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It's all in the headline

The American Journalism Review's look behind the scenes at the Onion reveals (among other things) that the process of writing each story for the Onion starts with the headline, and goes from there.

I don't especially like the Onion, and I wonder if this has something to do with it. It's very, very good — it has its tone completely nailed, and its jokes are never overextended, or fall flat — but it's not (in my opinion) great. Perfect execution, while admirable, is no substitute for brilliance. And — and this is pure conjecture, forgive me — I wonder if the headline-first approach to the newspaper format doesn't encourage execution over brilliance.

The trouble is, once you see the headline to a fictionalized news story, don't you pretty much know what's in it? You don't know the exact details, but you have some idea what to expect — the dry, just-the-facts reporting voice, the (occasional) lead up, the direct quotes from the key sources and friends, witnesses or experts, the cultural references and other colorful remarks the sources will make, and so on, up to the kicker at the end. That the Onion is so good at mimicking the typical newspaper's style and tone means you more or less know what you're going to get.

Maybe it's just me that isn't particularly entertained by that. If I read past the first couple paragraphs of a newspaper article, it's invariably to see if there's something in the article that isn't in the headline — a quote or detail or circumstance the reporter dug up that you couldn't possibly have anticipated. But what's surprising in the real world is often what rings false in fiction and humor; those things aren't going to show up in the Onion, and they shouldn't.

So I think that's why the Onion doesn't do it for me. If the real joke is in the headline, the rest of the piece is more or less an exercise. Reading one, I can't help but get the feeling they could've just left it to the reader.

September 4, 2002 12:07 PM


I agree with your assessment of the Onion, but every now and then they come up with a gem. IMO, "God gives shout-out" and the 9/11 issue had that extra brilliance you mention, that doesn't arise from perfect execution alone.

Posted by Senn on September 6, 2002 6:58 AM

That explains a lot. It also explains why I'll miss Satirewire so much.

Posted by Cat on September 8, 2002 10:09 PM

Just to follow up: Mad magazine's parody, the Bunion, goes off on just this with its lead item: "Area Man Finds Headline Amusing But That's About It". (And, no, you don't really need to read the rest.)

Posted by M on November 13, 2002 2:03 PM

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