The Onion was unpeeled yesterday during a presentation and Q&A with the satirical publication’s Editor-in-Chief Cole Bolton and Managing Editor Ben Berkley.
“It is an absolute pleasure to be here in your finest chemistry room,” Bolton said, immediately bringing the crowd to laughter. “We are America’s finest news source. The history of The Onion is the history of America itself.”
After fabricating a laughable story about The Onion’s fictional 1765 origin, Bolton and Berkley launched into a both satirical and informative discussion about tips for success in the professional arena.
The two had many suggestions for students looking to get ahead. They suggested finding internships that give back, such as deforestation. Additionally, they stressed the importance of finding a passion, providing humorous “sample passions,” such as scooping, carnival litigation, telling others about your volunteer work and lions. Finally, the crowd of students burst into laughter when these two tips for success flashed up on the screen: be born white and male, and be born with assets exceeding $2.3 million.
All jokes aside, the editors explained what goes on behind the scenes. The company is based in Chicago and has 12 full-time writers and editors. Fifteen hundred headlines are pitched every week, and approximately 30 are chosen. The Onion’s writers are used to having their ideas shut down.
“Every last thing starts with the headline,” Berkley said. “There are no articles that are written in full and sent to us and submitted.”
There is a meeting held once per week during which the writers present a list of headline ideas. Many of them are rejected until they find the perfect fit, one that is eye-catching and surprising. They don’t go for the easy jokes, the ones that have been used repeatedly by other news sources. Bolton and Berkley said the greatest headlines have nuanced angles that aim to entertain and enlighten people, not trick them. The editors want people to understand the joke so they are interested and will read the story.
“There’s always people who are just going to read the headline,” Bolton said. “It’s just quicker that way.”
Though there is a lot of thought that goes into each headline, the writers are looking for funny stories that are rooted in truth.
“We just trust the writers’ room,” Berkley said. “We’ll follow stupidity wherever it goes.”
In addition to headlines, visuals are very important for the story, the editors said. The graphics department adds a level of depth to each story. Berkley also praised the writing staff.
“Our writers go through hot and cold streaks,” Berkley said. “These are obviously very good writers. Might even say great. They are getting ripped to shreds every day. They have a lot of self-doubt moments, but they ultimately push through it, which makes them admirable and much better writers.”