The Onion: An interview with 'America's Finest News Source'

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Onion's offices in Soho, New York City.
Image: David Shankbone.

Despite the hopes of many University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) students, The Onion was not named after their student center. "People always ask questions about where the name The Onion came from," said President Sean Mills in an interview with David Shankbone, "and when I recently asked Tim Keck, who was one of the founders, he told me the name—I’ve never heard this story about ‘see you at the un-yun’—he said it was literally that his Uncle said he should call it The Onion when he saw him and Chris Johnson eating an onion sandwich. They had literally just cut up the onion and put it on bread." According to Editorial Manager Chet Clem, their food budget was so low when they started the paper that they were down to white bread and onions.

Long before The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Heck and Johnson envisioned a publication that would parody the news—and news reporting—when they were students at UW in 1988. Since its inception, The Onion has become a veritable news parody empire, with a print edition, a website that drew 5,000,000 unique visitors in the month of October, personal ads, a 24 hour news network, podcasts, and a recently launched world atlas called Our Dumb World. Al Gore and General Tommy Franks casually rattle off their favorite headlines (Gore's was when The Onion reported he and Tipper were having the best sex of their lives after his 2000 Electoral College defeat). Many of their writers have gone on to wield great influence on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's news parody shows.

And we are sorry to break the news to all you amateur headline writers: your submissions do not even get read.

Below is David Shankbone's interview with Chet Clem and Sean Mills about the news empire that has become The Onion.

How The Onion writes an issue

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

David Shankbone How do you decide on the stories?

Chet Clem, Editorial Manager: We do everything backwards here. We start with the headline and then flesh out the story, as opposed to The New York Times, which writes the issue and then has a headline editor to make it snappy. We start with a joke. We read about six hundred to eight hundred headline ideas on a Monday coming from our staff and a small group of writers outside—a contributing core. We whittle that down on a Monday to about a hundred, come in Tuesday and pick an issue and brainstorm with the whole editorial staff; all fifteen of us. Then we assign a headline to a specific writer to execute. We go through a number of drafts and then have the editors pick it up and assign the photojournalism aspect of it to our graphic design team, who adds the visual aspect to it. The editors punch it up over the last couple of days and then it goes out over the Internet and into the print edition.

DS: So you don’t have writers coming up with a story and headline, but you will instead have a team of writers choosing the best headlines and then assign it to a particular writer who was not necessarily involved?

Chet: Writers will occasionally write their own headlines, but we come up with a list of 15 or 20 headline ideas, what we think will make a good story and then we assign it based upon what people’s writing strengths are. We have some people who are great at politics; some people we give all the war stuff to; someone who is in charge of the Britney Spears story of the week—the entertainment stories.

The headlines

Editorial Manager Chet Clem and President Sean Mills.
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: It seems like some publications, like AM New York, always have a Britney Spears story; is there anything similar with The Onion where they continually revisit a topic or person?

Chet: No, not necessarily. We are a little less reactionary. We tend to target the zeitgeist more than anything. We’ll hit the mainstream media’s portrayal of the entertainment world as much as we’ll hit characters in the entertainment world. We’ll attack People Magazine’s coverage of Britney as much as Britney.

DS: In an interview with Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert said of his time at Second City that they had decided on not doing political humor and, in particular, hackneyed political humor such as Ted Kennedy drinking jokes. They felt it was overdone, mean-spirited and not funny. Do your writers have similar rules of thumb?

Chet: We don’t have any rules or known lines we won’t cross. We have an understanding based upon having the same writers in the back room for years, and those writers training the new writers as they come in. There is an understanding in the room. If it makes the room laugh, it probably ends up in the paper. One example is we ran an article a couple of years back that was, “No Jennifer Lopez News Today.” That was our reaction to all of the J-Lo stuff. We weren’t going to touch on her dress, or who she was dating. Just the fact that those were the lead stories for so many days, in everything from US Weekly to Time Magazine.
Sean Mills, President: I think it’s important we have an original take on those things. I think it’s similar to what Colbert said to Terry Gross. We don’t want to just traffic in the same 24 hour news cycle. There’s a 24 hour comedy news cycle that exists on all the late night talk shows. The Onion has a different creative process where we are not trying to hit everything in the 24 hours and on the same notes. We want an original take. If we choose to do something on J-Lo, it’s going to be something like that, something less obvious.

DS: When you are going through the headlines, is it just you guys sitting around trying to crack each other up?

