The Onion, according to its own about page, is an internationally revered news publication owing its roots to a humble 1756 print publication of the same name. The site boasts its 4.2 trillion daily readership and touts itself as “the single most powerful and influential organization in human history,” something which is no small feat. If this seems a bit far-fetched, then congratulations! You are capable of recognizing satire, or the use of irony and humor to poke fun at something. This form of comedy is central to The Onion’s brand and the media they produce. If we examine the actual history of The Onion, we will see the news site originated as a local satirical print newspaper at the University of Wisconsin by students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson. It was in 1996 when The Onion made the jump to the virtual world with its own website. Still, through each iteration of the publication, it has been satirizing the most mundane to the most absurd subjects.
This article is not a history of The Onion. I’m sure plenty of those have been written before. Instead, I will be looking at The Onion through the lens of the Circuit of Culture, a useful tool for analyzing how something interacts with and shapes culture. There are five major components of The Circuit: Production, the creation of the thing, Consumption, the consumption of the thing, Identity, the groups that arise from the thing, Regulation, the rules affecting a thing, and Representation, how things are represented by the thing and how the thing is represented. Together, these will provide a fairly complete overview of The Onion’s cultural impact since the launch of its website.
The Onion, being one of this first online satire news sites, had a lot of innovating to do. Print media was still a dominating news medium in 1996. This was also the medium The Onion found its home in, so naturally their online presence would draw from these roots. Their website took the form of a virtual magazine. An article by Ian McFadyen from 1997 in The Australian, a year after the launch of The Onion’s website, discusses how this transition was made. McFadyen writes, “[H]ow do you do comedy on the Net? Answer: the same as you do it in any medium—you use existing formats. Magazines have articles, so funny magazines contain funny articles. The Net has Web pages, so the aim of the Web comedian is to package their humour in discrete packets as Web pages.” Webpages can act similarly to magazine articles; the website contains links to many individual webpages that contain a single piece of “news” for the reader. In this respect the website is akin to one really big newspaper, with each webpage being an article in the paper. This is especially visible in the screencap from the 2001 front page of The Onion. This page includes links to new articles with headlines and some small blurbs from the full texts.
The Onion’s website also includes links to archives and older articles, a development which is major. It is difficult to access older print news without either already owning the previous publication you are looking for or finding it in an archive. To provide easy access to an online archive in the same place you can access the current news vastly streamlines the process of finding older articles. In the case of The Onion, this is an especially useful feature. While archiving the news is very important for reference and study, The Onion is primarily an entertainment publication. While much of the content is relevant to contemporary news, the comedy is timeless (an article about FDR’s mechanical spider legs will always be hilarious). It is nice to be able to read older editions and articles without having to seek them out for a good laugh. The addition of a built-in archive is something that could only be achieved with an online format, something that The Onion has been able to make great use out of.
In 2006, The Onion launched a Youtube Channel, expanding into audiovisual satire. These videos have garnered over 1 billion views, a staggering metric for what started out as a local newspaper. These videos are to television news what The Onion‘s articles are to print media: a satire. Satire of television news was not something as accessible to The Onion outside of television broadcasting (which The Onion would later explore with The Onion News Network in 2011 on the Independent Film Channel), but YouTube offered an incredibly accessible way to host video content for readers.
The Onion’s online presence has greatly affected the way users have consumed their media. Social media has made it incredibly easy to share articles online with others, and a lot of The Onion’s material has been disseminated in this manner. One major contributor to this sharing may be the feelings aroused by these articles. A study by Stevens and McIIntyre examined the connection between types of news, feelings evoked, and sharing behavior of the reader. In this study they found no significant relationship between the “frame” (read: serious or satirical news) and the reader’s sharing behavior. They did, however, find a relationship between “affect” (positive or negative emotions evoked by the article) and sharing behavior; articles which made a person feel negative emotions were more often shared. (Stevens et al., 2019). Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between negative affect and the reading of satirical news. The authors conclude that the negative effect felt by readers of satire, namely that of The Onion in this study, was a major driver of the sharing of this content. Articles from The Onion are more often shared by people because they make them feel these negative emotions. Consequently, The Onion sees more clicks and more readers by supplying this content that caters to this audience and often plays to this negative affect. One of my favorite examples of this is the article “No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
“No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” is an article first published May 27, 2014, by The Onion, well into its online career. The article was published in response to the Isla Vista Shooting satirizing the inaction of lawmakers when it comes to gun control policy. Since then, the article has been republished 28 times at the time of this page being published. Each time the article is republished it reaches a broader audience as it circulates around social media and has become arguably the most recognizable publication by The Onion. The article, as Krithika Varagur writes for the Huffington Post in 2017, loses any remaining comedic value with each repost as it gets more and more real and relevant as politicians’ stances on gun control mimic that posited by the article. Marnie Shure, managing editor of The Onion, had this to say to Vice about the article (Gillespie, 2017):
“We wrote it for one particular attack, and subsequently it has run for many others with just the date changed. By re-running the same commentary it strengthens the original commentary tenfold each time. I’m proud to work alongside the people who saw the potential in that, and who were able to send out that message and make it resonate. In the wake of these really terrible things, we have this comment that really holds up.”Marnie Shure
The continuous relevance and consumption of this article in particular has been a major contributor to The Onion’s relevance in mainstream media consumption and has made it a recognizable name to many readers.
