A newspaper with nothing real in it. This has been The Onion‘s challenging specialty since 1988. With more than 3 million readers a week (for both paper and website), and a 365,000 total print circulation in the US, the American satirical newsweekly insolently defies the print media crisis. And if its wicked parodies of conventional journalism are just a joke, The Onion seems to have the last laugh
« World’s Power Brokers Hold Annual Summit Where They Show Each Other Their Penises », « Nation Waist-Deep in Soybeans After $30 Trillion Farm Subsidy Bill Accidentally Passed« , « Justin Bieber Found To Be Cleverly Disguised 51-Year-Pedophile ». Every day, The Onion’s staff writers have to choose between a large range of zany and off-the-wall headlines of this kind. Inversing the traditional editorial process, the satirical newspaper decides on its headlines first, and then literally invents stories to fit them. One would say that it is an absolutely non-journalistic way of dealing with reality. But the thing is that most of The Onion’s Writers were journalists before joining the staff (Bobbie Battista, one of CNN’s main anchors during the 1980s and 1990s has recently joined the team to anchor reports online)… And they will still be journalists after leaving it (Joshua Green, now senior editor of The Atlantic, and a weekly political columnist for The Boston Globe, began his career at The Onion).
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Satire over reality
« America’s finest news source » stories are not just an outlet for over-imaginative, reality-disenchanted journalists. They are a constant reflection on what journalism should not be when dealing with the real world. For Robert Niles, the editor of the Online Journalisme Review, the success of The Onion lies mostly in « the ability of satirists to penetrate the hypocrisies of the news cycle that the straight press is compelled to dance around. » For instance, some weeks after 9/11, when Dan Rather (former news anchor for the CBS evening news) was pledging his support to President Bush on network TV (« Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where, » he told David Letterman ), « The Onion was already presaging the leaps of credulity America would soon be asked to make in deference to the War on Terror. « If I Don’t Get My Medium-Rare Shell Steak With Roasted Vegetables In The Next 10 Minutes, The Terrorists Have Already Won« , read an Onion op-ed published in November 2001« .
Fake news, real money
The Onion’s parti-pris which anticipates the public’s frustration with « objective news » perfectly fits the Americans’ surging appetite for satirical stories (embodied, for instance, by the increasing popularity of Jon Stewart’s « Daily Show ») In a print media market strongly impacted by massive cutbacks, satire seems to pay. During the past four years, Onion’s New York staff has doubled in size. Meanwhile, a web-video sendup of 24 hour-TV news has been successfully launched. And while many traditional free newsweeklies have filed chapter 11 bankruptcy after declining ad sales, the Onion managed to dodge the bullet by maintaining the level of its ad incomes (even if, last year, it had to close down its editions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, two new markets that it tried to conquer in 2005).
In its glorious homemade version of its own history, The Onion pretends to be over 250 years old, and first named « The Mercantile Onion », because those were the only two English words the newspaper’s immigrant founder, Friederich Siegfried Zwiebel, knew at the time ( Zwiebel is German for onion). In the prosaic real world,Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, juniors at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, founded The Onion in 1988, at a time when their food budget was so low that they were down to white bread and raw onions. Between the two stories lies the recipe of the Onion’s success which eventually transformes a mundane vegetable into a respectable and lucrative institution, with a rich soup of wicked satire.