Onion staff visits campus
News Writer | Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Scott Dikkers and Ben Berkley of the Onion spoke Monday to students in Washington Hall about the satirical news group’s history and creative process during what Dikkers told the audience “might be the most important hour of your life.”
Dikkers, a former cartoonist who joined the Onion staff in 1988, currently serves as vice president of creative development. Berkley, who began working for the Onion as an editorial intern, is the “editorial manager and the staff’s George Clooney lookalike,” he said of himself.
The duo opened the evening with a summary of the Onion’s role in news media since the paper’s founding in 1765. Later Dikkers and Berkley confessed that the founding date and certain example headlines, including “Drugs win drug war,” were fabricated.
Dikkers said a reader’s relationship to news media is more important than his relationship to significant others, parents and even God because the reader relies on his source “to do no less than define reality.”
“God gives you truth in a holy book,” Dikkers said. “But when was that written? Thousands of years ago … God’s hopelessly out of date. I mean, God is compared to a blog?”
After showing various manufactured graphs and charts ranking the Onion as No. 1 over competitors such as CNN, the New York Times and The Observer in categories such as journalistic integrity, Dikkers and Berkley explained how stories are actually created for the publication.
“It’s quite an arcane process, not unlike a Rube Goldberg-esque rubric of confusion and mystery, though in some ways it’s very much like any other newspaper,” Dikkers said.
From a beginning sample of over 1,000 headlines, a team of writers zeroes in on about 150 to consider using for an Onion story.”
“The first thing we’re doing is essentially writing the punchline for the joke,” Berkley said.
Berkley said once stories have been picked, the staff collectively brainstorms and plans the stories. Eventually, the pieces are paired with often-elaborate original graphics created by the Onion staff members, he said.
When asked by an audience member how the Onion makes sure stories do not cross the line, Dikkers and Bentley immediately laughed and said they want to be able to joke about anything, but acknowledged that in some instances discretion is necessary.
“There’s a particularly sticky area around national tragedies,” Berkley said. “So for example, this past week was challenging for us.”
Berkley said the Onion is meant in some instances to provide comfort despite the news.
“We are an avenue for catharsis,” he said.
Dikkers and Bentley said the Onion’s website did not always take precedence at the company and the wide use of different platforms has allowed for development of the brand.
“The Onion started as a fake newspaper.” Dikkers said. “It was on newsprint, so that’s why it has fake news. It makes sense. But if you’re doing something else, like a TV show or a stage show, you can’t just take that and put it there. It doesn’t make sense.”
Dikkers said the Onion tried unsuccessfully to create a TV show and a comedy CD but pointed to successes in books.
“Whenever we go into a new medium we have to rethink what the Onion is from scratch, from square one,” he said.
It was Dikkers and Bentley’s first time visiting Notre Dame’s campus, which Dikkers called “idyllic” and “very green.” They spoke as a part of the Student Union Board’s (SUB) AnTostal celebration.
“We wanted something that wasn’t traditional standup,” SUB special events programmer Caroline Schuitema said. “We wanted something that students would see and think ‘Oh, that’s different, that’s worth going to.'”
Contact Lesley Stevenson at