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Layers of the Onion


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“Mendota Monster Mauls Madison,” the Onion proclaimed on the front of its first issue, distributed at UW-Madison in 1988. Today, the paper satirizes everything from sports to world politics. Between the print and Web editions, it reaches 3 million people worldwide.

“I still get a kick out of that feeling of being on the subway and you see someone reading the Onion,” said graphics editor Mike Loew, who joined the staff as a writer in 1993.

Loew, along with story editor Todd Hanson, will talk about their experiences at The Onion at Thursday night’s forum, “Inside the Onion,” at 7:30 p.m. in Zorn Arena.

Senior Brandon Barrette, who plans to attend the forum, said he enjoys the Onion’s satirical take on world events.

“I usually read stories that are relevant to what’s going on,” he said.

But the Onion is more than just a joke paper, Loew and others said. It evolved from a black-and-white college publication to a nationwide force, bringing a different take on news to its growing audience.

Fountain of truth erupts from Wisconsin

Two Madison students, Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, started producing the Onion in a dorm room in 1988 as a parody of Keck’s hometown paper, the Oshkosh Northwestern.

“At the time, (the Northwestern) was really bad, and the headlines were unwittingly hilarious,” Keck said from his office at The Stranger, the alternative newsweekly he founded in Seattle.

Two theories circulate among the Onion staff about the origin of the paper’s name.

“Our editor likes to say that it was newspaper slang in the 1930s for a juicy, multi-layered story,” Loew said. But, confirming the more popular theory, Keck said he and Johnson ate a lot of onion sandwiches during the summer they spent planning the paper because it was all they could afford. Johnson’s uncle, Nells Johnson, suggested calling the paper “The Onion.”

The Onion started as a black-and-white tabloid with a small local circulation. Assistant professor of journalism Jeanie Geurink, who taught at Madison at the time, said that while the Onion was enormously popular, she thought it wouldn’t last. But, slowly, it continued to grow.

In 1995, the Onion went to a color format, and Loew became the graphics editor.

He said the paper expanded out of Madison slowly – first to Milwaukee, then for a short time to the Champaign-Urbana, Ill., area, then to Chicago. In 2001, the editorial staff moved to New York City. Loew said that’s when the Onion really took off. He attributes the growth to aggressive business leadership.

“It’s been cool, you, know, it’s kind of fun to look back at where we came from,” he said.

The Onion has offices in seven cities. It has released 17 annual collections of stories, plus three other books, and its own 60-second newscast, Onion Radio News, which is broadcast online and on radio stations nationwide. Loew said the Onion’s latest project is a world atlas, which will take a satirical look at every country on the planet. Its release is slated for this fall.

Humor can be serious business

Not all Onion readers get the joke.

“Plenty of people every week get fooled by it,” Loew said, “Especially when it gets forwarded on the Internet and it loses its context.”

When the Onion ran a story about Harry Potter enticing kids to worship Satan, people with religious objections to the series passed the article around their church groups.

“They were holding it up as an expose of the satanic Harry Potter phenomenon,” Loew said.

He added that the paper once told of a Chinese woman who gave birth to quintuplets, saying the government gave her a week to choose which one to keep. Loew said he got several calls from people wanting to adopt the rejected babies and save them from their impending demise.

The tone of the Onion’s political satire has changed over the past two administrations. Former President Bill Clinton was easy to make fun of, Loew said, because he was such a “chameleon,” always trying to appeal to different groups of people.

“Bush is definitely darker and heavier,” he said. “Clinton was just a big, fat kid who had a smile on his face.”

Painting Bush as a buffoon got old pretty fast, he said. Bush and his administration require more “hardy” satire. And in a time when people are sent off to war, he said, it’s not always easy.

“It was a lighter time, you know, the Clinton years,” he said.

Fake news illuminates real life

Geurink said she has never been a fan of the Onion. Parody news was a new concept when the Onion first came out, she said, and she didn’t really get it.

“What really evolved was this new way of spreading news,” she said.

Loew said that in a way, parody news can create a more authentic picture than the real news can.

He credits the Onion, in part, for the popularity of what Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” would call “fake news.”

“Daily Show” executive producer Ben Karlin and one of the show’s head writers are former Onion employees, Loew said.

Barrette said even fake news can give readers a new perspective on a real story.

“I think it helps us to realize that we need to get our news from many different sources,” he said.

Loew said story ideas can come from anywhere – current events, daily happenings or observations of other people.

“You just sort of twist it, make a clever observation about what everyone goes through, try to make it universal,” he said.

Parody, he said, gives room to tell truths and make observations that wouldn’t fly in straight news. He said the beauty of the Onion is that it puts in print the things people talk about at the water cooler or at the bar, taking public relations and the mainstream media with a dose of “healthy skepticism.”

“You try to tell the truth for once,” he said, “to try to cut through all the BS and obfuscation and tell people what’s really going on.”

Sophomore Ernest Ruiz, who is attending the forum tonight, said parody news helps get people who don’t follow real news to get interested in current events.

Though she still hasn’t read the Onion or watched “The Daily Show” for herself, Geurink agreed.

“I think it’s here to stay,” she said of parody news. “I embrace it, and I support it.”

Loew said that at the forum tonight, he and Todd Hanson will tell some good stories and some good jokes. But he wouldn’t elaborate further.

“That’ll have to wait til we pop up onstage,” he said. “I don’t want to give it all away.”

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Layers of the Onion