Editor: Incompetent staff reason for Onion’s success

Jodi Genshaft

Writers of the weekly satirical newspaper The Onion are “special-needs, Generation X slacker types” with Paxil and Ritalin addictions, editor in chief Rob Siegel told a packed Fisk Auditorium on Monday.

The 30-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native drew tear-jerking laughter from students and faculty as he peeled back the layers of The Onion, known for its twisted humor and outrageous headlines such as “Taco Bell Launches New ‘Morning After’ Burrito.”

“We don’t really draw a line,” Siegel said. “We try to be as offensive as possible. … There’s no subject we really shy away from.”

Siegel began his lecture with spoofed front pages and mock broadcasts from the bestelling Onion book “Our Dumb Century,” including satirical headline for the Titanic sinking, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg.”

The Onion’s Latin motto, translated “You are dumb,” captures the newspaper’s libertarian, anti-stupidity views, Siegel said. Still, satirically clueless readers send angry e-mails – primarily from America Online accounts – complaining about the newspaper’s insensitivity, he added.

“AOL is the McDonald’s of Internet Service Providers,” he said. “McDonald’s has a lower clientele than Wendy’s and AOL has a lower clientele than Mindspring. So we get the dumb people.”

Leaving off bylines from stories gives readers the impression the articles are “not just produced by fallible human beings.”

Revived in 1988 by undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Onion now boasts a circulation of 300,000 and nearly 1.5 million online readers. The Midwestern-born writers move their offices to New York City in 2000.

The newspaper’s vegetable namesake is shrouded in myth, Siegel said. The name refers to either a “really juicy story” or Onion publisher Emeritus T. Herman Zweibel, whose name means “onion” in German. Zweibel founded The Onion in 1871, Siegel said.

“We haven’t heard from him in a while,” Siegel said, adding that if he returns from orbit, “We’ll find a space for him.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan with a history degree, Siegel followed his then-girlfriend to Madison. He began working for The Onion at age 22. Siegel quickly became editor “through the stunning lack of ambition that our staff had.”

Like his staff, Siegel had no formal training in sketch comedy or journalism.

“I am in fact a real journalist,” he said. “We are a real newspaper. We have deadlines, story meetings, … rigorous fact checking. What the hell is so funny?”

Siegel also poked fun at the tuition prices journalism students pay.

“I can use words like pullquote, jump, hairline – you know, all that stuff that you pay $30,000 a year to learn,” he said.

Unlike Ivy League humorists for publications such as the Harvard Lampoon, several Onion writers never went to college. Instead, its staff shuffled from one odd job to the next, including door-to-door vacuum cleaner sales, dishwashing and nursing-home care, Siegel said.

Now the writers have a movie deal with Miramax Film Corp. The studio agreed to purchase two story ideas pitched by the newspaper’s writers in the next year.

Despite its controversial subjects, Siegel said The Onion has never been sued.

Writers often craft stories around drug and religion humor, Siegel said.

“People who take drugs love to read jokes about drugs,” he said.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the writers gave thought to offensiveness and tried to be respectful, Siegel said. But The Onion returned to newsstands on Sept. 26 because “we had to pay the bills.”

“Even in the time of tragedy … you can say things with humor,” Siegel said. “Laughter and humor is a natural part of human coping mechanisms.”

The Onion-loving students in attendance said Siegel’s speech was hilarious.

“I loved the e-mails from angry Onion readers who didn’t quite understand the tone of the paper,” said Jim Wagner, a Weinberg freshman. “He put a very interesting spin on journalism and journalistic experience.”