“We just wanted a place to sell pizza coupons.” What does this mean as a business model? For The Onion, it meant the start of a business based on mocking traditional mainstream media, starting with the ads section.
The Onion is a well known comedy publication, but for those who don’t know of it, the headlines seem familiarly shocking and yet somewhat off.
Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson founded @The Onion as a print publication in August of 1988, over 30 years ago. The Madison, Wisconsin articles covered all of the mundane midwestern headlines with the biting satire of college students.
The original “fake news,” The Onion made its first profits by selling pizza coupons at the bottom of the newspapers filled with cartoons and short stories. The name either came from Keck and Johnson eating an onion sandwich – cut up onion on bread because their money was so low – or as former editor Bolton says, The Onion was mocking a campus newsletter called The Union at the University of Wisconsin.
A decision to stop print publications was made in 2013 when the shift to consume digital media took over and all print media struggled to find an audience. Another reorganization of the company came when New York City offices were closed and consolidated to only Chicago. Then, the news company almost fell behind again when the media sites they parodied updated their websites, and The Onion was slow to mimic. But, being based on a model of mimicking others, editors can’t exactly take great strides to get ahead either.
The writing style had to change because writers were no longer addressing a generation that knew what the Associated Press-style of newspaper writing looked like. With the internet, readers had the ability to engage with comments, which also affected the formerly one-way writing style.
The news site embraced satire before any shows like The Colbert Report or The Daily Show were around. The Onion has expanded to The A.V. Club and ClickHole in the 90s to parody clickbait websites, won a Webby Award for “Humor” in 1999 and a Peabody Award in 2008, created a Youtube news network, almost a tv show, and Onion Labs – an in house advertising agency… all while avoiding lawsuits from unhappy targets in the meantime.
What hasn’t changed about The Onion is its flat, unpretentious voice about daily life and the ever present Area-man, or another general character that many can relate to knowing in their life. The everyday minutiae is elevated to a level of importance it doesn’t actually merit. Besides midwestern life, The Onion will also tackle serious topics with political weight.
The Onion isn’t to be taken seriously, but it is a business that needs to make money. Over the years, the comedy institution has found endless ways to make “Area Man” jokes with witty wordplay and alarming, mundane events. The editor must always know to never get comfortable with doing things one way: if the media industry changes, expect The Onion to adapt with it.