The Onion is an American digital media company and news satire organization. It runs an entertainment website featuring satirical articles reporting on international, national, and local news, in addition to a non-satirical entertainment section known as The A.V. Club, and a creative services division called Onion Labs. It says 90 percent of its web site readers are between 18 and 44 years old. Since 2007, the organization has published satirical news audio and video online, as the "Onion News Network". Web traffic on theonion.com amounts to an average of 11 million unique visitors per month.
The Onion's articles comment on current events, both real and fictional. It parodies traditional news websites with stories, editorials, op-ed pieces, and man-in-the-street interviews, using a traditional news website layout and an editorial voice modeled after that of the Associated Press. Its humor often depends on presenting mundane, everyday events as newsworthy ("Man Worried About Drug Dealer Who's Not Picking Up Phone") or parodying the media's portrayal of news ("NSA Wiretap Reveals Subject May Be Paying Too Much For Long-Distance").
The Onion's parent company, Onion Inc., also runs an entertainment website called The A.V. Club that features interviews and reviews of various newly released media, as well as other weekly features. The online incarnation of The A.V. Club has its own domain, includes its own regular features, blogs and reader forums, and presents itself as a separate entity from The Onion itself.
In 2013, Onion Inc. launched Onion Labs, a creative agency dedicated to injecting The Onion's brand of humor into advertising campaigns for national and global brands.
Originally a print publication, The Onion launched its website in 1996. It ceased publishing print editions in December 2013.
Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, juniors at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, founded The Onion there in 1988. The following year, they sold it to Editor-in-Chief Scott Dikkers and Advertising Sales Manager Peter Haise for less than $20,000 ($16,000, according to The Washington Post; a 2003 Business 2.0 article reported the figure was $19,000). Reportedly, it was Chris Johnson's uncle, Wm. Nels Johnson, who came up with the idea to name the paper The Onion. "People always ask questions about where the name The Onion came from," said former President Sean Mills in an interview with Wikinews; "and, when I recently asked Tim Keck, who was one of the founders, he told me...literally that his uncle said he should call it The Onion when he saw him and Chris Johnson eating an onion sandwich. They had literally just cut up the onion and put it on bread." According to former Editorial Manager, Chet Clem, their food budget was so low when they started the paper that they were down to white bread and onions.
At first, The Onion was a success in a limited number of cities and towns, notably those with major universities (e.g. Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Champaign-Urbana). Originally the entire bottom three inches of the paper could be cut off for coupons to local Milwaukee and Madison establishments, such as inexpensive student-centered eateries and video rental stores.
The creation of its website in 1996 allowed it to receive national attention in the US. In early 2001, the company relocated its editorial offices from Madison to New York City. The website continues to make occasional Madison references, placing odd stories in surrounding towns or running photographs of local landmarks to illustrate stories set elsewhere. In April 2007, The Onion launched The Onion News Network, a web video sendup of 24-hour TV news.
Scott Dikkers is The Onion's longest-serving Editor-in-Chief (1988–1999, 2005–2008).
On March 13, 2006, The Onion launched a YouTube channel, presented as a parody of American television news. As of 2013, the channel has over 600,000 subscribers.
In April 2009, The Onion was awarded a Peabody Award that noted "the satirical tabloid's online send-up of 24-hour cable-TV news was hilarious, trenchant and not infrequently hard to distinguish from the real thing."
In July 2009, various news outlets began reporting rumors of an impending sale of The Onion to a large media company. A further rumor indicated that such a sale would be announced on Monday, July 20, 2009. The purported sale was ultimately revealed as fictional Publisher Emeritus T. Herman Zweibel stating he'd sold the publication to a Chinese company, resulting in a week-long series of Chinese-related articles and features throughout The Onion website and publications. On Wednesday, July 22, 2009, The Onion Editor Joe Randazzo clarified the issue on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, saying: "I'm sure there are many Chinese conglomerates out there that would love to buy The Onion. We are, in fact, still a solvent independently owned American company."
