On Campus, News

‘The Onion’ Staff Writers Discuss Creative Process at CAB Event

At the satirical news outlet The Onion, the writing process is comprehensive, according to Onion staff writer Nick Mehendale.

“It’s a holistic experience of writing,” Mehendale said. “It’s not a certain moment I’m proud of, but a whole collection of them.”

Mehendale and fellow Onion staff writer Hannah Wolansky spoke at Boston College on Tuesday night to share the creative process behind the satirical headlines and articles The Onion produces.

Wolansky said the writing process begins with hundreds of new headline ideas each week.

“We have 500 headlines pitched every week,” Wolansky said. “It actually used to be a lot more, so this number doesn’t even seem like a high volume to us.”

According to Mehendale, there are two types of headlines—timely headlines, which are pitches based on recent news, and straight headlines, which are real news headlines with different words swapped in.

“After we pick the headlines, we divide them up among the staff who brainstorm together in the writers’ room,” Wolansky said. “This is the boring part—you write the articles that no one clicks on or reads.”

Mehendale said The Onion’s writers often work together to create the articles.

“It’s a very collaborative process,” Mehendale said. “If team members like a certain headline, they’ll pay attention to it as the writer creates the article, making a few tweaks along the way. It’s a sort of egoless system.”

Once the article is written, the focus switches to creating the featured graphic, which Wolansky said is one of her favorite parts of the creative process. 

They begin by taking pictures of Onion staff posing in a certain way, and artists then tailor the image to the specific headline by doing things like adding a politician’s face to the body, the two explained.

The two then projected an unedited image in which a writer posed for an article about former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan.

“This isn’t the graphic that was featured with [the article]—this is the photo that our art department took to create the art, and they are so amazing,” Wolansky said.

The final product of these graphics can garner mixed responses, according to Wolansky.

“Our content gets all kinds of responses,” she said. “We do have a public feedback email, and I’m not encouraging you to send emails to us, but you can always feel free to send them like these people.”

Mehendale and Wolansky then displayed some of the written feedback rebuking The Onion’s content that the outlet had received. 

“Donald Trump’s then counsel Michael Cohen sent us an email where Cohen wrote that [a satirical article about Trump] was ‘an absolutely disgusting piece that lacks any place in journalism, even in your Onion.’” Mehendale said. “We just didn’t respond. Come to find several years later, Michael Cohen finds himself in a bit of a legal hotspot.”

Mehendale said that while The Onion is known for its satire, its articles are often taken seriously by the public and various organizations.

After The Onion posted an article stating Make-A-Wish’s had gone bankrupt due to a child wishing for “unlimited wishes,” Make-A-Wish had to publicly announce the article was untrue, according to Mehendale.

“Make-A-Wish had to post that it is not going bankrupt, and that they do not allow unlimited wishes,” he explained.

Mehendale also said it is important as a satirical newspaper to address all topics—even sensitive ones.

“The more difficult ones are, if anything, more important to address because they are difficult,” he said. “That’s like the whole point of satire. We want to ‘punch up,’ you know? Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable sort of thing.”

When asked about their experiences at The Onion, Mehendale and Wolansky both said the culture is notably inclusive and considerate, even though the content of the articles can be controversial.

“We’re all a bunch of lovable rascals though,” Wolansky said. “Everyone’s a little bit weird, and there’s a quality of increasing that at The Onion.”

February 28, 2024