Speaker Series hosts The Onion staff writers

Zoe Spilker • Sept. 29, 2016
Michael Gillis
Michael Gillis is one of the staff writers at The Onion. He and fellow writer Matt Hunziker spoke at the Whittenberger Auditorium on Sept. 28. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

Laughter is infectious. Passion for what you do is even more infectious. Bring laughter and passion together with a slew of sarcasm, and you get Matt Hunziker and Michael Gillis, staff writers at The Onion.

The pair spoke at the Whittenberger Auditorium Sept. 28 as a part of The Media School’s Speaker Series, a program in which the school brings in captivating people working in all parts of the media to educate students about their lives and careers. The event on Wednesday was co-sponsored with Union Board.

Union Board Director of Performance and Entertainment Beth Nethery said the Board wanted to bring people to IU who are as entertaining to students as they are compelling.

“The Onion is entertaining,” said Nethery, “but it will still hit current topics.”

In true Onion style, Hunziker and Gillis opened their talk with a satirical history of The Onion. The Onion has reported on historical and cultural events for nearly three decades. Some notable headlines include “Reagan May Have Been Elected, Not Really Sure” and “College Roommates to Continue Bonding Until Real Friendship Made.”

Articles like these and The Onion’s “distinguished staff members,” such as O.J. Simpson, Dean Koontz and Herman Melville, all played a role in The Onion’s high journalistic integrity rating. According to the Pittman-Walter Scale, The Onion has received a 6.0, as provided by the U.S. Dept. of Integrity, of course.

From left: Michael Gillis and Matt Hunziker
Michael Gillis, left, and Matt Hunziker presented a behind-the-scenes look at the publication as part of The Media School’s Speaker Series. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

The crowd never stopped laughing, and somehow Hunziker and Gillis kept their faces straight. The clever slides and witty commentary was as hilarious as it was impressive.

Humor aside, there is a point to The Onion’s satire.

“The French philosopher Henri Bergson referred to comedy as the means by which society critiques itself,” Hunziker said. “For example, if somebody falls down and you laugh at it, now people realize they shouldn’t fall down in front of everybody else.”

The Onion’s goal is to make people more conscious of what they are doing and how it is wrong.

“We make fun of people that are doing something that’s immoral or that’s destructive to society or that’s just dumb,” Hunziker said. “We are also making people laugh.”

Susan Carty works in the IU Study Abroad offices and has been reading The Onion since it first started, back when it was on real paper and offline. She said she was very impressed with the presentation.

“It’s one of those jobs that I wish I was clever and smart enough to do.”

The writers broke character to provide a little insight into how The Onion functions. The keyword? Brainstorming.

The team has daily meetings over headlines to determine which ones The Onion is going to run with. By the time headlines are decided on, changed and written as articles, nearly a dozen people have had their hands in it.

From left: Michael Gillis and Matt Hunziker
Gillis, left, and Hunziker said The Onion staff comes up with around 1,500 headlines a week, eventually narrowing those ideas down to the stories they write and publish. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

“That sort of community hive-mind thing is a big part of every step of the drafting process,” said Gillis.

Onion writers churn out 1,500 headlines each week to be considered by the staff. They never stop thinking about headlines. They have no choice.

Hunziker explained that a lot of what they do consists of watching how the media narrative plays out and figuring out what the angle to hit a story.

The graphics team, the people behind the hilarious too-good-to-be-Photoshopped pictures, is responsible for creating pictures to be used in only a matter of hours. They use pictures of staff members to aid them in the process.

The picture for “Obama Up Early Cooking Breakfast In One Of Michelle’s Extra Long T-Shirts” is a great example. The graphics team could not get Obama in the office to photograph him in an oversized shirt, so they had a staff member put on a large shirt for the picture.

“He had very nice Obama legs,” said Hunziker. Obama’s head was later affixed to the staff member’s body for an unforgettable picture.

Gillas and Hunziker emphasized the importance of learning how to face rejection as a writer. If the entire world hates something that you liked, you might be wrong, the duo stated with a shrug and a laugh.

The two fielded questions from the audience for nearly an hour after their talk. Audience members asked about where The Onion draws the line between bad taste and parody.

From left: Michael Gillis and Matt Hunziker
In their presentation, Hunziker and Gillis described some of the more memorable responses that The Onion has received for its satirical content. (Emma Knutson | The Media School)

“No topic is off limitis,” Hunziker said. “We always ask ourselves if we can approach a topic in a satirical way and make a valid point, but avoid hurting people”

While the Whittenberger was full of people laughing at absurd headlines and news commentary, not everyone receives The Onion so well. The writers described instances when readers were angry about The Onion’s content. One time, a 14-year-old called Onion writers “stupid and stuck up” for claiming “Mary-Kate Olsen Is Dragging Ashley Down.”

Another writer critiqued a spoof about Donald Trump, concluding in the letter, “This could be fabricated for all I know.”

Some state-run agencies around the world have reposted and republished Onion content as truth.

The irony.