Chet: It’s the least amount of fun possible. Nah, I’m kidding. It’s actually more businesslike than you’d imagine. It’s very much like you are trying to make the room laugh, but the room has been a sort of captive audience for many many years now, so it takes a lot to make the room laugh.
Sean: The best analogy I’ve heard is when Rob Siegel, former editor-in-chief, likened it to wine tasting. It’s this quiet experience where you are trying to soak in what the joke is, have we done anything like this, is it a unique take, what are other people doing. It’s sort of like, “Hmmm…that’s hilarious. That’s really really funny” rather than people falling off their chairs. It’s more subdued than I think what most people would expect.

DS: It’s more analytical and clinical?

Sean: Not all the time, but it can’t be a laugh a minute.
Chet: Yeah, what you see on Studio 60 and 30 Rock, those are scripted writers rooms. Everything is funny there. There's a lot of unfunny jokes that are told in a back room, that's why they stay and die in that back room and don’t go out in The Onion.

DS: If someone is continually telling unfunny jokes, do you eventually fire them?

Chet: That’s why we are on the 10th floor to make sure they die when they get kicked out. It can be a real mess on Broadway.
Sean: By the time you get to be a writer for The Onion, though, the odds are you are going to succeed because we make it pretty challenging. You go through quite a bit. You will already have demonstrated a pretty long successful record of writing stuff for us before you will be in that room on a daily basis. But if somebody wakes up one morning and suddenly no longer is funny, then yeah, head first, out the door as quickly as possible, and as sadistically as possible.

The features and the columnists

DS: Who are the people on the street, the “American Voices”?

Sean: Each one of them has their own magnificent story, but they are mainly people from back in the early days of Madison where The Onion started. One guy’s a UPS driver who came by the office; another one was someone they randomly pulled off the street. But they go way back in The Onion. Chet might know more.
Chet: Way back to the Madison days and they were literally six people on the street that one day, and we have used them ever since.

DS: They are such a perfect representation of a broad spectrum of people, that it’s funny that you found them all randomly in just one day.

Chet: I wasn’t there at the time, but they were people around the office or around downtown Madison. The UPS driver, for instance, was a guy who always made deliveries to the office, and he happened to come by right when they were shooting and agreed to do the photo. He still works for UPS and still lives in Madison and was the subject of a feature in the UPS Teamsters magazine about that face in The Onion…our UPS guy, still at UPS and still in Madison.

DS: Have you heard if it has affected their lives?

Sean: There have been a few pieces that I’ve read that people have done research and talked to a lot of them, and most of them are pretty delighted about it and they hear about it all the time. There are six takes on it, but most of it is pretty positive.
Columnist Herbert Kornfeld was murdered in an episode of white-on-white violence. "There was almost a Notorious B.I.G.-like upset [amongst readers]," according to Chet Clem.
Image source: The Onion.

DS: Are there certain columnists who are reader favorites? Are there columnists where you receive consistently positive or consistently negative responses to?

Sean: From what I have seen, it’s pretty consistently positive for all of them. The only negative reaction we have gotten is one of our columnists was unfortunately killed this year, tragically, so a lot of people—
Chet: Herbert Kornfeld was killed this past summer.

DS: How did he die?

Chet: He was killed in an episode of white-on-white violence.
Sean: He was accounts receivable and he was pretty hardcore.
Chet: He died at work at Midstate Office Supply. He was struck down, leaving us with a hole in our editorial staff.

DS: You had a big reaction from the readers upset that Herbert Kornfeld was dead?

Sean: Yeah, people get pretty attached. A lot of these columnists have been writing for us ten plus years.
Chet: Some of them have a huge following, there was almost a Notorious B.I.G.-like upset. They really responded to his death. A lot of calls of condolence, there were movements across the country. A lot of flowers.
Sean: A lot of people wearing "Mourn Ya Til I Join Ya" t-shirts. His memory will be alive forever at The Onion.

DS: So there is no columnist that people write in and say that they aren’t funny, or that they are boring—

Sean: We have an editorial cartoon we have introduced in the last year that tends to get a lot of heat—

DS: Kelly?

Sean: That is Kelly. He has a very unique take on what is going on in the world, and it does tend to upset some people, but that’s the job of an editorial cartoonist, to be a provocateur.
Chet: That’s right.

DS: Kelly is actually Ward Sutton, correct?

Sean: It might be…I don’t know…
Chet: It’s Kelly. As a newspaper, it’s our responsibility to give equal voice to everyone, so we don’t shut out one viewpoint just because he is controversial.

