Emmanuel Quartey

Curious about cities, patterns, media, and marginalia.

Digital Storytelling Lessons from The Onion


The Yale Record invited The Onion to speak on campus a few weeks ago, where I got to hear Baratunde Thurston (Director of Digital) and Brian Janosch (Editorial Coordinator) discuss exactly how they make pure comedic gold on a daily basis.

I was excited for the talk because I often find myself doing content marketing for student groups and administrative offices. This is what I learned. (Tip: if you’re easily offended by fictive accounts of hostage-taking Congressmen and mentions of abortion, you should stop reading here).

First, here is the general workflow outline at The Onion:

  • Everything begins with a headline. Writers produce 800 - 900 headlines a week.
  • Headlines go into a Google spreadsheet and people vote on their favourites. The winning headlines get fleshed out into stories which are published in a staggered sequence.
  • For video, it takes about 6-8 months for an idea to go from writing to final upload (the time goes into edition, casting, wardrobe etc).


1) The Platform Should Inform The Content

Social media platforms make it easy to cross-post (ex. you can make it so that when you publish on Tumblr, the post appears on Facebook, Twitter etc.), but the best digital storytelling happens when the message takes advantage of the medium.

A great example of this is when The Onion used Twitter to “break” the news of Congress taking schoolchildren hostage. What followed was a day-long series of tweets about the fictional crises, occasionally supplemented by articles on the main website. The Twitter platform is great for short, frequent bursts of content, and so The Onion used it to tell a gripping narrative in a way that was more compelling than if the same story had been told on Facebook.

2) Create a Universe That People Can Inhabit


source: The Onion - Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway

To hear Thurston and Janosch tell it, The Onion is nothing less than a respected newspaper from a fantastic parallel dimension. This universe has it’s own heroes and villains, and a recurring cast of characters, such as a super chill Joe Biden.

When done well, digital storytelling is an exercise in communal world-building. This is exemplified by The Onion’s Abortionplex story, which spawned this Yelp page with tons of hilariously inappropriate community-generated content.

This idea of fiction also applies to the tone of the publication. Thurston and Janosch described writing for The Onion as writing for a character, one who thinks and acts in a specific way. My takeaway from this is that when working on tone, it’s important to have a pretty solid character sketch in mind. What kind of music is she into? Where does he stand on the boxers vs. briefs controversy? These might seem like silly questions, but they’re a good exercise to help me wrap my head around what kind of voice to use.  

3) Timing Is Critical

a) Be topical: keep an editorial calendar of important events that’re coming up in your community and be sure to have something to speak to that occasion.

b) Spread things out: Thurston and Janosch revealed that The Onion appears to produce a lot more content than it actually does because they stagger the publications of posts in a strategic way. 

c) Don’t be afraid to recycle old content: While The Onion prides itself on not rehashing old jokes, they’ll revive an old post if it speaks directly to something that’s happening right now. 


Baratunde Thurston and I. Buy his book!

That’s what I learned from my afternoon with The Onion. My favorite is easily number two. When you start thinking of different platforms as possessing unique constraints, it takes you to weird and wonderful places. What kind of story is best told on Pinterest? Does email lend itself to certain narratives? How should the constraint of physicality influence the content of newspapers?

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