How The Onion Has Changed Over 15 Years
Reviewing the Issues of Dec. 9, 1998, and Dec. 12, 2013
The Onion isn’t what it used to be. What was once a weekly newspaper put together far more like a weekly periodical than you’d expect is now an up-to-the-minute, multiplatform satire machine — and maybe a little worse for wear.
On the other hand, that multiplatform output has brought more jokes than ever, rewritten the public’s perception of our vice president and delivered parodies of morning TV and “Pardon The Interruption” that both captured the excesses and inanities of the formats while actually being entertaining in and of themselves. The Onion has reached more people and done some of its finest work as its legacy print business and mentality has declined.
All that said, two things are clear to me, a reader of The Onion since the 1990s: The Onion is now much more prone to react to real-life events than it is to create its own universe (Biden being the wonderful exception of doing both things at once). And, in a related fashion, the old Onion was in many ways the world’s most precisely crafted, warped replica of the stereotypical local newspaper, and therefore must change.
Local papers, small and large, long had their own style, persona, ticks and eccentricities, personalities, design and a million other things that obscured that they were pretty much the same underneath: Police blotter, local community and political news, “features” sometimes worthy and other times fluff, a bunch of photos, local sports and some opinions by syndicated columnists alongside letters from the readership. Oh, and classifieds and copious advertising.
The Onion mocked every bit of this while building its own inner workings — the ever-common “Area Man” headlines, the local columnists musing about whatever (Smoove is probably my favorite), the USA Today-style inconsequential charts, and so on.
Well, as you may have heard, newspapers are dead, culturally if not otherwise. And so while that doesn’t make The Onion irrelevant, I would argue that it removed much of the structure underpinning its humor. Parody on the Web can be smart and rooted in something, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s unclear if The Onion knows, especially given its recent turnover and move, what that “something” is.
With all this in mind, I wondered if The Onion truly was a different publication back when, and so I dug up the Dec. 9, 1998, issue and thought I’d compare it to this week’s. Neither issue has much politics in it or breaking world news that might have dictated the “news” included in that week’s edition. In other words, each is a reasonably representative sample of a “normal” Onion issue.
We’ve got two good ones to lead off. The 1998 one is a bit light but is exactly the type of workplace minutia story The Onion does so well. The difference to me is that in 2013, the lead story, while also providing a twist on a common story, has a national focus and reacts to the real world (This may be in part because The Onion in 2013 is in Chicago, formerly NYC, while The Onion of 1998 had yet to leave Madison, Wis.). The 1998 story, outside of whatever “Chi-Chi’s” is, is not only a shorter read but is just about timeless:
According to tech-support supervisor Marty Sowell, the 41-year-old Veblen was the only Integrated Systems Management employee not informed of the festive Mexican-themed gathering, held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Plymouth Road Chi-Chi's in Fairfax.
"I personally don't have anything against Bob, but I know that a lot of people around the office find him hard to take," said Sowell, who enjoyed a Super Cinco Sampler and two Chi-Chi's Margarita Grandes at the after-work "Salsabration." "[Receptionist] Marianne [Arbus] thinks Bob may have been trying to ask her out once."
One other thing I enjoy about The Onion is stories where people are seemingly talking to reporters where there’s no rationale for a reporter to be there. The 2013 lead item, unfortunately, reads like what a lot of journalism is these days: A rewritten, albeit bizarro, press release.
News In Brief
I’d say we’re pretty even here. A lot of oddball items that all are thisclose to real-life scenarios, particularly in how the 1998 headlines become regular news stories if you change one word. And that’s the main difference I’d note —some of the 2013 stories try a little too hard, perhaps (the “Hip-Hop Man” appallingly so). Less is more, especially in the “Terrifying Man …” headline. Would “Area Man” have lessened the impact? I don’t think so, and it would have been in the finest Onion tradition.
The Best of the Rest
The 2013 Onion just has so much more content: 43 items, including a daily version of the “American Voices” feature and a dedicated sports section. The 1998 issue has but 18, with no sports content but with two regular columnists and a third guest commentary compared with the 2013 issue’s zero columns of any kind.
I’m not a comedy writer, but I’d imagine crafting a voice through a regular columnist is more difficult than riffing off of real-life events (the 2013 issue contains roughly 13 non-“American Voices” stories, depending on your criteria, that clearly would not exist without real-life events; there are only 3 such stories in the 1998 issue.
This is just a snapshot, but I think we can agree that The Onion’s focus is wider nowadays, more outwardly focused, and driven by content quantity and immediate returns, though the quality isn’t necessarily diminished. There’s a lot to laugh at: “College Coach Accused Of Receiving Payment” is an easy joke but good; “Gun Laws Passed This Year” is good for anyone who likes mocking individual states. But will anyone care or remember, 15 years from now, the slideshows or the one-liners about Week 14 of the NFL?
The 1990s and early 2000s issues of The Onion have plenty of “Hey, look what was going on then!” moments, like the Furby infographic, but there are legions of articles that can make one laugh without having to know what was going on in that week or that year.
If The Onion asked me what the one thing it should be concerned about, I would say that in its urgent need to become a post-print humor source for the masses, it doesn’t forget the types of content that made it timeless. This is easier said than done, of course, but the fact that so many of us are invested in the fate of a little humor outfit suggests that solving this problem is worth a try.