In August 2011, The Onion's website began testing a paywall model requiring a $2.95 monthly or $29.95 annual charge from non-U.S. visitors who want to read more than about five stories within 30 days. "We are testing a meter internationally as readers in those markets are already used to paying directly for some (other) content, particularly in the UK where we have many readers," said Onion, Inc. chief technology officer Michael Greer.
In September 2011, it was announced that The Onion would move its entire editorial operation to Chicago by the summer of 2012. The news of the move left many of the writers—who moved with the publication from Madison to New York City in 2000—"blindsided", putting them in a position to decide whether to uproot themselves from New York City and follow the publication to Chicago, which was already home to the company's corporate headquarters. At a comedy show on September 27, 2011, then-Editor Joe Randazzo announced that he would not be joining the staff in Chicago. Further details of the internal issues surrounding the Chicago move—including an attempt for writers to find a new owner—are detailed in March 2012 articles in The Atlantic and New York magazine. According to a March 31, 2012, article in the Chicago Tribune, founding editor Scott Dikkers returned to the publication stating that he hopes to find a "younger and hungrier" pool of talent than what was available in New York City. "The Onion is obviously always going to draw talent from wherever it is," Dikkers said. "In Madison, people used to just come in off the street … and we'd give them a shot. The Onion has always thrived on the youngest, greenest people." According to a February 2013 article in Ad Age naming The Onion to its prestigious Digital A-List, the publication has not just survived, it's thrived since the 2012 move to consolidate operations in Chicago.
In August 2012, it was revealed that a group of former The Onion writers have teamed up with Adult Swim to create comedy content on a website called Thing X. According to Adam Frucci, writing for website Splitsider, "The Onion writers had nothing else going on, and AdultSwim.com wanted to take advantage of that. But only because they smelled a business opportunity. Adult Swim is just looking at it from a business standpoint." On June 13, 2013, it was announced that Thing X would be shutting down with staff moving over to parent website adultswim.com on June 18, 2013.
On November 8, 2013, Onion Inc. CEO Steve Hannah and President Mike McAvoy announced in Crain's Chicago Business that The Onion would move to an all-digital format by that December, citing a 30% year-over-year growth in pageviews to theonion.com.
The Onion and The A.V. Club are available for free consumption in the United States at theonion.com and avclub.com respectively.
"American Voices" (formerly called "What Do You Think?"), a mock vox populisurvey on a topical current event. There are three respondents, down from the original six, for each topic, who seem to have been chosen intentionally to represent a diverse selection of ages, races, and socio-economic classes. Although their names and professions change daily, photos of the same six people are almost always used. One of them is often described as a systems analyst.
An editorial cartoon drawn by "Kelly", a fictional character; the cartoons are actually the work of Ward Sutton. The comic—the most controversial feature in The Onion—is a deadpan parody of conservative cartoons, as well as editorial cartoon conventions in general. Roughly half of the cartoons feature the Statue of Liberty, usually shedding a single tear, of joy or anguish, depending on the situation.
The Onion website is updated every day. A late 2012 redesign saw theonion.com move to a fully responsive format for better navigation and use on mobile and tablet devices. The A.V. Club followed, becoming fully responsive in late 2013.
Reporters and editors
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In March 2007, The Onion launched Onion News Network, a daily web video broadcast that had been in production since mid-2006, with a story about an illegal immigrant taking an executive's $800,000-a-year job for $600,000 a year. The Onion has reportedly invested about $1 million in the production and has hired 15 new staffers to focus on the production of this video broadcast.Carol Kolb, former Editor-in-Chief of The Onion, is the ONN's head writer; Will Graham is the showrunner and Executive Producer. On February 3, 2009, The Onion launched a spin-off of the ONN, the Onion Sports Network.
In a Wikinews interview in November 2007, former Onion President Mills said the ONN had been a huge hit. "We get over a million downloads a week, which makes it one of the more successful produced-for-the-Internet videos," said Mills. "If we're not the most successful, we're one of the most. It is a 24 hour news network. We have a new show that is part of the platform, but we also have a Sunday morning talk show that's called In The Know and we just launched a morning show this last week called Today Now. It has been really exciting; we'll have some new shows, show some archive footage and do some more in sports over the next year."