DS: For a long time, that cartoon confused me, which perhaps speaks to the humor of it. I thought it was a real right-wing Christian Zionist syndicated cartoonist who truly exists and that you all were putting it in The Onion out of a sense of irony.

Sean: We do have one cartoon that runs in the paper called The Leftersons, which is a syndicated cartoon from a right wing guy who writes about this lefty family and all the trouble they get in for being so far to the left. But no, Kelly is unique to The Onion.

The photojournalism

The Onion's photojournalists: "They are wizards."
Image source: The Onion.

DS: How does your graphics department find the people for news stories and come up with the images?

Sean: We’ve always had a two person graphics team and it has always been about—depending on the graphic—going out and finding the right person or creating the right situation. Sometimes taking an original image to a little Photoshop photojournalism to create the right photo and using the photos that are out there.

DS: Are the images created using professional models or people on the street?

Sean: Always people on the street and never professional models. There’s always that element of reality to it.

DS: How do you approach people? Do you ask them if they want to be in an Onion article?

Chet: Everyone in this office and our other Onion office in the city has been in the paper at least once. Most of their roommates, siblings, loved ones, neighbors, will always end up in there some time. We usually pull them from friends and family of The Onion. A lot of our Op-Ed headshots are people who have come to The Onion. Our photographers will grab them and ask them to pose for some headshots and tell them they’ll end up in The Onion some day. We don’t really use any professional network. It’s casual—people who like The Onion and know us.

DS: One of my favorites is of a troubled teen whose parents are always arguing and it shows them shooting the double bird. So your graphics department will set up the scene and direct them to do that?

Sean: It could be that, or it could be that they take her pictures and juxtapose it in the photo. It’s directed, though, to get the right effect.
Chet: Or it could be an image of a girl who we have had on file, and she’ll be perfect so then we’ll just get someone in the office to shoot the double bird and Photoshop those hands in. They are wizards; I just enjoy watching our crack photojournalism squad work.

What The Onion will not publish

DS: How do you decide when going through the headlines what will be fleshed out as a full story and what goes into the “News in Headlines” section?

Chet: Just general writers room feel, what people think needs a full-length story to cover it, and what’s just a one-off funny headline with a photo of a person. There are no real set guidelines of what makes a top story for us, and what makes a neb, it’s just the general support of the staff behind it.
The Furby will never make it into The Onion.
Image: DO'Neil.

DS: What are some topics you have come across that people almost always say, “Oohh, let’s not do that, that’s going into territory we don’t want to go into”?

Chet: Well, we do have a list of no-no words of things that just keep coming up that we refuse to print anything about. There are always some areas where there is a line you don’t want to cross. We definitely push that line hard and continuously.

DS: What are some of those?

Chet: There will always be the big item controversial issues: gay rights, abortion, the war in Iraq, pedophilia. As long as the joke lands on the right person, then we are okay with it.

DS: What are your no-no words?

Chet: It’s a written, top-secret list. I’m afraid I can’t share it with you.

DS: Can you give us two?

Chet:Thesis” and “Furby” are both on there.

DS: Why would Furby be on there?

Chet: Again, top secret list. It’s just one of the no-no words.
Sean: It’s not like ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘cunnilingus.’ This is a totally different type of no-no that has a logic and algorithm all to its own.
Chet: We can’t say ‘Fuck’ in a front page headline. We’ve been told that by the U.S. Postal Service.

Reactions to Onion stories

DS: When your stories are taken as real—such as your story about the child who, after reading Harry Potter, decided to practice magic since she found out the Bible is just a bunch of ‘boring lies’—

The Onion's satirical story about children turning to Satanism after reading Harry Potter books was forwarded around the Internet by some Christians as a real story.
Image source: The Onion.
Chet: “Congress threatens to leave DC unless new capitol is built” was run verbatim by a Chinese news agency. With the picture and everything, literally with our illustration.

DS: Do you do anything about that or do you think it’s just hysterical?

Chet: We’re happy to have our content syndicated by real newspapers in that manner. I want to say it was a newspaper in Beijing. Somebody pointed it out to them and their response was not to print a correction, but just to say that some newspapers in America make money by printing lies.

DS: Is there any one group that does not like The Onion? Evangelicals? Gays? Any particular subculture?

Chet: I think we’re equal-opportunity offenders. We aren’t going to target one group because we don’t want people picketing outside the office. We target everyone.

DS: Do you ever receive hate mail?

