Earlier this year, Univision Communications Inc. bought a controlling stake in satirical media company The Onion. At the time of the announcement, Univision’s chief news and digital officer Isaac Lee explained the strategy behind the deal as a way of using comedy to tap into millennial audiences and to help frame the 2016 presidential election. The move came at a time when The Onion was still reeling from a nosedive in revenue that forced the company to relocate its New York City headquarters to Chicago in 2012. The Onion proved it was far from invincible to the same wanes that face the news outlets it satirizes. But like those same news outlets, The Onion also stands to inject new life into its brand with an event like a presidential election cycle—and, oh, what a cycle it’s been.
So if Univision put up the much needed cash, how is The Onion delivering on its end of the deal during such a historic election?
In 2013, The Onion axed its print newspaper to double down on digital—and now, thanks in large part to Univision, The Onion has the leeway to experiment with video in a way that’s challenging the tone the company has long established.
"We've basically decided not to do cable news anymore because it doesn't feel as relevant," says Matt Klinman, head writer of Onion Video. "There's obviously still cable news, but even the clips from cable that you see aren't the same monolithic voice that it used to be."
David Iscoe, senior writer at Onion Studios, adds, "One reason cable worked is it felt like it was an authoritative form where if you saw something on cable you felt like it was true. And as you watch something that looks like it's true, it's easier for you to imagine that it is true and you get immersed in the joke. But if that's not part of how you experience the world anymore and it's not your source of truth, then we lose that."
The video team at The Onion has been experimenting with cut downs of mock cable news to resemble the current landscape of bite-sized, shareable content. They’ve also been dabbling in tighter turnarounds for video, which has been an exercise in maximizing The Onion’s brand of comedy in the space of ephemeral political culture. For example, the videos from Republican and Democratic National Conventions were processed an hour later with satirical lower-thirds that aimed to capture what the people on stage speaking were really thinking.
"The idea [was that] you can watch the speech but you’ll get it with a little bit of Onion commentary to go along with it to help it go down easier," Klinman says.
Cranking out content with such a quick turnaround is actually a relatively foreign concept for The Onion—the editorial and video team hold a considerable amount of pride in generally eschewing the hot takes for something more fleshed out.
"Our process is not very reactive even if we try to have things in a timely manner. Our frame for thinking about it is how does the world work? What are the patterns we have seen? It's much broader than the moment," Iscoe says. "If you go more abstract into human behavior, people do the same things again and again and they will keep doing things and the same patterns will replicate themselves throughout time. So how can we get that into a form that's abstract enough to apply beyond this one event but specific enough that people can see it clearly?"
It’s a strategy that somewhat runs counter to the prevailing logic of getting in on the conversation while the conversation is happening. With resources bankrolled by Univision, The Onion has a bit of luxury in expanding their content in a way that can hold its own in the tsunami of news competing for clicks while at the same time maintaining the brand’s DNA.
"We all believe in satire and trying to enhance the national conversation. We don't want to be portrayed always as this joke site because in our world we are a newspaper presenting truths about the world," says Ben Berkley, managing editor of The Onion. "That's what drives this intellectual torture that we put ourselves through where where we're going through truly thousands of headlines every week. Everything is done to try to not just fall into what the rest of the comedy world does, which is generally take the easiest or quickest take. That world is very oversaturated."
Aside from adapting their workflow to be able to inject their content into trending topics during this election cycle, the team at The Onion also had to learn how to curb its sharp tongue to appease advertisers who are wary or entering the divisive fracas.
This past summer, a major beer company approached The Onion to potentially partner on its election coverage.
"They got cold feet and decided to put all their money into the NFL," says Rick Hamann, chief creative officer at The Onion. "You can tell just based on the intense divisiveness of this election cycle that it’s difficult for marketers and advertisers to get involved with any political coverage, let alone The Onion’s special brand of political coverage."
7-Eleven worked with The Onion during the 2012 election for sponsored content that included a campaign where you could display your allegiance to a political party with two styles of coffee cups. The accompanying ads leaned heavily on biting satire. Although 7-Eleven is partnering with The Onion on a similar campaign this year, the convenient store chain made it clear that they wanted to keep things more neutral for 2016—there’s even a "Speak Up" cup in addition to "Democrat" and "Republican" for those people feeling a tad apathetic.
"The same exact brand, the same exact cup-based advertising, but you can see that even though 7-Eleven wanted be involved in something along the lines of politics they really shied away from the actual coverage," Hamann says. "Four years ago we were able to show the candidates—we were able to have a much sharper wit and the 7-Eleven folks this year still wanted to help support it but asked us to dial that back."
Ultimately, the 2016 election coverage has created an obstacle course for The Onion—they’ve had to learn how to pivot with video and neutralize the vitriol surging through the nation for advertisers. Yet the team is fully aware that said pivot should never be 180 degrees.
"[The Onion has] been around for nearly 30 years. It's special because it doesn't pander and it's special because it holds true to its character. And it's special because it's maintained this impossible standard of quality," Berkley says. "So really as we're looking at this election it's been our ultimate goal to evolve the way The Onion is packaged and to produce more and be more reactive like every site that we're parodying. We want to do that all while changing as little as possible about the basic process and the thoughtfulness and the rigor [of The Onion.]"
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos: Kyle Thompson for Fast Company;