Finally, The Onion’s mailing list is something made possible only by its online presence. Every weekday The Onion sends out a daily newsletter with the day’s articles to its subscribers, akin to a print newspaper or magazine subscription. Unlike traditional print media, however, the costs associated with printing and shipping/delivery are totally mitigated. I have been a subscriber myself since 2017 and can say that getting the mailing list keeps me as a consumer engaged with The Onion’s publications. Newspaper subscriptions are neither something exclusive to The Onion nor anything new and continue to exist as media shifts to online publications, but I think it is important to acknowledge such a broadly important development in online media publishing.
The Onion, in its 34-year run, has managed to cultivate a distinct identity for itself in the American news and culture spheres. The Onion is one of the most famous satirical publications in America. Articles such as “No Way to Prevent This” which offer such poignant commentary and social critique keep The Onion relevant. Additionally, publishing these critiques through a satirical lens offers a unique perspective to the reader. Perspective by incongruity, a device posited by the literary theorist Kenneth Burke, is an idea central to The Onion’s satire that is discussed by Janet Fife in “Peeling The Onion: Satire and the Complexity of Audience Response.” Perspective by incongruity, as explained by Fife, is the combination of elements that force a reader to frame a subject in a new manner. This reorientation of information through a comic perspective is integral to The Onion’s identity. For example, instead of a blunt criticism of American gun politics and admonishing the inaction of politician, The Onion opted to publish a piece mourning the helplessness Americans have in the face of gun violence. To highlight this, I would like to present this excerpt from “No Way to Prevent This.”
“This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations.”
By juxtaposing the massive statistics of mass shootings with the perceived helplessness, the reader is invited to think about the issue in a new light. This is the brand of humor and commentary so inextricably identifiable with The Onion.
Additionally, and more recently, The Onion has defended its place at the center of American satire beyond its website. The Onion, in October 2022, filed an amicus curiae supporting Anthony Novak in the case Novak v. City of Parma (an amicus curiae is when an individual or entity disconnected from a case offers expert insight into a subject pertaining to the case). Novak was arrested for impersonating a police officer in March 2016 after creating a Facebook page disparagingly parodying his local police’s page. Novak filed for a review of the case in 2022, where The Onion published its amicus curiae. This brief was a satire of the case and court language and conventions in general while also portraying the sincere belief that the case was a gross violation of free speech. An excerpt from the brief, following a disconnected list of Latin court phrases, reads, “This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function—and the quite serious historical and legal arguments in favor of strong protections for parodic speech—to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position. That’s the setup and punchline idea again” (The Onion, 2022). Through crafting a masterful work of satire, The Onion provides a defense of its own work and satire at large. This further cements the publication’s identity as one of the leading producers of satire in America.
One notable thing lacking on The Onion’s website and pages is any credit to authors. This is a deliberate choice by the publication. The exact purpose of this is not explained anywhere on the website, but David Wolinsky, former editor for The Onion and NBC, offers an explanation (in a Quora thread, of all places!). Wolinsky writes that by preserving the anonymity of the authors, the power of the content is not minimized. If users knew what authors wrote what, Wolinsky posits, the authors would begin to seem predictable and easy to read. A major draw of The Onion’s brand of humor is the unsuspected reorientation of a situation to create a joke. Obscuring who writes the articles makes it harder for a reader to predict how the article may attempt to subvert their expectations and keeps the content fresh.
