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Onion staff visits NMU

October 22, 2009
By CHRISTOPHER DIEM Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - According to Joe Randazzo, senior editor of The Onion, the weekly satirical newspaper is the "largest, most important" and "most influential" newspaper in the world.

"When you hit puberty, The Onion knew about it first," Randazzo said before a crowd of about 300 at Northern Michigan University Wednesday evening.

Randazzo and Carol Kolb, head writer of The Onion's web-video department, talked about the newspaper's history, its current projects and its future.

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According to the newspaper's fictional history, it was founded in the mid-19th century by Friedrich Siegfried Zweibel, an immigrant turnip farmer from Prussia.

The newspaper has many "back issues" mocking historical events, including a story about Alexander Hamilton challenging the entire nation to a duel and one describing the Titanic's sinking with the headline and subheadline, "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg: Representation of man's hubris, sinks in North Atlantic."

In reality, the newspaper was started in 1988 by students at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. It's availability was initially limited to college towns throughout the country until an online version was created in 1996.

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"We were one of the first Web sites and we haven't gotten any better," Randazzo said.

Now the newspaper is distributed throughout the country and has more than 3 million readers. It continues to mock current events with headlines such as: "Obama practices looking off into future pose." The Onion has also branched off into satirical radio news and television news with The Onion News Network.

Randazzo said The Onion's stories are often mistaken for real news.

"The only time I ever get hate calls on my voicemail ... is on (Onion News Network) videos and the most I ever got, and I don't do anything with ONN at all, was about the Shawn Johnson (story)," he said.

In the video, which spoofs morning news shows, the hosts announce that gold medal winning gymnast Shawn Johnson was put to sleep after breaking her leg, mocking a practice sometimes used on injured race horses. The video featured actors portraying Johnson's parents who spoke of her as if she were a prize-winning horse.

"There was probably seven different 15-year-old girls who called, crying, like 'You have to say that it's fake. You can't just put that out there and expect people to know it's fake,'" Randazzo said.

Another example is a story about Congress threatening to leave Washington, D.C., unless the city bought a new capitol building with a retractable dome. The story was taken seriously and reprinted in a Chinese newspaper.

One audience member asked Kolb and Randazzo if any subject was off limits to joke about.

"Jokes about worms," Randazzo quipped.

Kolb said nothing was off limits, though writers do have to think extra hard about what they are saying and who they are actually making fun of. She used the Shawn Johnson story as an example.

"We're not even really making fun of her, we're just sort of making fun of these parents who push and push and push their kids and also making fun of The Today Show type shows, the morning shows, who ... eat up sadness," she said.

Randazzo said the newspaper has an editorial staff of 10 that comes up with 15 headlines every week. A group of about 20 contributors also writes about 15 headlines a week, he said.

The staff sifts through the accumulated material and narrows it down to four stories, two op-ed pieces and 10 one-liners every week to go into the paper.

Kolb said it was an extremely collaborative process.

Kolb and Randazzo also commented on the U.P.

"I'm from Wisconsin so ... I feel very at home some place that's cold and desolate and unpopulated," Kolb said.

Randazzo said he noticed "many, many bars in this town of 20,000."



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