“It should be shocking” – 20/20 with The Onion’s CEO

Four years’ time. What’s the world going to look like in 2020? We’re asking people in our network just that, for our new interview series 20/20.

Hear the one about the disgraced international football official who tried to use a news story announcing the US as hosts of the 2015 World Cup as proof of his innocence of corruption charges? Despite the fact the tournament is, you know, played every four years and Brazil had just hosted the 2014 event?

That man was was former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, arrested on eight charges of fraud having previously been forced out of FIFA over his part in a bribery scandal.

Jack came across an Onion news story claiming the US were set to host the 2015 World Cup, for some reason thought the news exonerated him, and filmed a bizarre video, citing the story.

While making people like Jack Warner seem foolish isn’t why staff at The Onion write, these kinds of ‘misunderstandings’ bring a certain enjoyment to the organisation’s CEO, Mike McAvoy.

“The Onion’s motto, is ‘Tu stultus es’, which means you are dumb. And it’s amazing to us how uninformed or how easily misinformed people can be.

“Those moments for us are, in some ways, exciting, but in other ways they’re just kind of sad and disappointing because it shows that the world isn’t quite as smart as we’d like it to be,” he says.

2020 will bring a smarter world

Mike says he’s “optimistic” that 2020 will bring a smarter, better-informed world. If it does, 24-hour rolling news – a medium skewered in a 2010 Onion article called “Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere” – will have had little to do with it.

The relentless pursuit of ratings, need to embellish unimportant non-stories to fill time slots, and narrow scope of reporting make for “lowest common denominator news”, which doesn’t serve anyone, according to Mike.

“It dumbs down things that are really important, and need more coverage and more thought put into them. I think, though, we’re seeing that younger audiences have zero interest in watching cable news and that they’re smart enough to get their news other places.

“It’s a sign that society wants to consume news differently, and they don’t want to hear the same story about Trump for three weeks in a row,” he says.

The figures bear this out. Going without cable TV – ‘cord cutting’ – is increasing in the US, particularly among millennials.

Going after millennials

Millennials’ attitudes to advertising are also driving The Onion’s approach to native advertising, with brands sponsoring content delivered in the same tone as traditional Onion stories. YouTube ran a video announcing that they had stopped accepting entries (uploads) and were in the process of choosing “the best video in the world”. Reebok collaborated on a story called “Area Man Not About To Tie His Shoe When He’s 4 Blocks Away From Sitting Down”.

Mike says that traditional advertising is failing brands, that it can come across as “pretentious”, and that taking your company too seriously won’t fly with younger generations.

“Millennials are particularly are well informed, and they are inherently sceptical about any over-the-top endorsements of a brand. Being able to showcase your benefits or features in a way that is more self-aware, I think is ultimately super rewarding and effective for an advertiser,” he says.

YouTube put themselves at the centre of the joke in this video campaign

Native advertising isn’t yet prone to ad-blocking software, and spend on the content is expected to surge in the coming year. Nevertheless, Mike says that the health of the advertising business will continue to be affected by clients’ own pressures and that The Onion is identifying a second revenue stream that will not rely on advertising dollars: paid-for content.

The site has a history of producing writers for US TV shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, American Dad and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Mike says that he wants to see The Onion start producing their own TV and film-like content, fully harnessing staff writers’ abilities rather than seeing them leave for TV.

“The way I see the world going – and I hate a lot of these words – but I see premium content, being able to create content that a consumer is willing to pay for, as being the best way to solidify your business model,” he says.

How could you ever make a joke about 9/11?

The Onion didn’t build its fan base solidifying business models or producing sponsored content for corporations. Its reputation was forged on its humour, a certain outrageousness, and its alignment with the underdog.

Founded in 1988 by two University of Wisconsin students who sold the print weekly for a figure believed to be as low as $16,000, The Onion gained early traction with college students in America’s Mid West.

It went online in 1996, before moving to New York in 2001 and then its current home, Chicago, in 2012. A year later the one-time student newspaper ceased printing, ending a 25-year run. Always unashamedly liberal, The Onion’s move to Chicago coincided with the site becoming increasingly politicised. In 2013 it ran a number of stories essentially making the leftist case for US intervention in Syria. A 2014 New Republic editorial went as far to call it “America’s finest Marxist news source”.

Mike doesn’t exactly come from your typical Marxist background. He started his career as a financial analyst at TCF Bank in Minneapolis. He joined The Onion in 2005 as the company’s controller before being promoted to CFO and then CEO in 2015.

His way with a spreadsheet may have got him in the front door. Now seated at the top table however, he appreciates the importance of subversion and a writing staff willing to push boundaries to The Onion’s continued success.

Looking to the future, he says that he doesn’t want any issue to be considered off-the-bat taboo. The challenge for the satirist is to find the right way to treat sensitive issues, and avoid just creating “fake news”, he says.


There should be no such thing as taboo, reckons Mike.

“It should be shocking but also include a call to action. I think that you have to be careful with satire and not dumb it down to make everything super acceptable.

“You’re creating something that’s thought-provoking, and sometimes the way to do it is to be a little more shocking, but not shocking just for the sake of it,” says Mike.

Back in 2001, The Onion was one of the first media outlets to make a comedic comment on 9/11. The principles that led to their issue that featured headlines such as “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” still hold today.

“At the time there were some people who said: ‘How could you ever make a joke about 9/11?’ But it was also what the nation needed; it was cathartic. I think the minute The Onion says there’s a certain topic that it won’t tackle, it stops being The Onion,” says Mike.

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