The Onion set to take on TV

Outside Joe Randazzo’s office is a noticeboard that is covered with letters from readers to the Onion, the satirical newspaper he edits. They are all from readers offended by something they have read, which the quietly spoken and bespectacled editor finds oddly satisfying.

“It feels kind of validating that we pissed off the right people,” says Randazzo, who has cause to be feeling good — at a time when real newspapers are fighting for survival the the Onion‘s fake news has never been more popular. What began 22 years ago as a black-and-white 24-page newspaper given out on campuses in Wisconsin has become one of the most venerated names in satire.

And yet, although the Onion is hugely successful, it retains an air of mystery: none of the writers is bylined and the only journalists named in it are fictitious. Randazzo says the very impenetrability of the paper made him want to work there. “It was impossible to figure out who was working on it,” he recalls, “and that made it seem even more of a goal for someone like me who wanted to get into comedy.”

The Onion was created in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin, by two students, Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson (who went on to publish alternative weeklies in Seattle and Albuquerque respectively), and in its early days made so little money that they were, so the story goes, often reduced to onion-sandwich lunches, a meal that inspired the paper’s name.

Today, the Onion has a weekly print circulation of more than 400 000 and it is published in eight cities. The website gets an average of more than 10-million unique visitors a month. The Onion News Network, launched in 2007, has about 2-million viewers a week. Randazzo, the editor for two years, oversees an editorial team of almost 200.

Since moving to New York in 2001, the Onion empire has continued to grow, with books, podcasts and video news reports. The satirists are thriving even as the very outlets they parody are struggling (as encapsulated in an Onion story headlined “Dying Newspaper Trend Buys Nation’s Newspapers Three More Weeks“). Next year the Onion moves into television with half-hour programmes for the Independent Film Channel and Comedy Central.

Traditionally headlines are written after articles but at the Onion it is the other way around. Each writer is expected to bring 15 possible headlines to the Monday meeting. The stories are vetted to ensure they don’t include any “no-no words” — ones that have been sapped of humour through over-use. These are scrawled on two sheets of paper taped to the door and include “method actor”, “electric boogaloo”, “signs of the apocalypse”, “speed dating” and “William Shatner”. Those that survive culling are scribbled on to a whiteboard.

On the day I visited the board was filled with stories including “Exhausted Noam Chomsky just going to try to enjoy day for once“, “Heckled Christian rock band now know how Jesus felt” and “Not very good album takes a while to get into“.

Each edition takes two weeks to produce. The humour often comes from employing the stiff formality of journalistic language, as in “Study reveals dolphins lack capacity to mock celebrity culture“.

“What separates us from other fake news outlets is that we let the format of writing in a news voice do 90% of the work for us,” says Randazzo. To achieve that authentic fake-news voice involves extensive research.

“There are several rounds of fact-checking,” he says. “We don’t kid ourselves that we are proper journalists but we do have a degree of journalistic integrity — we don’t want to aim at the wrong target. We try to go after authority, hypocrisy and not do jokes at the expense of the victim.”

Randazzo is excited about the new TV ventures, saying: “It does feel like we have become legitimate, that we have made it.” But the opportunity also carries dangers that the brand of humour the Onion exemplifies will be muzzled in the more cautious world of broadcast media. “The conceit behind the Onion is that it is a gigantic mega-corporation and there is a danger that we could become the very monster we caricature,” he says. “But our plan is to self-sabotage the show so that people know that we got the chance but in the end we didn’t care about TV.”

Which does Randazzo (who began his career in conventional journalism) think is easier, working for a real paper or a fake paper? “I think it would be harder to write for [a real paper] because a big part of what we do is mock the media, but we have the luxury of not having to actually report on the news events. Plus we get to make up stuff: if we don’t feel like reporting what is going on we can just make something up about monkeys. Or tigers.” — Guardian News & Media 2010

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