In my second semester of graduate school I got an internship at The Onion because I thought it would be a breeze. I mean, they write funny shit for a living, so I envisioned a combination of the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room and a kegger as the general atmosphere. I was the envy of my fellow students who would be spending the semester writing city council stories in the outer boroughs. My professors (very serious writers who were frequent contributors to The New Yorker and The Atlantic) were not particularly happy and wondered why in the hell I didn’t want an internship at The New York Times.
On my first day, I took the elevator up at 536 Broadway in SoHo and sauntered into The Onion headquarters. But what I found looked more like a well-oiled newsroom than the nerd version of a frat house.
The Onion’s content might be fake, but I got an incredible education in journalism there, better than any traditional newsroom I’ve ever worked in. What most people don’t know is that it’s tougher to write fake news than it is to write real news. Taking a nugget of truth and morphing it into a timely piece of satire takes skill of Swiftian proportions. And with all of that, the writers at The Onion have to know how to write in a traditional news voice. So, take all that you learned in J school about inverted pyramid, ledes and sourcing, and on top of that try to be funny. It’s not easy at all.
A typical day at The Onion starts in the writers’ conference room where most of the staff would throw out timely phrases or ideas and those suggestions would go on a dry erase board. This kind of kickstarted the conversation about what would be written that week. Along with those suggestions, a list of headlines would circulate. The Onion, at least when I was there, allowed freelance contributors to send in headlines for consideration along with headlines written by in-house writers. Then the staff writers would write the actual stories. The headlines were scrutinized both for comedic and journalistic value. One word could change the meaning or make the joke fall flat. It’s that bit of truth in every Onion story that makes the whole thing work.
At a traditional newspaper, a reporter writing a story about a boring city council meeting can let that story be boring and go on with his or her day. All the facts about the zoning variance that nobody cares about are there and the task is fulfilled. At The Onion, no story can be written off. While at a traditional newspaper, a boring story is usually ignored, at The Onion, a bad story falls harder and makes a louder sound than the brilliant ones surrounding it. So the copy is carefully structured and scrutinized down to the word.
It’s telling that more attention is generally paid at a fake newspaper than at most real ones. Traditional journalists might argue this, but every reporter has, from time to time, banged out a story that they cared little about, save getting the facts right.
This made me think more about the real news stories I was writing. That planning board meeting didn’t have to be so boring. Why wasn’t I carefully choosing words, no matter how unimportant the story was? I’m a writer. I should give a shit how my words sound. How did I, at such a young age, already become so desensitized that my news writing had become sterile?
Now, when I’m writing news stories, I think back a lot to my days at The Onion. It was a blast throwing around funny headlines, but when it came down to it, those writers really cared about the words. And that’s more than I can say about some real journalists. Whenever I hear a fellow reporter complain about how much he or she hates writing about seemingly boring topics, I think about how an Onion writer would tackle the task. As reporters we must stay within the bounds of facts, but let’s face it, some of the most bizarre and amazing stories are true. Two residents fighting over the zoning variance of a fence can be comedic gold that you don’t have to fake.
It doesn’t always have to be a slog. You can write elegantly about an issue that most people would skip over. And with that comes more readers. A topic is really only as boring as the way in which we write.