By Jim Benning
Online Journalism Review
As editor of the Onion weekly humor newspaper, Robert Siegel has never won a Pulitzer Prize, reported on a third world insurrection or accomplished any of the feats that traditionally have inspired jaded big-city journalists.
In fact, he has never published a real news story.
So when Siegel was invited to the Chicago Sun-Times last year to speak at a luncheon hosted by the city’s venerable Headline Club, he was surprised to find nearly 70 journalists hanging on his every word, more reporters than even Blair Kamin, a local Pulitzer winner, had drawn at a Headline luncheon earlier that year.
“I felt like a visiting dignitary,” Siegel, 28, recalls, grinning. “They just went nuts.”
The Headliners might spend their days chronicling government corruption, murders or presidential elections, but they all wanted to hear from the editor who ushered into the world such ground-breaking stories as “Congress Approves $540 Million For Evil,” “Auto Workers Strike For More Novelty Acrylic Baseball Caps” and “Area Man Confounded By Buffet Procedure.”
Siegel shouldn’t have been surprised by the warm reception, which also included some devotees reciting obscure Onion headlines that not even he could recall.
The Onion lampoons American newspaper writing better than any publication around.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based tabloid publishes all-important hometown hero stories (“Local Airhead Wants to Work With Kids”), insightful economics journalism (“Report: Rich Consistently Outearning Poor”) and, frequently, exclusive pieces about Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in the world of the Onion is nothing short of a rock star (“Greenspan To Play 15 Unannounced Club Shows”; “Greenspan, Entourage Demolish Hotel Room”; “World Gets First-Ever Look Inside Greenspan Fantasy Ranch”).
For years, the Onion’s singular brand of anti-journalism rarely made it beyond the college dorms of Madison, where the free weekly has been circulated since its inception in 1988.
But all that changed in May 1996 with the launch of theOnion.com. Journalists, in particular, discovered the site and embraced the online edition en masse, e-mailing the latest T. Herman Zweibel column or area-man story to colleagues even as their own deadlines for very real news stories languished.
“The Onion is the best source of humor out there,” says CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield, who plans to report on the newspaper soon for the cable network. “I click onto it every week. The way they use the deadpan AP style to report the most outrageous stuff, that’s what makes it so funny.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Paul Brownfield agrees.
“I think it’s one of the funniest things going,” says Brownfield, who recently wrote a feature about the Onion. “It takes that dull language, that newspaperese, and turns it on its head. That’s probably what a lot of reporters would secretly like to be able to do.”
Actually, it’s what a lot of reporters not-so-secretly want to do. Siegel receives dozens of resumes a week from journalists and communication majors begging jobs.
He has yet to hire a single applicant.
“If I were funny I’d send my resume to the Onion,” Siegel says, “but we just don’t have that kind of system here.”
The Onion has a system unlike any other.
It’s a system that developed organically, staffers say, with local Madison writers, who were friends or University of Wisconsin students, contributing. It’s also a system that allows those same half dozen or so slightly disheveled writers and editors in their late 20s and early 30s to file in to the downtown Madison office at about noon each day.
On its face, the Onion’s operations appear to be slacker-central, but observe the system for long and it becomes clear that the newspaper’s sharp humor does not come quickly or easily.
Writers discard 50 ideas for every story that makes it into the paper. What’s more, they’re perfectly happy to set aside headlines for weeks or even months to mull over the just the right word or phrase that will make a piece sing.
Onion writers, in fact, put far more work into phony news stories than most newspaper reporters put into real stories.
On a recent Tuesday, head scribe Todd Hanson is among the first to arrive in the Onion’s small conference room for the writers’ weekly story meeting. Shelves are lined with comic books, videos, a Herbert Hoover doll. A small frog swims in the office fish tank.
Hanson eyes the floor, which is littered with food wrappers, used soda cans and empty potato-chip bags.
“Oh, that’s gross,” he says, shaking his head. “We don’t buss after ourselves well.”
All Onion stories begin with a headline. Writers scratch down ideas throughout the week, then sit down on Tuesdays to pitch them. Every headline must stand alone as a joke, so if a headline isn’t funny, it’s quickly discarded, and its accompanying story never written.
The Tuesday meeting is critical. To make the initial cut, which is still several steps removed from final approval, a headline must first win laughs from at least two fellow writers.
After returning with a giant trash bag, which he quickly fills with the debris (“This is sick!”), Hanson and writers John Krewson, Carol Kolb, Tim Harrod, Chris Karwowski and Maria Schneider take their places on the sofa, beanbag and chairs.
Writers Maria Schneider, Todd Hanson and Chris Karwowski in story meeting.
“Ideas are hard to cough up, at least for me,” Schneider confesses before the meeting. “I’m always afraid of repeating myself. I’m always afraid of the paper getting too formulaic. It’s hard to do this every week.”
“I’m kind of a depressed person.”
