The Onion, "the single most powerful and influential organization in human history," according to its tongue-in-cheek website, is adding another chapter to an illustrious, and mostly fabricated, history. On Tuesday, Spanish-language news giant Univision announced that it had purchased a significant minority stake in the satirical website's parent company, Onion Inc., in a bid to compete for Millennial readers, who increasingly consider comedy a legitimate form of news.
Unlike most content on theonion.com, the business deal is real.
"I’m excited to see what we can do with Univision behind us," Onion Inc. President Mike McAvoy told employees in a memo, writing that the company's previously independent finances "made us smart and lean, but not always ready to invest in the great new ideas that we come up with." The company abandoned its print paper in December 2013.
The web company, which was actually founded in Madison, Wis., in the late 1980s (although its own satirical "About Us" page says 1765) is home to sometimes biting, sometimes time-killing comedy. "Tips for Successful Campus Activism" begins "be completely honest with yourself about whether or not your cause is stupid," for example; in "Just a Quick Heads-Up, I’m Being Radicalized," a young man cheerfully updates a friend that "I would willingly commit mass violence in service of the extremist dogma that’s consumed my every thought. I know, right?"
And it works, business-wise. According to a press release from Univision, The Onion and its several spin-off sites, like A.V. Club and Clickhole (a parody of procrastination paradise Buzzfeed) pull in 25 million monthly views.
Further business details were not disclosed. The New York Times, however, cited an anonymous source to report that Univision bought 40 percent of the company, with rights to buy it outright, for $200 million.
Sometimes, its satire has worked too well. Numerous publications, usually foreign ones, have reported Onion stories as straight-edged news, as when China's The People's Daily re-reported that Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, had been voted "Sexiest Man Alive." Iran's state news agency republished a fake poll saying that a majority of white, rural Americans preferred former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Obama, because Mr. Ahmadinejad "doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s Muslim." Even Fox News has seemingly forgotten that the Onion is not, well, real: it published, then later erased, a made-up story in which the president sent a rambling, frustrated email to every single American.
But its comedy could bring real profit, and longevity, to Univision. Although it attracts the highest number of viewers among Spanish-language networks, more and more Hispanics report getting their news in English, prompting the company to branch out to English-language networks like Fusion, a co-project with Disney's NBC, and online sites meant to appeal to non-Hispanic audiences, like the Root, which is targeted at young African-Americans.
"Comedy is playing an expanding role in our culture as a vehicle for audiences to explore, debate, and understand the important ideas of our time," FUSION CEO and Univision Chief News and Digital Officer Isaac Lee said in a statement, noting its role in the ongoing presidential campaign. "The Onion has been, and continues to be, a leading force of this phenomenon of intellectual, social, cultural and satirical commentary online."
Some aren't celebrating the trend. Although a majority of Millennials report caring about the news, and following current events on a daily basis, many are turning to satire and comedy shows, like Comedy Central's Daily Show or the now-defunct Colbert Report, to learn what's going on.
But many fans of the genre's recent pioneers, like Jon Stewart, say satire is calling attention to mainstream media's own failures.
"I’m here to confront you, because we need help from the media, and they’re hurting us," Mr. Stewart told CNN's "Crossfire" program in 2004. "You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate."
Then again, The Onion may owe its success more to profitable partnerships than civic heroics. In May, The Atlantic reported that 81 percent of the company's total revenue came from sponsored stories from advertisers, to which the editors attach an endorsement from (fake) publisher T. Herman Zweibel: "I hereby approve this commercial endeavor as fit for publication in The Onion news-paper. May the ox of journalism always be yoked to the cart of commerce."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.