When life becomes an Onion article, what does The Onion become? The original fake news site parodies major media organisations with such precision that users were incredulously sharing its headlines way before the post-truth era of the Trump presidency took hold. America's Finest News Source has always moved in parallel with the culture it lampoons—but now that culture is weirder and darker than ever before.
The site's managing editor, Marnie Shure, is well aware. Shure oversees a tightknit team of in-house writers and editors who spend painstaking hours sitting in a Chicago office crafting the articles your confused uncle reads as fact and your cool cousin reads as hilarious social commentary. She's spent most of her career at The Onion; she was writing there before Trump, and hopes to continue doing so when he's gone. But even for pretend journalists, there is a heightened sense of duty in times like this.
"I think [the Presidency] makes what we do feel important, and it makes you feel like you want to do more than just see it as work," she says. "There is a sense of unrest in America right now, which I think is reflected in the articles we write."
Fake news gets a bad rap these days, but The Onion's misinformation has a noble purpose. Freed from the facts, Onion articles are able to cuttingly—and God, the writing is sharp—tell the truth about contemporary American life. There's a fine art to Onion articles; the best of the site's work has always reached a little further than Weekend Update-style news. Its editorial staff, who come from a variety of backgrounds and who Shure says are split "about 50/50" by gender, work anonymously and collaboratively to create wildly creative and sometimes totally absurd work ( Report: White House Officials Deliberately Hid FDR's Mechanical Spider Legs From Public), but more commonly straight-faced satire that finds inspiration in the social anxieties and neuroses of ordinary people: Nation Unsure How to Describe Mark , Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.
In 2017, comedy rarely provides relief from world events. Which is why Onion readers have eagerly embraced the wackiness of its clickbait companion Clickhole: a site making fun of websites that are distracting, that in itself provides a fun and smart distraction.
But while it must be tempting for such a gifted writing team to go totally surreal and ignore the day-to-day horrors of American politics altogether, The Onion has not done this. If anything, it has stepped up its political "coverage". Like the major news organisations it mirrors, its website has a dedicated Trump section. "We try to keep a close eye on the news cycle to make the determination about what is warranting a comment," says Shure. "That is a tough call to make, but we usually end up erring on the side of, let's publish something, if we can find a really true comment on it."
When the world begins to resemble an Onion article, an Onion article may as well start resembling the world. Some of the site's more reactionary news articles (Antifa Organizers Announce Plans To Disrupt Neo-Nazi Rally Or Whatever Else Going On, Trump Pours Himself Glass Of Chocolate Syrup On Rocks To Unwind After Stressful Day) feel cheaper than the "Area Man" jokes The Onion is best known for. While evergreen Onion stuff can take weeks to produce and therefore benefits from the editorial staff's notoriously brutal editing process (" a lot gets left on the cutting room floor"), topical stories are churned out quickly to keep pace with the news cycle. There is plenty to talk about.
Then there's the question of who you're talking to. The Onion could never be labelled politically neutral, although Shure says its writers would bristle at the publication being labelled a "liberal rag". It has however always existed for insiders: comedy nerds and people who get it, and probably feel pretty smug about that. For every keyed-in Onion fan there must logically be someone who will take it literally. It's not like there's any real harm in random internet users momentarily believing an Onion premise, but the site's natural exclusivity feels representative of America's deepening social and political divides.
Shure says that's something they are trying to fix. "I think we aim to write things that are fundamentally and universally true … we're not catering to a political affiliation or demographic. It's intended to be a really broad comment. In fact, especially over the last year of covering the election, we had plenty to say about and perhaps even against both parties. You know, not everyone is going to read us, but we wanna make sure that anyone can come to the table."
In other words, it's no longer just midwest Area Man who appears in The Onion. "We recently published an article called Man in Center of Political Spectrum Convinced he is Less Obnoxious and I think that is very much [pointing] to a liberal mindset," she says. "I think right now there is the idea that the way to combat Trump is with decorum and respect, and ideological consistency, and I'm not so sure that is the case. It's not proven to work against him, and the more we can write to that sense, the more people we will appeal to across the spectrum."
You can have faith that this strategy will work out, too, because the writers are committed to medium above message. They want the jokes to be good. Extremely funny as well as prescient. "As long as the people are making a joke that seems true to you, even if they are spearing you, you can be like—yeah, fair enough, I get it."
Unlike many of the news companies it parodies, The Onion has proved dynamic enough to change with the times. It is impressive how, throughout its savvy transition from niche print publication for college students to global digital behemoth, it has retained not only relevance but coolness and cultural prestige. It's also valued at more than $200 million. A pessimist might predict the Onion bit of The Onion dying altogether as the internet changes shape and the Clickhole aesthetic of videos, quizzes and slideshows completely takes over. Then again, much of The Onion's content is so enduringly relevant that it's difficult to picture that happening.
One of the articles of which Shure says The Onion team is most proud will be well-known to most people who have scrolled through any part of the internet. "In the wake of shooting tragedies in the US, we always republish the same story: 'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens," says Shure.
"We wrote it for one particular attack, and subsequently it has run for many others with just the date changed. By re-running the same commentary it strengthens the original commentary tenfold each time. I'm proud to work alongside the people who saw the potential in that, and who were able to send out that message and make it resonate. In the wake of these really terrible things, we have this comment that really holds up."
Like the best of The Onion, the article proves you can write fake news without lying.
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Marnie Shure appeared at Sydney's Antidote festival over the weekend.