Learning to Write at America’s Finest News Source

The Onion headline

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.

 

About Ryan McDermott

Ryan McDermott is a journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. He’s held just about every job in a newsroom over the last eight years and has fumbled three attempts at writing a novel. Ryan enjoys listening to Taylor Swift just as much as reading David Foster Wallace and has no problem watching Die Hard while hanging a Robert Motherwell print.

3 Comments

  1. maryschmidt (@maryschmidt) on February 7, 2013 at 9:45 am

    “You can write elegantly about an issue that most people would skip over.” Absolutely! This is one reason I love reading The York Times (a real newspaper); the writers make pretty much anything interesting. And I read about topics that I’d never ordinarily even think about. A recent example: Pigeon mutations in the Tuesday Science section. And the Weds. food section is always a delight. Not only entertaining and educational but also help make me a better writer.

  2. maryschmidt (@maryschmidt) on February 7, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Of course, I’m still working on spelling, content and sentence structure. It’s, of course, The NEW York Times. This further illustrates the value of journalism discipline. Don’t simply slap something up.

  3. brendan doherty on May 10, 2013 at 6:46 am

    York Times Editor/Publisher Finally Gives Up After Losing Bid to Gain Readership of Mary Schmidt.

    York, PA-Editor Publisher Terrence Trumbull has thrown in the towel. Trumbull believes that he can no longer hold out the dream that Mary Schmidt will recognize the publication.

    “We’ve published for over 84 years, and I don’t think that Mary Schmidt has noticed us once,” says Trumbull. “The fact that she corrected her quote above in the note about the Onion demonstrates that, while it might have been enough to keep going when she mentioned us by accident, I think we have to call it a day.”

    The paper, begun in an attempt to court ancestors of Mary Schmidt became the newspaper of record for Schmidt’s family members. Later, Trumbull refocused the newspaper, citing a strategic reorganization in order to more clearly focus on trying to get a single reader, Mary Schmidt.

    “We really were doing our best,” says Trumbull. “We had the story about the pigeon mutations, and we were working to get Mark Bittman to write about restaurant and food options right near where Mary lives. Now, we really know how she feels.”

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