Throughout this piece I have largely represented The Onion as a satire of American news and politics. This is absolutely true, but I think I have not painted a very full picture thus far. The Onion does publish articles satirizing current affairs and large-scale issues, such as in the extensively discusses “No Way to Prevent This,” “Man Can’t Believe Obama Would Use Tragedy to Push Anti-Tragedy Agenda,” and in the headlines visible in the September 2001 screencap shown earlier. However, this is not the only type of news satirized. This topical and relevant news satire is a major component of The Onion’s brand, but it is not the only news represented. Even the most mundane and local news is satirized by The Onion. One of my favorite Onion articles, “Area Man Knows All The Shortcut Keys,” is a satire of the most mundane news. It is an article about Roger Turlock, a man who knows all the computer commands. That’s it. Not every publication by The Onion is a scathing critique of American society. To represent it as such is unfair. So much of the greatest comedy observes the finest aspects of life that many can relate to. This lighter genre of Onion content is representative of another style of media satirized.
The Onion could not be labelled as politically neutral. Much of its content is staunchly anti-conservative. However, Shure writes that The Onion is not for one party or another. She said the following on the subject to Gillespie from Vice:
“I think we aim to write things that are fundamentally and universally true…we’re not catering to a political affiliation or demographic. It’s intended to be a really broad comment. In fact, especially over the last year of covering the  election, we had plenty to say about and perhaps even against both parties. You know, not everyone is going to read us, but we wanna make sure that anyone can come to the table.”Marnie Shure
The Onion is, at least in principle, not an exclusive website. The universality of its content is meant to be enjoyed by anyone capable of recognizing the satire. There is a certain left-leaning bias present in a lot of The Onion’s political commentary, but some of their lighter material is easily sharable and enjoyed by any demographic, regardless of political affiliation. The advent of online publishing has only served to make this sharing easier.
Fife, Jane. “Peeling the Onion: Satire and the Complexity of Audience Response.” Rhetoric Review 35, no. 4 (September 6, 2016): 322–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/07350198.2016.1215000.
Gillespie, Katherine. “Area Woman Interviews Editor of ‘The Onion.’” Vice, September 4, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en/article/neegm7/area-woman-interviews-editor-of-the-onion.
McFadyen, Ian. “Humour Unlimited / HyperText*.” The Australian, July 12, 1997. https://advance.lexis.com/document/teaserdocument/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=5a9d1fdc-3749-43f1-836b-9cfcd90e53f9&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A457Y-KC50-0197-5539-00000-00&pddocid=urn%3AcontentItem%3A457Y-KC50-0197-5539-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=244777&pdteaserkey=h1&pditab=allpods&ecomp=zz2yk&earg=sr5&prid=6e25d0a5-616a-45d8-8480-b2fc19ba5fb5.
Medina, Eduardo. “Area Man Is Arrested for Parody. The Onion Files a Supreme Court Brief.” The New York Times, October 4, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/04/us/the-onion-supreme-court.html.
Stevens, Elise M., and Karen McIntyre. “The Layers of The Onion: The Impact of Satirical News on Affect and Online Sharing Behaviors.” Electronic News 13, no. 2 (2019): 78–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/1931243119850264.
“About The Onion.” The Onion. The Onion, October 18, 1996. https://www.theonion.com/the-onion-is-the-world-s-leading-news-publication-offe-1819653457.
“BRIEF OF THE ONION AS AMICUS CURIAE IN SUPPORT OF PETITIONER.” Supremecourt.gov. United States Supreme Court, October 3, 2022. https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/22/22-293/242292/20221003125252896_35295545_1-22.10.03%20-%20Novak-Parma%20-%20Onion%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf.
“‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The Onion, May 27, 2014. https://www.theonion.com/no-way-to-prevent-this-says-only-nation-where-this-r-1819576527.
“The Coolest Web Sites out There .” The Charleston Gazette, October 19, 1997. https://advance.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1516831&crid=ba5651e6-d286-4252-a944-42eac0f888ea&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fnews%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A3SP8-4790-000T-54MW-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=146813&pdteaserkey=sr4&pditab=allpods&ecomp=zz2yk&earg=sr4&prid=6e25d0a5-616a-45d8-8480-b2fc19ba5fb5.
“The Onion: America’s Finest News Source.” The Onion | America’s Finest News Source, October 2, 2001. https://webarchive.loc.gov/all/20011002203343/http://www.theonion.com/.