The Onion: Making You Laugh Until You Cry

The Onion newspaper
The Onion newspaper, satire, satirical, comedy, humor

Most newspapers are reporting financial difficulties these days. So why is THIS paper enjoying a boom? CBS News correspondent Serena Altschul has been investigating the state of The Onion:

Humorists aren't kidding when they say, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard."

Harder still, being laugh-out-loud funny and making money all the while.

"We staff exclusively from the Ivy League," said Scott Dikkers, editor in chief of The Onion. "We want to make sure that everybody who works here is financially stable and financially independent!"

At The Onion - a satirical weekly newspaper - writers come up with the headlines first, then the story. Of course, some of the headlines don't need a story to be funny:

Headlines like "Study: Many Americans Too Fat To Commit Suicide," "U.S. Breath Reaches All-Time Worst," or "Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement."

The Onion was born in 1988 when some University of Wisconsin undergrads decided to start an alternative newspaper, and convinced local businesses to buy the ads.

Dikkers was there at the beginning. "It was kind of out of somebody's dorm room for the first couple of months. And then it was in somebody's house. I don't think we had an office till year two. I don't think we got paid until year three."

"Study: Depression Hits Losers Hardest"

"GM Introduces New 2008 Line Of Layoffs"

"Bush Actually President, Nation Suddenly Realizes."

The headlines made The Onion the talk of Madison, then went online in 1996.

That … and of course, those wacky headlines and off-beat stories … raised its profile…

"The fake and the real get mixed up," Dikkers said. "We don't mind that being our stock and trade."

So mixed up that, sometimes, readers don't get it:

"The Beijing Times wrote ran one of our stories verbatim," Dikkers said. "It was about Congress threatening to leave Washington if the city did not build them a new Capitol with a retractable dome. When it was revealed to them this was from a comedy newspaper, their reaction was, 'What kind of paper prints falsities?'"

Funny became serious business when The Onion moved to New York City seven years ago. An investor bought the shop for nearly four million dollars, and installed Sean Mills as president.

The business guy in the corner office with the nice view says he lords over the "poor comedy writers, teasing, taunting them with how the other half lives."

His real job is to help the company grow. "The beauty of the content is it's so smart, and so it attracts this really great audience," Mills said. "And advertisers really wanna reach these people."

The company's largest investment came last April, when the fictitious Onion News Network was born.

Just as The Onion parodies print, its so-called network parodies television news, like its report on a new line of children's clothing made by child labor: "Gap 4 Kids By Kids."

How popular are these podcasts? Well, the "ONN" was named the best download last year by iTunes: its commercials command premium rates.

"The Onion News Network is sort of like you're really watching the news," Milsl said. "It's sort of on seriousness steroids. And so we never break character, we're very serious about the news we're reporting."

And it's making the company some serious money … which makes Scott Dikkers a happy man.

"I like having a paycheck that's printed by a computer," he said. "I like occasionally being able to expense a meal."

The Onion … a marriage of cash and creativity… laughing all the way to the bank.

Altschul asked Mills how much the company is now worth.

"What did Microsoft just offer for Yahoo!? Something along those lines, I would guess, probably!" Mills laughed. "I don't know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's pretty priceless to us."