In January 2011, The Onion launched two TV shows on cable networks. Onion SportsDome premiered January 11 on Comedy Central.Onion News Network premiered January 21 on IFC.
In March 2011, IFC officially announced the renewal of the Onion News Network for a second season.
In June 2011, Comedy Central officially announced the cancellation of Onion SportsDome.
In August 2011, the Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO, announced the unionization of the Onion News Network writing staff, averting a potential strike which hinged on pay and benefits. It is also not the first time Onion, Inc. has been criticized for the way it treats its employees: In June 2011 A.V. Club Philadelphia city editor Emily Guendelsberger was the victim of an attack, and according to the Philadelphia Daily News, her job did not provide health insurance to cover hospital bills. According to the WGA, ONN was the only scripted, live-action program that had employed non-union writers. "The ONN writers stood together and won real improvements", said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson. "We welcome them into the WGAE and we look forward to a productive relationship with the company." Peterson noted that more than 70 Guild members from all of the New York-based comedy shows signed a letter supporting the ONN writers, and hundreds of Guild members sent emails to the producers.
In March 2012, IFC officially announced the cancellation of the Onion News Network.
In April 2013, the pilot for the comedy series Onion News Empire premiered on Amazon.com, presented as a behind-the-scenes look of The Onion's newsroom.
To further invoke the atmosphere of a 24-hour network, The Onion produces the following video series:
Today Now!: TN is a parody of morning lifestyle and news programs such as NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America. Hosted by Jim Haggerty (Brad Holbrook) and Tracy Gill (Tracy Toth), the style is typical of the breezy style often found in morning network television shows, with the presenters either uncritical or completely oblivious to the subject matter presented, regardless of the absurdity of the subject (e.g., Haggerty's earnest question about whether or not an omelet recipe strictly requires a metal shoe-horn to measure the butter into the pan). The series was featured within Porkin Across America.
War For The White House: ONN's continuing coverage of Presidential and midterm elections, opening with a dramatic video apparently depicting Air Force One and a squadron of fighter planes seemingly attacking the White House, mocking the intense, over-the-top style that seems to have become typical in straight news coverage. Notable for its consistent use of military terminology (e.g. "Election Analysis Bunker") and deadpan style.
The Onion Review: Weekly news updates from America's Finest News Source
Onion Special Report: In-depth news coverage accompanied by additional news coverage on theonion.com
Onion Film Standard: Onion Film Critic Peter K. Rosenthal reviews movies both new and old.
Onion Tips: A self-help style video series that gives suggestions for how people can better themselves and their lives
OSN: A reference to ESPN, OSN usually features clips from SportsDome, a parody of ESPN's SportsCenter. The clips usually focus on specific parodies of SportsCenter segments such as the Budweiser Hot Seat, which becomes The Steam Room on OSN. Hosts present in the jocular style synonymous with ESPN and sportscasters on sets that are near-identical knockoffs of the SportsCenter studios. On January 11, 2011, cable network Comedy Central launched the "Onion SportsDome", an off-shoot of the OSN feature, marking the first time an ONN feature became a full-fledged television series. It has since been cancelled.
News Room: A parody of breaking news segments that appear during commercial breaks or replays on 24-hour news networks. News Room is set in the fictional 24-hourcable news television network's news room with TV's and switchboards in the background.
Tough Season: A mockumentary-style series examining the world of fantasy football starring real NFL athletes
The Onion Movie is a direct-to-video film written by then-Onion editor Robert Siegel and writer Todd Hanson and directed by music video directors Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire.
Created in 2003, Fox Searchlight Pictures was on board to release the movie, originally called The Untitled Onion Movie, but at some point in the process, directors Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire and writer Robert Siegel walked away from the project.
