By Raymond Arke | Asst. News Editor
In a world where real news seems surreal, the Onion, one of the best known satirical news sites, would like to let you know it is still on the cutting edge of funny. On March 24, two writers from (self-proclaimed) “America’s finest news source” gave a talk at the Byham Theater describing how the Onion works.
The two writers were Seena Vali, sports editor and senior writer, and Matt Spina, staff writer. To start off their presentation, they took the audience through the mythological origin story of the newspaper, starting in 1765 (it didn’t) and highlighting a variety of headlines that lampooned various historical events, like the sinking of the Titanic and the moon landing.
Vali and Spina also made sure to include that the Onion boasts strong coverage of the Pittsburgh area with their imaginary “8.3 million reporters” in the city. They presented a few Pittsburgh sports-centric headlines the Onion had run, such as “Steelers Wear Patch to Honor Victims of Rothlisberger,” which left the audience howling in laughter.
The presentation then moved into a humorous, but real look into how the Onion, as a newsroom, operates. Every one of their stories starts with a headline. Each day, the writers sit around a table and pitch various headline ideas at each other. Everyone collaborates and then pick the best ones.
The headlines are the most important part of an article, Spina said.
“[Headlines] are the first thing people see. It’s where everything is,” he said.
Of all the ideas that get floated, only a few actually make it onto the site. Vali said that around 1500 headlines are pitched a week and only about two percent get made into articles.
Once an idea makes it past the headline stage, the entire writing process is extremely collaborative, the two writers explained. The story is assigned to one writer, but then goes through two reviewed drafts before it heads off to the editor-in-chief.
Since so many contribute to any given article, the Onion has never attributed its content to any one writer.
“It’s a no-ego environment,” Spina said.
The presentation also addressed reader feedback, both the real and confused. Some articles, like one describing the fictional Westminster Dog Fighting Show, received 1,300 emails, many complaining about the humor.
Even though the Onion is well known, “a depressing amount” of people still get fooled, Spina said.
One of the Onion’s more famous complaints came from a 2013 article they posted. Titled “When You’re Feeling Low, Just Remember I’ll Be Dead in About 15 or 20 Years,” the fictional opinion piece was attributed to Donald Trump. For their efforts, Spina and Vali recount how the Onion received a letter from Trump’s legal counsel demanding the article come down saying it “goes beyond defamation.” It is still online.
Other famous examples of the Onion being taken seriously was in 2012, when a North Korean news source ran the Onion article that proclaimed Kim Jong Un the sexiest man alive. Both writers noted they still go re-read it to cheer themselves up.
The presentation ended with a question-and-answer session, where the two writers shared more insider tips.
When asked about how the Onion comes up with the fake names in the stories, the writers said that each person had their own method. The Editor-in-Chief, for instance, goes to the IMDB page for “Top Gun” and mixes-and-matches names from the production team list.
For anyone that’d be interested in writing satire, Spina and Vali said that any type of person can do it.
“There’s no one path that brings you to the Onion … Our editor-in-chief used to work at the Federal Reserve in Boston” said Vali, who graduated with a math degree. Spina has a degree in history.
The talk was part of the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival which ran from March 24-26.