The Onion famously launched in Madison, Wisconsin in 1988, moved to New York in 2001 and then back to Chicago roughly 11 years later to consolidate operations with its business arm and A.V. Club arts/entertainment section. Since then, according to an article in Ad Age, online business has thrived. The publication’s print version, however, hasn’t fared so well. While it’s still available in Chicago and elsewhere, it’s been nixed in Madison, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York, among other cities.
For much of its life, Scott Dikkers — one of three Onion founders and a former co-owner — presided over editorial. Nowadays, he serves as vice president of creative development, leading various outreach initiatives (such as the establishment of an Onion training center at Second City) and shepherding Onion TV projects.
On the occasion of the Onion’s 25th anniversary, Dikkers, 48, called to talk about its evolution.
Question: Does part of you wish you still had a hand in the editorial process when certain events come up?
Scott Dikkers: Occasionally, but it’s not events that make me want to do that. It’s just whimsical little things that happen. And if I get an idea, I can shoot that to the current staff. It’s not like there’s no door. But I actually don’t miss it. It’s a grueling job and those guys work incredibly hard. They work long hours. I’m old. I don’t want to be putting in the 14-hour days anymore.
Q: You were operating on a shoestring budget when you started the Onion. How does it affect comedy when more money starts flowing in and the publication’s profile starts to rise? Is that something you have to fight against?
SD: No, not at all. You have a comedy mind and you filter what’s going on in the world through that mind, and money is not really a factor. Steve Martin was just as funny when he was the most successful comedian in the world. Louis C.K. now is funnier now than he was when he started. So that’s not really a factor. It might change some people, but it doesn’t change creative people. It’s their way of seeing the world. They’re about the work. As long as they can pay their bills and they’re comfortable.
Q: The Onion is obviously far bigger now than when you started.
SD: When it started, I actually was the only person who got paid… Then once I owned it and was running creative, we started bringing in other writers. And we paid them five dollars a week. And we got paid in cash, often. A lot of our money came from advertisers who paid in cash. One of them was closed down years later. They were laundering cocaine money. So I think a lot of us were getting our salary in laundered cocaine money. I think it was ten years into the company before anybody was making any kind of a living wage. So the fact that you get a computer-printed paycheck now and a 401K is pretty radically different.
Q: Is the Onion now a place people want to work for where it might lead them, and is that problematic?
SD: I started to get that feeling after we moved to New York [in 2001]. It seemed like we got a different caliber of person coming to work for us, somebody who was much more ambitious and much more career focused. Whereas in the Midwest, when we were in Madison and put together our first writing staff — many of whom stayed with us for more than ten years — those were people who “Oh, there’s a guy who works at the corner grocery store who’s really funny. Let’s get him in here.” Or, “These guys do really funny posters at the liquor store on State Street. Let’s hire them.” But in New York it was like, “Ooh! This person actually has some comedy experience and a pedigree.”
Q: What was the main problem in relocating to New York?
SD: There was no problem, really, in relocating. The main problem was 9-11 happened right before our first issue. [And] it was expensive. I guess I’d have to say that was a big problem. Pete Haise was my [business] partner at the time… and he was worried that this was going to be a blaze of glory. He didn’t want to move to New York because it was expensive, but he did it because editorial wanted to. And it was important for editorial. We care about writing. It’s our main concern. And we care about writing really well. So what happened is a lot of magazines and newspapers would write about the Onion and they would always call it “the Madison, Wisconsin-based humor publication,” which I hated. Every time I heard that it was like nails on a chalkboard, because it belittled us. We wanted to be a national humor publication, and to hear that it was like, “Why are you saying that? You would never say ‘the New York City-based New Yorker magazine or Esquire magazine.’ You would just say “Esquire magazine.” And I knew that if we moved to New York, that adjective would be gone from any press that we got. And lo and behold, as soon as we moved and people started writing about us, that’s what happened. And so it was really just the most expensive copy edit in history.
Q: What’s the Onion’s future?
SD: That is a good question. I’ve never tried to worry about that, and now that burden does not rest with me. But all we’ve ever done and all I’ve ever done — and I think this culture has been inherited by the current editorial team and the business people — is try to do the best work we can. We try to be proud of our work. And we try to make sure our work reaches as many people as possible. Accessibility is such a huge thing for us. It always has been. We don’t want to be an obscure arts publication. We want to be popular.