As many print media outlets continue to struggle to find their place in an increasingly digital ecosystem, the satirical newspaper The Onion has managed to not only make the most the Web and social media, but also continue to expand into new markets and new mediums.
On the second day of ReadWriteWeb's 2Way Summit Tuesday, a team of Onion staffers walked attendees through the publication's history, from its fictitious beginnings in 1756 all the way to its modern experimentation with social media and expansion into broadcast.
The company, which was actually founded in 1988 in Madison Wisconson, started publishing online in 1996. At the time, the Web was still in its infancy and the advantage of publishing there was not yet obvious, even to Features Editor Joe Garden, as he confessed during the panel discussion.
Today, The Onion's Website boasts 7 million unique visitors per month, plus an additional 2 million visits to A.V. Club, The Onion's non-satirical sister publication dedicated to arts and culture coverage. Most recently, the publications expanded to Philadelphia, with The Onion launching a print edition there and A.V. Club Philadelphia going live in February 2011.
From left to right: The Onion's Features Editor Joe Garden, Editorial Manager Kate Palmer, Writer Geoff Haggerty, Digital Product Manager Matt Kirsch and Digital Director Baratunde Thurston.
Leading the charge on the digital front is Baratunde Thurston, The Onion's Director of Digital, who was joined at the 2Way Summit by Digital Product Manager Matt Kirsh.
"In terms of our strategy, we just try to be everywhere," said Thurston. "We're trying to be where our audience is, because that audience isn't necessarily the type to come to theonion.com as their start page everyday. That kind of strategy of content distribution is over."
Two key components to that strategy are mobile and social, or as Thurston jokingly called it, "mocial," a newly-coined buzzword later repeated by the W3C's Jeff Jaffe during his kenote at the 2Way Summit.
On the mobile front, The Onion has produced mobile versions of its Websites, which are coded with HTML5 and developed in-house. Additionally, apps for iOS and Android have proven quite popular among the publication's readership, which Thurston said was more savvy with the Web and mobile devices than that of many other print media organizations. Those mobile applications have garnered over 2 million downloads to date.
Social media have also been at the forefront of how The Onion connects with its audience online. With 2.9 million Twitter followers and 1.8 million Facebook fans, the publication is able to not only broaden the reach of its content, but interact with that community in creative ways.
One example cited by the team was the Web-fueled development of an Onion News Network broadcast story titled "Al Qaeda Attacks Internet With Photo of Adorable Piglet". Prior to airing the story, staffers planted a photograph of a piglet wearing red boots on various Websites and then used Twitter and Facebook to help the photo go viral. Tapping into the very heart of the Web, they even published a poll asking readers whether they thought the piglet was cuter than Justin Bieber. The whole experiment led to a surge in followers for the Onion News Network Twitter account.
The digital team shared other social media successes they experienced, including an Oscar night Twitter follower bump for one anchor and the overwhelming popularity on Facebook of a headline that read "Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He's Not A Festering Pile Of Shit".