Chet: Every now and then. We’re generally not bombarded by it.

DS: What is generally the theme of those letters?

Sean: Do you know what I think it is? It’s whatever affects that person. So it’s like, “I love it when you make a joke about murder or rape, but if you talk about cancer, well my brother has cancer and that’s not funny to me.” Or someone else can say, “Cancer’s hilarious, but don’t talk about rape because my cousin got raped.” I’m using extreme examples, but whatever it is, if it affects somebody personally they tend to be more sensitive about it. But because we are equal opportunity, we can’t stop doing that. The best is we wrote a story—did you ever see the Police Academy when the officer gets thrown off his motorcycle after he brakes really hard and his head goes up a horse’s ass, and he died? We wrote an Op-Ed about that scene that was, “That’s not funny, my brother died that way.” That was sort of speaking to how people are offended by things that touch them personally somehow.
Chet: Almost every piece of hate mail starts with the line, “Usually I love The Onion, but this time you’ve gone too far…” We responded to that with, “Normally I love your pornographic website, but this time you’ve gone too far…” Someone will always be offended by something.

DS: Do you get any reaction from public figures and politicians?

Chet: They are always in the public sphere so they are usually used to worse things being written about them all the time.
Sean: We get a lot of positive feedback from politicians who seem to get and enjoy the comedy. In some ways, if they show up in The Onion it’s kind of a badge of honor. We had a meeting with Al Gore maybe about a year ago or so, and he was reeling off his favorite Onion headlines that were written about Al Gore. I think his favorite was, after he lost the election we wrote a story about how Al and Tipper Gore were having the best sex of their lives. He referenced it and he said he gets all the headlines sent from people.

DS: Did he say that story was spot on?

Sean: He didn’t get into too much detail, which was fortunate. After the Iraq War we had a story about Tommy Franks leaves the army to focus on solo bombing projects, and he quoted to The Washington Post and others that it was his favorite news coverage ever about him.
Chet: We just launched a print edition in DC this year, and the launch party was co-hosted by Grover Norquist and Russ Feingold. So if there is ever a better example of our bipartisan appeal I can’t think of it.

The Presidential Seal

DS: Speaking of federal issues, what is the status on the use of the Presidential Seal?

Chet: The U.S. Postal Service is actually the only federal authority that governs us. We have actually been allowed to use the Presidential Seal since [it was raised as an issue]. Our response was that we felt the federal government had much bigger issues on their hands that the President’s counsel should be focused on.

DS: But you actually did ask formal approval to use the seal. Did that come through or did it just die in the water?

Chet: We did ask for formal approval; we fundamentally weren’t aware of it at the time it was pointed out to us, but we did go back and get approval for it.

DS: So you actually received approval?

Sean: You know, I think, uh, that they were trying to put together on the spot a Federal Emergency Management Agency that week, and that might have gotten in the way. And then was it that Scooter Libby got indicted? Yeah, so I think it’s probably on the bottom of some pile in Washington, but no.

DS: You have always asserted that you don’t need formal approval to use it in parody; that you were only asking for approval as a courtesy?

Sean: Well, I don’t know about the legal side of it, but parody is generally covered and protected by the First Amendment and it is clear what our editorial mission is to our readers, so we did not feel it conflicted with that in any way, so we felt the First Amendment protected us to use it.
Chet: And whoever was in charge of filing that paperwork has probably since resigned from the White House, so…

The Onion's readership

DS: What is your readership? Since you are a free weekly without hard subscribers, and then you have the Internet site and podcasts, how do you determine your readership?

Sean: Our website has never been more popular. Just on The Onion’s website in October we had over five million unique users as measured by Omniture, which is our in-house measurement system. The AV Club, which is an entertainment site owned by The Onion, had over a million for the first time. So our readership has never been stronger. In print we put out 720,000 newspapers every week, and that readership is much harder to manage. Generally speaking, it is assumed that at least three people read each issue on average, so it’s over 2,000,000 there, conservatively. Every joke that gets written in The Onion—sorry, every news story—is probably read by 7,000,000 people, somewhere around there.

DS: Similar to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, your readership has to be informed to be in on the jokes. How do you feel about being seen as a real news source?

Sean: First of all, we enjoy being the most important newspaper in the world and being a trusted news source like that. But I do think we have a really smart readership, so if we can help them learn about the world, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s not necessarily the mission we set out to do, but if that happens in the process that’s a wonderful thing.
Chet: We are able to bring some pretty horrific things into the light in a manner that opens it up for millions of people, whereas they may otherwise shy away from it.

