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An Interview with the Staff of the Onion

It's nearly impossible to discuss satire in this day and age without making mention of the Onion. Pioneering the trend of satirical online publications, the Onion has been churning out quality content for 28 years. No one seems to strike the balance between funny and meaningful quite as well as the Oniom media empire has. Growing up with the site, the Onion inspired me to take journalism classes, and now as editor-in-chief of my school newsmagazine I was even more interested in hearing about their process and experience. I reached out to them for an interview, and they graciously answered my questions. 

1) What's the most difficult part of writing satire?
Originality. In a world where there are so many observations being made and then published by so many people, it can be tough to find an angle or approach on a topic that hasn't already been covered. We never want to be derivative so there’s a lot of pressure to find fresh perspectives on everything.

2) Do you ever worry about offending people? What's the worst you've ever offended someone?
We don’t worry about offending people, and there are two reasons for that. First, there will always be someone who is, considering we publish content online and in the history of the internet, there has probably never been a thing posted that hasn’t upset somebody. I mean, we published this harmless, dumb story about a fat salmon and received some angry response. If we worried about people not liking something of ours, we’d never have a happy moment in our lives. Second, we only published things we’re 100% confident to stand behind. We're always trying to punch up, not down, so that affects the way we approach sensitive subjects. You’ll notice we’re always poking at those in positions of power, society itself, the media, etc. and never the victims, the downtrodden, etc. There’s a motto that traditionally runs through the world of satire to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” and we hold strong to that. We try to offer commentary on the world around us; we never actively try to offend people. There's no point to us being offensive without purpose. It isn’t a productive way of offering commentary. So if people are offended by something we publish, hopefully they're at least thinking about why they're offended.

3) How do you deal with the pressure to be funny/clever on a strict schedule/time limit?
I think everyone deals with this differently, but mostly it comes down to taking mental breaks. We set up our production schedule to allow our writers to take time off when they need to recharge. We store up a lot of good ideas so when we need to take a break, we can tap into those reserves instead of writing new stuff. We also try to rotate content topics and types in ways that keep the writers from getting locked into any one thing. The DNC and RNC were tough in part because many of the writers were working almost exclusively on those topics. Coming out of the DNC, everyone has made it a point to pitch non-political headlines and jokes to change things up. Basically, we set up our system to eliminate most of the intense pressure and the rest is just every individual writer finding their ways of managing their stress (ex. writing an hour, then exercising, then writing another hour—whatever works for them).

4) What advice do you have for a young satirist?
Write your brains out and then get ready for rejection. The Onion writers submit hundreds of headlines each week, and we throw away easily 97% of them, if not more. Sometimes brilliant headlines will be pitched that won't work for very strange and specific reasons (e.g., we've done a joke that's thematically just a bit too similar, or the headline is great but the story wouldn't work well when written out, or the target of the joke isn’t clear enough). Our writers are world-class comedians and write constantly … yet nearly all of their ideas get rejected. That’s how great stuff is made.

5) What's the most fun part about working for the Onion?
Ultimately we’re sitting in a room with our friends pitching jokes all the time, so how could anything be better than that? To take it a step further, in any career, there’s nothing more rewarding than getting to do something you’re passionate about for a living while also making a difference in society—and we’re even more lucky to get to do that through humor and pointed satire. We get to make something we love with people we love and people love what we make. It’s a beautiful cycle.

6) The Onion has been mistaken for a real news source on many occasions. How do you achieve that sense of realness?
Perhaps surprisingly, given how often we're mistaken for real news, that's not something the writers aim for. The Onion seems like a real news source sometimes because it needs to reflect and imitate what it's satirizing, and that's often how those instances of reader confusion originate.

7) Do you have a favorite Onion article?
Each person here has a very different favorite. The serious articles are more universally agreed upon; one of the office's favorites is "‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens," which gets adapted for each new shooting. We've found it resonates with our audience and captures the hopelessness and frustration we all feel with mass shootings and the fact that nothing seems to change afterward to prevent the next one.

On the lighter side of the Onion, though, we polled everyone on staff and here’s the collection of their favorites:

8) What satirists inspire you?
Strangely, there aren’t a ton of external satirists who inspire us—the majority of the staff is in their 20s and grew up with The Onion, so if there’s any shared inspiration, it’s the original staff of The Onion. We’re here to uphold a brilliant 28-year tradition and so when we need inspiration, we simply look to the people who started and then maintained that tradition.

9) What makes a good satire piece?
A good piece of satire ideally sparks thought in readers or resonates strongly (that is, it "feels real"). Sometimes, a good satire piece approaches its subject from a unique or clever angle and makes its point while still being funny. But it can also be a piece that just makes an original observation and runs with it — for example, "Dollar Store Has Great Deal On Fig Nortons," where the joke plays off of those weird off-brand versions of food you always see in dollar stores. Maybe the best way to summarize it is this: We want to take the sentiments everyone shares but nobody knows how to articulate or realizes they think and then we bring them to the forefront.

10) Does a lot of the Onion staff come from a particular background (comedy, journalism, etc) or is there more of a variety?

We’re all over the map background-wise. In fact, only one person on our 15-person core staff came from a journalism background. We’re widely distributed in our geographic origins and even more widely distributed in our educational backgrounds. We have people who majored in such varied things as English, sociology, economics, mathematics, history, film, French, and music. We have college dropouts. We have people who worked in advertising, trade publications, temp agencies, even at the Lego Store before working here. In order to have various perspectives in our paper, we have to have a staff with widely varying experiences and viewpoints on the world.


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