In 2006, New Regency Productions took over the production of the troubled project. After two years of being in limbo, the film was released on DVD on June 3, 2008. It is now credited as being directed by James Kleiner but still written by Hanson and Siegel.
The Onion taken seriously
Upon occasion, the straight-faced manner in which The Onion reports non-existent happenings has resulted in third parties mistakenly citing The Onion stories as real news.
On June 7, 2002, Reuters reported that the Beijing Evening News republished, in the international news page of its June 3 edition, translated portions of the article "Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built". The story discusses the U.S. Congress's threats to leave Washington for Memphis, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; or even Toronto, Canada, unless Washington, D.C., built them a new Capitol building with a retractable dome. The article is a parody of U.S. sports franchises' threats to leave their home city unless new stadiums are built for them.Evening News initially stood by the story, demanding proof of its falsehood. It later retracted the article, responding that "some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them with the aim of making money."
In 2006, the Danish television station TV 2 posted a story on the gossip section of its website that took seriously The Onion article titled "Sean Penn Demands To Know What Asshole Took SeanPenn@gmail.com"
An article on Harry Potter inciting children to practice witchcraft was the subject of a widely forwarded email which repeated the quotes attributed to children in the article. Columnist Ellen Makkai and others who believe the Harry Potter books "recruit" children to Satanism have also been taken in by the article, using quotes from it to support their claims.
In September 2009, two Bangladeshi newspapers, The Daily Manab Zamin and the New Nation, published stories translated from The Onion claiming Neil Armstrong had held a news conference claiming the moon landing was an elaborate hoax. Neither realized The Onion was not a genuine news site. Both of the newspapers apologized to their readers for not checking the story.
In October 2009, the Russian news site Russia.ru repackaged clips from The Onion video piece "New Anti-Smoking Ad Warns Teens 'It's Gay to Smoke'" as legitimate news.
In June 2010, the soccer website Sofoot.com (France) mistook for real news the article "Nation's Soccer Fan Becoming Insufferable", picked up the story and translated it partially on their own website under the title "La solitude du supporter ricain" ("The Yankee supporter's loneliness"). The article even ends with a kind word for the fake fan, telling him to be brave and to hang on.
In November 2010, the Fox Nation website, a part of the Fox News network, presented as fact The Onion's article about President Barack Obama writing a 75,000 word e-mail complaining about America as a genuine report.
The blog Literally Unbelievable (started 2011) showcases posts from Facebook users who take various Onion articles seriously.
In September 2011, United States Capitol Police investigated reports coming from The Onion's Twitter account claiming that US congressmen were holding twelve children hostage.
On January 7, 2012, Lim Hwee Hwa, a Singaporean former MP, posted an article titled "Obama Openly Asks Nation Why On Earth He Would Want To Serve For Another Term" from The Onion on her Facebook page, with the comment "Increasingly challenging everywhere, whatever Obama's campaign strategy might be".
On February 3, 2012, Congressman John Fleming (R-Louisiana) posted a link to an article on his Facebook page about an $8 billion "Abortionplex" opened by Planned Parenthood, with the status "More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale."
Iran's Fars News Agency copied almost word-for-word a September 24, 2012, Onion story, "Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama" and reported it on September 28.The Onion updated the original story with the note: "For more on this story: Please visit our Iranian subsidiary organization, Fars," linking to a screenshot of Fars's coverage of the story. The version on the Fars website was removed later in the day.
On November 14, 2012, the Onion ran a story titled, "Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive For 2012." On November 27, 2012, the online version of the Chinese Communist Party newspaper The People's Daily ran a story on Kim Jong-Un, citing The Onion's parody. The People's Daily web site included a 55-page photo gallery with the article in tribute to the North Korean leader.