Future features

DS: You guys are always coming out with new features, whether it is a podcast, a newscast, a sports section. Is there anything under development right now?

Sean: Yeah, we’re going to soon launch our world atlas on-line. We just debuted Our Dumb World, our new book, and it will then be brought to life on the web and you can access a lot of that content through Google Maps and Google Earth, so that will be cool. In January we will be launching our election coverage for 2008, called War for the White House. That’s pretty exciting.
Chet: We’re really branching out. We’ve covered local and national news for a long time, so we have now branched out to the world with this book. It will give us a chance to bring trusted, non-biased journalism to every nation in the world. I know in Zimbabwe, for example, most of their media is controlled by the government, so they are really looking for a solid newspaper they can trust.

Handling national tragedies

DS: When things like the September 11 attacks happen, how do you gauge when is the time to start addressing it through parody?

Chet: It’s too soon to answer that question, even! It’s before my time, so I’m hesitant to answer that.

DS: I mean anything that is a national horror, like Hurricane Katrina.

Chet: The issue with Katrina is that it was Mother Nature’s fault, but it was the administration’s failure, which was as damaging as the hurricane. So quite quickly government failure and stupidity came to light that needed to be reported upon. We’re going to have a much faster response time to something like that, than something that is like a terrorist attack that catches us out of the blue.
Sean: We can talk about issues that are sensitive in a way that aren’t—you have to look at what you are talking about. When you are talking about Katrina, you are talking about the government’s reaction. When you are talking about September 11, if you read our September 11 issues you see, “Bush urges calm and restraint amongst nation’s ballad singers,” or “Woman doesn’t know what to do so she bakes an American flag.” There was a lot of art to it. With a lot of creative stuff and comedy it’s just gut. It’s the instincts of a really smart and creative editorial staff who have to know both what the take is and how and when to approach it. September 11 was unique. Generally, there’s not a lot of hesitation to approach things. It’s more do we have a take that is consistent with what The Onion does, and once that comes to light we publish it.

DS: It’s more of an instinctual process that you all go through?

Chet: Yeah, it is in some way a responsibility to respond to some of this stuff. Fox News is not going to go dark after a big national tragedy and just wait it out until they feel it’s “okay” to respond and report on it. There is going to be a little more of a delay because we are obviously a weekly newspaper—daily online—we’re not part of the 24 hour news cycle, but it’s just instinct. Trust your gut to know when is the right time, when is too soon, and is the joke on the right target.
Sean: And if other fake news sources, like Fox News, are going after it then we have to respond. It’s just the responsibility we have.

The Onion movie and Onion News Network

DS: What is the status of The Onion movie?

Sean: Here’s the scoop on that, because I think there is actually a lot of misinformation about it on Wikipedia. There was a movie that was made seven years ago, it was shot, it was a sketch comedy film. One of the producers was David Zucker and it was made with Fox New Regency and Fox Searchlight; they were partners in on it, with some first time directors. The movie was shot and the original film was viewed and it was determined by the studio and everyone involved that the material just wasn’t working. They wanted to go out and shoot more, but they needed more money and wanted to start it over. We worked with them to help make that happen, and it became an on-and-off-again project for years and years. Basically, it’s a dead project; however the studio might at some point might try to put something out on DVD to try to recoup what happened. So if it ever comes out, it would come out on home video—

DS: And quietly—

Sean: Yeah, probably quietly. Those are the facts of it. There were lots of creative people involved and lots of different opinions on what worked and what didn’t work, and how to proceed, but rising above that fray: basically, the movie was shot, they didn’t want to redo it, it never got re-shot. So it has been sitting on a shelf for over six years. It may or may not make financial sense for the studio, which has the right to put it out on DVD. They may do it, they may not.
Chet: We have since redirected our focus from The Onion video world to The Onion News Network that launched this past year and has been a great success for us, and expanded The Onion news empire.
Sean: That was a major launch for us this year with The Onion News Network. It has been a huge hit. We get over a million downloads a week, which makes it one of the more successful produced-for-the-Internet videos. If we’re not the most successful, we’re one of the most. It is a 24 hour news network. We have a new show that is part of the platform, but we also have a Sunday morning talk show that’s called “In The Know” and we just launched a morning show this last week called “Today Now.” It has been really exciting; we’ll have some new shows, show some archive footage and do some more in sports over the next year.

DS: What’s the idea behind the Onion News Network?

