The Onion’s bid to create more fake campaign news

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Onion, editor-in chief Cole Bolton (second from left) meets with staffers at the outlet’s Chicago office. Attending the meeting are (from left) managing editor Ben Berkley, Bolton, head writer Chad Nackers, editorial apprentice Jeremy Levick and Editorial Assistant Kelsey Beachum. | Leonardo Adrian Garcia/The Onion via AP

PHILADELPHIA — Even satire has a shelf life.

In a presidential campaign with fast-changing headlines that sometimes defy belief, The Onion has managed to maintain its niche by becoming more agile, just like real news organizations.

The 28-year-old Chicago-based satirical media outlet, famous for creating fake news, has evolved with technology a bit like everyone else, including the news industry it parodies. For the first time, The Onion this summer sent staffers to the Democratic and Republican conventions.

“Although technology requires media to be much quicker, it also allows us to be a bit faster, and we’ve started training ourselves and developing ways that we can be a little more reactive, too,” said Matt Klinman, The Onion’s head writer for video.

Klinman was part of a team of staffers sent to the conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland with a goal of mocking the news in something close to real time. Its video team quickly posted full-length clips of high-profile convention speeches on Facebook, complete with cable news-style graphics that included jokes and commentary.

“We’ve been sort of wanting to crack a way of doing live coverage as The Onion for a long time,” Klinman said.

The Onion’s sarcastic take on political gatherings apparently struck a chord on Facebook, where its convention videos outpaced those from major news outlets such as The New York Times, ABC, NBC and CNN for much of the two-week period when the meetings were held. The data come from Tubular Labs, an analytics firm The Onion uses to track video views.

The Onion is planning similar coverage for the upcoming presidential debates.

Jokes, especially ones about current events, can become dated quickly in today’s media environment. The Onion’s move to ramp up the speed of satire came during the last presidential cycle, said Editor-in-Chief Cole Bolton.

Before 2012, Onion writers would work two weeks ahead of time on its send-ups of candidates and issues and “sort of just hope, fingers crossed, that they would be a really good comment by the time they came out,” Bolton said.

It has moved to a faster model since, whittling down as many as 1,500 headlines pitched by its writers and contributors weekly to the 30 or so it actually uses as the basis to create satirical articles. In this campaign, the process has produced headlines that at first glance could blur the line between reality and satire.

“Trump Campaign Ponders Going Negative,” says one. “‘Secretary Clinton Is A Different Person Than Donald Trump,’ Says Bernie Sanders In Ringing Endorsement,” says another.

With the mock headlines easily shared on social media, The Onion is on track to see a 38 percent increase in traffic to its main website over the 2012 election cycle, spokeswoman Lauren Pulte said.

A healthy public appetite for satire is reflected both in the online statistics and Univision’s purchase of a sizable stake in The Onion this year.

“Comedy is playing an expanding role in our culture as a vehicle for audiences to explore, debate, and understand the important ideas of our time,” Univision news chief Issac Lee said in announcing the deal in January.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at The Poynter Institute, said The Onion was at the forefront of a politically and socially conscious niche of satire that extended to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” and now includes John Oliver’s HBO show and others.

“The field that The Onion was fairly early entered in continues to grow,” he said.

Whoever ends up as the next occupant of the White House, The Onion is excited about the comedic possibilities.

With Hillary Clinton, The Onion has turned to a tried-and-true tactic of satire — playing up one aspect of a character — by portraying the Democrat as a hyperaggressive, over-the-top version of herself, Bolton said.

That technique doesn’t work for the bombastic Trump, who Bolton believes can top any exaggeration on his own.

“Instead of playing up the craziness with him, playing up just how sad and terribly alone he feels on the inside is just a funnier way to go,” Bolton said.

Bolton expects The Onion’s political coverage to gain even more popularity as the campaign enters its closing stretch because, he said, “it’s still dawning on people … the consequences are pretty real.” He sees The Onion’s role as saying out loud what journalists can’t.

“Whatever we think is stupid in the world, we’re indicting it and putting it on trial and putting it on display.”

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