On December 3, 2013, The Onion released a parody video mocking New York City's controversial "Stop and Frisk" program. The program is designed to allow police officers to stop anybody they believe to be suspicious, question them and even frisk them for weapons, drug paraphernalia, etc. Over 650,000 people were stopped to be questioned and/or frisked in 2011. This astounding number of people was largely made up of African-Americans or Latinos. The Onion took advantage of this controversial New York City program in their video, calling the program "Stop and Kiss". The spoof depicted police officers stopping people on the street, whom they considered to be suspicious, and kissing them on the lips. Many people on social media believed what they saw in the satirical video and were shocked. In one instance, someone who saw the video tweeted "Wtf is wrong with NYPD? Ain't no police gone stop me and kiss sh-t!". In another case, a retired New York City police officer even wrote on The Onion's page, asking "what has become of the department" and exclaiming "I am glad I retired!!!!!"
U.S. Presidential Seal dispute
In September 2005, the assistant counsel to President George W. Bush, Grant M. Dixton, wrote a cease-and-desist letter to The Onion, asking the paper to stop using the presidential seal, which is used in an online segment poking fun at the President through parodies of his weekly radio address. The law governing the Presidential Seal is contained in 18 U.S.C.§ 713:
Whoever knowingly displays any printed or other likeness of the great seal of the United States, or of the seals of the President or the Vice President of the United States, or the seal of the United States Senate, or the seal of the United States House of Representatives, or the seal of the United States Congress, or any facsimile thereof, in, or in connection with, any advertisement, poster, circular, book, pamphlet, or other publication, public meeting, play, motion picture, telecast, or other production, or on any building, monument, or stationery, for the purpose of conveying, or in a manner reasonably calculated to convey, a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States or by any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both. (emphasis added)
By Executive Order, President Richard Nixon specifically enumerated the allowed uses of the Presidential Seal, which are more restrictive than the above title (Executive Order11649), but which allows for exceptions to be granted upon formal request.
The Onion has responded with a letter asking for formal use of the Seal in accordance with the Executive Order, while still maintaining that the use is legitimate. The letter written by Rochelle H. Klaskin, The Onion's lawyer, is quoted in the New York Times as saying "It is inconceivable that anyone would think that, by using the seal, The Onion intends to 'convey... sponsorship or approval' by the president," but then went on to ask that the letter be considered a formal application asking for permission to use the seal.
85th Academy Awards controversy
During the 85th Academy Awards, a post from The Onion's Twitter account called 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis "a cunt". The post was deleted within an hour, but not before hundreds of angry responses. CEO Steve Hannah issued an apology to Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, calling the remarks "crude and offensive" and "No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire." Scott Dikkers, who was Vice President Creative Development for the publication at the time, said in a Monday interview that the publication had sent a note of apology to Quvenzhané and her family but also stated, "She's a big star now. I think she can take it." The apology was denounced by some former Onion writers who believe, "It wasn't a great joke, but big deal."
Officially, the paper purports to be over 250 years old, having originally published in 1765. It was named the "Mercantile Onion" because those were the only two English words the paper's immigrant founder, Friedrich Siegfried Zweibel, knew at the time. (Zwiebel is German for "onion".) The newspaper's motto was originally Tu Stultus Es (Latin for "You are stupid").
In 1896 Zweibel's 20-year-old grandson, T. Herman Zweibel, became editor, a position he supposedly holds to this day despite being over 130 years old and largely senile. For much of the 20th century the paper was highly reactionary and parodied the yellow journalism and sensationalism prevalent in print media during the early part of the century. It violently opposed every social reform the century brought forward, from women's suffrage to married characters sleeping together in the same bed on television. T. Herman Zweibel penned a weekly commentary until 2000, when he was rocketed into space toward the Andromeda galaxy, ostensibly leaving The Onion in the joint control of Bernard Baruch and Aunt Jemima.
In recent Onion Radio News releases, beginning December 15, 2008, the concluding ad for Our Dumb World has stated: "For over 350 years The Onion has given you the day's news...".
2000: Zweibel leaves Earth itself (The Final Frontier, T. Herman Zweibel).
2009: The Onion and all corporate holdings are sold to a Chinese conglomerate, Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation.