Sean: The Onion is a media empire. We have newspapers and a website, so a 24 hour news network makes a lot of sense. Creatively, it is very different from other things that are out there. There are former Onion writers and editors that have gone on to have big influence on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; the Onion News Network is straight, it’s serious. Those other shows are more like sketch comedy, in a way. They have a host who is a performer. There’s a live studio audience. Everybody is on the joke, there’s voices, there’s faces…it’s very similar to a late-night talk show. Like a Johnny Carson experience. The Onion News Network is 24 hour news. You’re watching what looks like Fox News, CNN and all of our other competitors.

DS: How much do the writers and editors on the print side inform the news network side?

Sean: The primary writers are separate, but there’s a lot of cross-over and creative influence. The Onion News Network came out of the proud tradition of The Onion and it has been influenced by that. Our editor-in-chief, Scott Dikkers, is the creative force behind both. Some of the actual writers on the paper and the Internet site trade off and go over and submit scripts to the News Network; the News Network writers aren’t really writing for the paper. But there are a lot of people getting in the same room.
Chet: We have former Onion editor-in-chief Carol Kolb, who left The Onion a few years back, who has since returned to become head writer of The Onion News Network. So there’s a lot of Onion history there as well.

Relationship with other satirical news programs

DS: Many of the writers for The Onion have gone on to Daily Show and Colbert. Is there any collusion that you guys ever do, or a relationship that is fostered?

Chet: There has not been, but I think it will be interesting to see how it will evolve the way you see mainstream media has evolved with people crossing the lines there. Brian Williams on SNL, for example. A lot of cross-over between the different mediums. Who knows what the future holds there. I think as we go between the different satirical news mediums, there might be something fun in the future.

DS: Is there ever a story that has divided the staff, something the writers look back on and say, “Remember ‘Old Soul Goes to Cobbler’ and that whole issue?!” Something where half of the people thought it should never have been done and the other half thought it was really great?

Chet: We are a team, there are almost 15 of us and you are almost never going to get all fifteen people on board behind a joke. Someone is not going to be too hot on it. There are some cases—again, I wasn’t here—but I know the September 11 issue was an obviously very large challenge to approach. Do we even put out an issue? What is funny at this time in American history? Where are the jokes? Do people want jokes right now? Is the nation ready to laugh again? Who knows. There will always be some level of division in the back room. It’s also what keeps us on our toes.

DS: Do you think your writers are more optimistic or pessimistic about American culture?

Chet: It’s hard to apply the word optimistic to any of our writers. I don’t know if I could classify it like that.
Sean: They are great lovers of American culture. I find really enthusiastic support for certain artists, but I don’t know if they sit around thinking about the culture at large, and whether they are optimistic or pessimistic. There are good things every year that come out, and there are bad things that are part of the culture.
Chet: Yeah, everyone has their favorite writers, their favorite artists; what they really hate are stupidity and mediocrity. They are really sick of people getting away with repackaged drivel, so they are not going to hesitate to call people out on that. If it’s just another big box sitcom, then yeah we’re going to take a shot at it because it’s not different than every other “Two guys and a child, or a horse, or a donkey, or a monkey, in a two bedroom apartment in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.” Those sort of Madlibs pitches on sitcoms.

Unsolicited material

Rory Covey: I was curious about how much unsolicited material you guys get bombarded with?

Chet: We have a long history of an editorial policy that we at The Onion are a one-way conduit of information, so the readership exists to be told what is news, and we don’t really accept their opinions.

DS: Do you have a top ten list of the worst solicited ideas? Does anyone keep track of the really bad stuff that is submitted?

Chet: Anything really terrible does get passed around. I will admit that. But no, we don’t keep track of anything like that.
Sean: Unsolicited stuff doesn’t really get read, so it’s hard to make a list.

DS: Is there anyone who has been famous at The Onion for submitting over and over again their unsolicited material?

Chet: Anyone who continually tells you how funny they are, probably isn’t that funny or we would have recognized it. If they keep pitching over and over, and we’re not taking it, you're probably just not an Onion writer.

DS: Have you ever taken an unsolicited idea?

Chet: Not that I know of, I don’t think so.
Sean: You’re getting ready to pitch something, aren’t you? Let’s hear it…let’s hear it.

DS: Could you imagine if I pulled out an illustrated journal full of brilliant ideas right now?

Chet: “What if I had this friend who had this really funny idea about Velcro, and he wanted me to tell you about that headline. Could I do that?”



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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.