Over the course of the semester I’ve been looking at the satirical news website The Onion. I’ve chosen this site because it’s one that I’ve visited on a semi-regular basis for several years. I’ve seen it evolve from a very low-budget, simplistic site to one that involves many forms of new media, including downloadable audio and video files and online streaming.
Where words go to die? : Background and history of The Onion
BuzzMachine founder Jeff Jarvis once claimed that paper is ‘where words go to die’. The Onion is an interesting example because it was first published as a print newspaper in 1988. It was originally distributed free to students in the Wisconsin area, where it developed a cult following due to comedy headlines like ‘Midwest Found Between East, West Coasts’ and ‘Somalia Defeats Rwanda to Win Third-World Cup’. The Onion website was created a few years later, and today content is published both on the website and in print form. Both the printed newspaper and the website are among America’s most popular, and the success of both questions the notion that print newspapers are being superceded by their online equivalents. The Onion is one of the few business models that manages to integrate their print and online content seamlessly, rather than having one appear as an appendage to the other.
Keeping up with Web 2.0: Key site features
The Onion website is constantly updating and improving its content and modes of delivery in keeping with online trends. While The Onion does not provide many forums for user-generated content, the website has several features to encourage a degree of interactivity. These include:
- audio streaming of comedy radio
- video streaming of comedy news
- staff-generated blogs
- RSS feeds
- an e-newsletter
- Google maps tagged with fake facts.
Building the business: Creating a strong user community
As their operations have expanded, The Onion founders have sought to develop and maintain a strong user base by creating a sense of community around the site. In addition, they have launched several auxilliary sites, which aim to attract users from The Onion community.
- The AV Club, launched in 2004, originally began life as the entertainment liftout for the print version of The Onion. As with The Onion, content for The AV Club is syndicated for both the online and the print versions. The website contains reviews, feature articles, regular columns and a crossword.
- The Decider, launched in 2008, is quite similar to the business model we proposed for our website. The homepage of the site features links to several separate sites, each based around a different American city. Each of these sites features staff- and user-generated content about local gigs, shows and community events.
- The Onion Store contains a range of humour-based merchandise, as well as straight Onion-branded merchandise. It has regular sales and deals, which are announced to users on the site and through an e-newsletter. In including a store feature, The Onion is not only creating a handy revenue stream, but is encouraging readers to buy merchandise which identifies themselves as members of The Onion community. They are trading upon their ‘cult’ status to create a sustainable business through the website.
- A Personals section, which contains real personal ads from The Onion community users. The Personals section of the site, added in 2008, is the fastest-growing section, and provides a social networking aspect to the site. Users can post a profile of themselves, including what they’re looking for (romance, friendship, play), browse others’ personal profiles, and even create blogs.
A few of my favourite recent headlines from The Onion include:
- ‘Obama Depressed, Distant Since “Battlestar Galatica” Finale (31 March 2009)
- ‘God Makes Surprise Visit to Local Church’ (21 April 2009)
- ‘KFC No Longer Permitted to Use Word “Eat” in Advertisements’ (26 May 2009)
- ‘Detroit Mayor Throws First Brick in Glass-Breaking Ceremony for New Slum’ (12 May 2009)
- ‘In An Attempt to Jump-start the Economy, Obama Declares Tuesdays Ladies’ Nights’ (7 June)