2009: The Chinese conglomerate, Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corporation, having felt misled in its acquisition of The Onion, places The Onion up for sale less than one week after purchasing the paper.
Contributors and editors
The Onion's fictional editor is T. Herman Zweibel (Zwiebel is German for "onion", and also close to the name Zweifel (German for "doubt"), a family closely associated with the Madison newspaper The Capital Times), who has "held the position since 1901" and is rather insane.
The Onion publishes several columns by (fictional) regular and guest writers, including:
T. Herman Zweibel, the editor, who used to publish a weekly column until being launched into space. He is incredibly old and constantly suffering from illness. He is unaware of modern thinking and technology, seems to be borderline sociopathic (fondly remembering a school trip in which he bashed in his friend "piggens" head with a rock, referencing Lord of the Flies), and believes that dead historical figures such as Kaiser Wilhelm are still alive. He unknowingly references several works of fiction (remembering his childhood sled "daisy petal", referencing the film Citizen Kane). He employs many people, such as Standish the manservant, his Swiss guard, and many nurses.
Jim Anchower, an upbeat but aimless slacker and stoner who freely discourses upon his difficulties with his over-accessorized, under-serviced Ford Festiva and with finding and maintaining regular accommodation and McJobs.
Jean Teasdale, an overweight, occasionally employed, married but childless woman aged around 40. Jean appears to be oblivious to her husband's alcoholism and philandering. Instead, she masks her depressing parochial life with a relentlessly upbeat attitude and delights in cheap kitsch collectibles and sentimental, Hallmark-style movies. Her column is called "A Room of Jean's Own" (a reference to A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf).
Smoove B, a smooth talking ladies' man whose columns are directed toward his girlfriends or potential dates. He is known for describing his planned dates in extreme detail, often straying from the romantic to the mundane. The structure of the comedy consists of a series of romantic come-on lines, featuring cliched enticements such as cognac, chocolates, and massages, followed by a blunt sexual reference.
Roger Dudek, an inept humor columnist whose feature, "Write On The Funny!", contains nonstop clumsy puns and similes, while demonstrating a casually abusive attitude towards members of his family.
Jackie Harvey, a parody of a celebrity-spotting gossip columnist, notable for incompetently spelling celebrity names.
Amber Richardson, a white, uneducated single mother who writes in African American Vernacular English about her many misadventures in raising her illegitimate children including visiting the health clinic, constantly changing jobs as well as lovers, and defending her questionable qualifications in childrearing.
Larry Groznic, an overweight, confrontational "fanboy" whose disagreements with friends over obscure nerd trivia are documented in hostile letters typically demanding conversion to his point of view. Groznic bears a resemblance to Comic Book Guy of The Simpsons in both appearance and personality.
Gorzo the Mighty, the Emperor of the Universe, a villain in the style of Ming the Merciless.
Department Head Rawlings, the mysterious head of an unnamed organization of international spies.
Former contributors include:
Herbert Kornfeld, accounts receivable supervisor, an accountant who was raised on the streets and spoke in gangsta rap-isms and ebonics. He had an ongoing feud with the members of accounts payable ("Accounts Payabo"), and his columns often mentioned his street accounting mentor CPA-ONE, and his colleagues to whom he referred by "street" monikers such as "Kount von Numbakrunch". Killed on April 30, 2007.
Arch Danielson, an elderly man who wrote "The Silver Screen", a series of rambling, nonsensical movie reviews that often diverted towards random topics. His persona was retired around 1998, in favor of Jackie Harvey.
In addition, The Onion has some recurring characters in its news stories, such as Don Turnbee, a 41-year-old from Erie who frequents fast-food establishments. Starting in 1997, reports of Turnbee's experiences describe his difficulties negotiating an all-you-can-eat buffet, food island etiquette, beverage top-ups, condiment sachet accumulation, and chronic indigestion. Headlines typically describe Turnbee as an "Area Man". Vice PresidentJoe Biden is also featured prominently as a recurring fictional character.
Similar satirical newspapers and magazines exist in many countries, including: