Last week Fast Company hosted a panel at their NYC headquarters featuring staff from America’s #1 satirical newspaper, The Onion. Topics covered included the post-Trump media landscape, their pitch and writing process, and how Onion Labs, their creative division, works with clients, and more.
If you’re a long-time reader of The Onion, you’ll know they don’t use bylines. Each article is a collaborative effort. This blanket anonymity is one way The Onion staff fosters innovation and inventiveness. They see themselves as “Onion People” — a band of cynical misfits who have all experienced rejection in some form throughout their lives, which to them, is key for writing great comedy.
Even though some fans might believe that The Onion was funnier in print, in 2013, they shut down their print edition and brought everything online. Because they’re satirizing media, they’ve had to change with the media. Everything they write is topical and based on real current events and human truths. This is why for example, the headline “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent” is one of their 25 most popular headlines of all time. Headlines always come first, and the story follows.
The paper has a large team of behind-the-scenes writers and comedians that pitch 1500 headlines each week with an astoundingly small success rate of 2%. In recent months many of these have focused on the new political administration. The Onion is conscious of how they write around Trump, not satisfied to recycle the “Cheeto Jesus” tropes that other publications are using. Instead, they dig deeper to create alternative realties with headlines like “Secret Service Adds Emotional Protection Division To Safeguard Trump’s Psyche.”
Around the same time they shut down their print edition, The Onion began to realize that brands like Lenovo, Audi and Bud Light were not only interested in Onion-style native and sponsored content, but were also interested in hiring their writers to create white-label humorous content. It was then that they launched Onion Labs. They see the work they produce as competitive with the studio arms of creative agencies like Havas Studio 6, and perhaps even better, because they’re scrappier. They’re a self-proclaimed well-oiled machine that is set up to deliver fast content.
In recent years (thanks to Instagram) comedic meme-focused social media accounts like Fuck Jerry and The Fat Jew have challenged The Onion’s popularity, and have begun working with brands to create content. At the end of the day though, the The Onion remains to be the satirical gold standard.