Show and Colbert Report are better informed. In fact without the Colbert Report I would not know about the huge threat that bears pose to our society. Hopefully Colbert will win his bid for presidency and be able to save us from this awful menace.

  33. The comments about The Onion‘s headlines are spot-on, probably because of the creative process. I heard an interview on NPR where they explained that there’s a weekly meeting where the writers get together and pitch headlines to the room. The funniest ones are then handed out and get turned into articles. I don’t know if this was always the case, but like a magic trick, it’s pretty obvious once you know the secret.

  34. I’m such a big fan of The Onion, I’d laugh if its headlines denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

  35. Fuck you, Darkly. That’s grossly uncalled-for [sic].

  36. For best headline, I’m going to go with:

    “Special Olympic T-Ball Stand Pitches Perfect Game”

  37. The best Onion headline of all time:

    “Guy In Headlock Just Wanted To Party”

  38. I just want to say that The Onion absolutely ROCKS. And by God, it IS the Nation’s finest news source.

    In almost every case, I applaud The Onion’s bold truths. They say what others won’t and in almost every case I agree with their commentary.

    God Bless The Onion , and may it never change.

    mnuez
    http://www.mnuez.blogspot.com

  39. FREEDOM TO MOCK

    When Jerry Fawell sued Larry Flynt for suggesting Fawell had sex with his own mother in an out-house, the Supreme court said Flynt could do it.

    Public speech is fair game for public retaliation which the Onion has elevated to the art of critical mocking. It’s not fake news as much as exaggerated logical predictions of real news that force one’s attention to motive and intent.

    Real news: Some libertarians don’t believe in fire departments, at least public ones supported with taxes, at least that’s what they say.

    Economic Prediction: Those libertarians will either face the risk of fire, spend large amounts privately to avoid that risk or at the last minute defect from their principles and appeal to the government-run fire department to save them.

    It’s like motorcycle riders without a helmet. They don’t wear tags around their necks that say “in case of accident, do nothing unless you happen to be an altruistic person acting in your own free will with a cell phone to call a private ambulance service that delivers only to private hospitals.”

    Is the motorcycle rider or homeowner abusing the system in a free rider, moral hazard sort of way, knowing help will arrive after the fact? Or are they sincere about throwing off the shackles of the nanny state to take in some fresh air on the back of a throaty Harley Hog with money not spent on fire protection taxes?

    Real News: Economic study shows strong correlation between motorcycle riders without helmets and no fire departments.

    Onion Prediction: Game theory study shows libertarians love death and hate freedom, which could be a new form of sleeper cells.

  40. Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?

    No. It only seems that way because, evidently, you are brain damaged.

  41. That The Onion’s is financial successful makes it no more useful as a role model for serious newspapers than a Bruckheimer movie serves for art films. That The Onion, The Daily Show and Colbert Report has gained promenence during the Bush administration proves Postman’s point, which had little to do with amusement and everything to do with distraction. Laughter is a coping mechanism, and coping and changing are, as I believe, yikes, Arrested Development said, directly opposite, not the same.

  42. J K Rowling pre-empts this theme. Read the Harry Potter books, and some of the very frank exchanges reported in the newspaper there.

  43. In the Middle Ages, the courts had jesters, and the jesters could get away with saying almost anything. That was their niche. And now we have our jesters. The Onion can print an article titled “Crazed Palestinian Gunman Angered by Stereotypes” and nobody gets indignant. But the truth behind that article is something you dare not say unless you’re willing to have CAIR & Co get on your back.

  44. Re Russ R’s comment about the Sept. 26, 2001 issue:

    The story titled ‘Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell’ was a masterpiece.
    St. Thomas More once said, ‘The Devil is a proud spirit, and cannot bear to be mocked.’ This story did precisely that, and did it well. Would that there were more like it!

    Bob Harper

  45. Reaching back a bit:

    Ebert wins

  46. I believe Postman’s concern with entertainment was directed at the proliferation of mindless diversions.

    Stewart, Colbert and The Onion on the other hand, shine a light of truth on subjects that today’s mainstream media report via the talking points handed to them by PR hacks. (Including those employed my murderous kittens).

    They say what anyone with half a noodle knows already, that 99% of what gets broadcast on CNN is bullshit.

  47. Your hateful mocking of Jesus Christ points to why the world is so evil. Suffice it to say, most, if not all problems on the planet earth are from people like you who reject Jesus Christ. Our prisons are filled with people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. Most if not all rapes, murders, robberies and thefts are committed by people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. AIDS is mainly spread by people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ and have sex outside of marriage or else like children with AIDS get it from people, like you, who reject Jesus Christ. I hope you will turn from your sins and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and escape the fires of eternal hell. Turning from your sins and giving your life to Jesus Christ is the only way you can escape the fires of hell and receive everlasting life. If you persist in your sins and continue to turn your back on Jesus Christ, you will be lost forever.

    SAY THIS PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I am a sinner and am headed to eternal hell because of my sins. I believe you died on the cross to take away my sins and to take me to heaven. Jesus, I ask you now to come into my heart and take away my sins and give me eternal life.

  48. But Postman wasn’t warning us about “news mixed with satire.” Stewart and Colbert, and their audiences, know very well what they’re up to. The real danger is in the “straight” news.

    What’s really dangerous about TV isn’t the boobies and COPS (and Naked COPS, where the twain meet) – it’s the news.

    “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” by Jerry Mander, came out a few years earlier and said it better.

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