The meeting is called to order. Karwowski holds up his long list of headlines, volunteering to read first.
“This better be funny, Karwowski,” Hanson deadpans.
Karwowski: “Teacher Inspires Student To Become A Teacher.”
Hanson: “Wait, is that funny? I don’t know if it’s super funny or if the concept is funny.”
Karwowski (thinking): “What if it was a gym teacher?”
Hanson: “Maybe that would make it funny: Gym Teacher Inspires Student To Become Gym Teacher.”
The other writers shrug, unimpressed.
Karwowski: “New Teddy Bear 20 Percent Cuddlier.”
Hanson: “We did the dog being cuddlier already.”
Karwowski: “Sportscaster Inspires Fan’s Obsessive Devotion.”
Karwowski: “Man Stands Up Only To Sit Down Again.”
Hanson: “How could you make that funnier?”
Karwowski (moving on): “Clinton Decides To Fix White House Sink Alone.”
Hanson: “That’s funny. It’s got to be presented as anti-humor, not as a serious joke, only because every sit-com does it.”
The other writers nod.
Karwowski: “Microwaveable Dinner Almost Too Much Work.”
Hanson: “That’s perfect. That’s the perfect Onion joke.”
After two dozen or so more pitches from Karwowski, the group takes a lunch break for sandwiches. Writer Krewson looks at the OJR reporter and raises an eyebrow.
“So,” he says accusingly, “is it going to be hard to fit our quotes into your paper’s pre-conceived agenda?”
The meeting resumes. Hours pass, and hundreds of ideas are rejected. A few make the cut. Among them: “Rare Quarter Worth 26 Cents.”
Afterward, Hanson takes a cigarette break in the stairwell.
“I remember when I was in college, hanging out with journalism school people, and I thought, what is it with the J-school that teaches you not to write?,” he says. “The inverted pyramid style is just a formula for writing the least interesting way possible. It’s a format for making the reader not want to finish the article.”
“Now we get to make fun of it.”
Hanson worked as a dishwasher on the side for years just to pay his bills. He credits the Onion’s lean, humble beginnings with its success, which has recently led to the publication of two books, as well as Onion radio spots on stations throughout the country.
“We were washing dishes, so the financial benefits never entered into it,” he says. “It sounds very purist, but if you’re washing dishes, you’re not thinking, how can I make money off these jokes? You’re saying, ‘How can I make my life interesting?’ ”
Writing for the Onion, he says, was the answer, and despite the paper’s recent surge in popularity, the same rules hold true.
“The Onion is different from other things people see,” he says. “Everything on television is censored. Everything made for a mass audience is censored. The Onion is outside of that system.”
Cloistered in Madison, far removed from coastal trend-setters, Onion writers can freely take shots at American culture. Lately, though, Hollywood has shown an increasingly big interest in the Onion’s talent pool.
Hanson says he’s in no hurry to head west.
“It’s not that we’re above selling out, because I think we’re all looking forward to that,” he says. “But we’ve been hesitant to leave Madison because we’ve all heard horror stories about the entertainment world. If we leave, we won’t get this back.
“For me, this is a dream job. I’ll always look back on this time as being a miracle.”
Siegel, seated in his cramped office decorated with a Trix cereal box, among other things, agrees that Onion staffers have many reasons to be thankful.
Siegel is particularly thankful for the emergence of the Web.
When theOnion.com went up in 1996, it received roughly 20,000 unique visitors a week. These days, the site averages about 675,000 unique weekly visitors.
(It’s very profitable. Publisher Peter Haise predicts that the Web site will make at least $2 million in banner ads alone this year.)
Editor Rob Siegel.
“We put the Web site up originally thinking people reading it were getting a little cheated,” Siegel says. “You know, you have to feel the paper and all that. But over time, the Web site has come to feel like the real thing. Now I don’t feel that readers are getting a second-class version.
“Web news as a medium has really evolved over the last few years. When we first put it up, there really wasn’t a standard. Now there’s sort of a format you can imitate: CNN.com or the NewYorkTimes.com. We really look a lot more like a news Web site.”
With one big exception, of course: The Onion is pure comedy, and every headline is a joke.
That fact, Siegel says, makes the Onion perfectly suited for the Web.
“It’s just a list of jokes,” he says. “You click onto the site and you immediately have it.”
Soon, Publisher Haise says, readers may have more.
“I think you’ll find the site will expand in the next few years to offer the readers much more,” Haise says. “We’ve got a lot of different things planned. In some form, the Onion will probably have daily updates. I kind of see things changing for us, and we’re really close to a pivotal time now.”
But all that’s in the future.
For now, at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and countless other newsrooms around the country, journalists continue to click onto the Onion every week, forgetting about real news and real deadlines for a few minutes, and laughing, perhaps more than anything, at themselves.
“Journalists tend to get very self-important,” CNN’s Greenfield says.
Reading the Onion, he adds, is the perfect antidote.