Peeling back the layers of The Onion

Your Friend in Digital Media: How 'The Onion' is Not That and Will Crush You (Photo by Greg Mees)
Your Friend in Digital Media: How ‘The Onion’ is Not That and Will Crush You (Photo by Greg Mees)

This afternoon Ben Berkley and Jordan David of The Onion presented “Your Friend in Digital Media: How ‘The Onion’ is Not That and Will Crush You”, a session about the satirical publication and its social success.

True to form, the pair opened with a historical — albeit completely fictional — overview of the publication, starting with its birth as of the nation’s oldest publications to its impressively early adoption to move online in 1965 before the Internet even existed. After discussing it’s impressive past, Berkley jokingly assured the audience “every publication here is not a piece of shit. Not all of them.”

Based in Chicago with a staff of 15, The Onion takes a four step process to creating its well-known comedic content. Its starting point? Headlines.

“We write our punchlines first. The pitch process is very intense,” said Berkley.

The crew goes through a slew of far-fetched, ridiculous ideas before settling on the winners. Berkley says they used to perform at a much slower piece, producing about 20 pieces of content a week. Now, the pace has changed with The Onion pumping out as many as 10 pieces on any given day. Ironically, The Onion announced today that the publication has decided to halt its print version, continuing only online.

From a social media standpoint, The Onion has become a powerhouse, beating out new media gurus like Mashable, BuzzFeed, and Gawker in social media reach. David gave key insights into posting often and getting clicks without annoying the audience. In a tease promotion for The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012 Kim Jong-Un, The Onion racked up 1.5 million page views.

“A lot of people use tease promotions. When we do it we’re trying to keep in mind the experience for the user. When we do it there’s a joke to it,” said David.

Ball State University senior Corey Bauters found a lot of value in The Onion’s different approach to social media.

“Their social media strategy gave good insight into how to draw attention to tweets. They have a very different take than straight-up news organizations, which is helpful in maintaining their own satirical tone,” said Bauters.

The Onion continues to play a niche role in news coverage, from inventing historical events (like the never-ran story detailing JFK spiking a volleyball over the Berlin Wall) to covering sensitive current events like the Boston Marathon bombing. Adam Maksl, an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Southeast hopes he can take some advice back to his students.

“The process that they go though to create satire is difficult … it’s a labor intensive process. You have to be in tune with what’s going on in the world,” said Maksl.

And that’s exactly what The Onion strives to do.

“We’re not trying to be funny. We’re trying to be satirical and help people find a catharsis,” said Berkley.

To see an illustrated version of the keynote, click here.

About Kayley Sopel

is a student at Michigan State University and a 2013 SNDF travel grant recipient.

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