Twitter  Quartz found an unlikely inspiration for its relaunched homepage: The email newsletter. nie.mn/1AQXuxD  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Questions for Baratunde Thurston: What The Onion can teach real news organizations about social media

A mix of experimentation and structure has helped The Onion build real civic engagement.

Baratunde Thurston, Director of Digital, The Onion

The Onion is funny because it looks and feels like real news. To do that well, The Onion has to act like a real news organization.

So when Baratunde Thurston, the newspaper’s 30-something digital director who “resides in Brooklyn and lives in Twitter,” describes the evolution of the Onion’s social-media strategy, it sounds pretty familiar.

“The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process,” Thurston told me. “It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey.”

Over the past four years, Thurston has worked to bring both structure and experimentation to social media. The success is enviable: nearly 3 million Twitter followers, nearly 2 million Facebook fans, and an unusually loyal and engaged audience.

“When we look at social media we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms,” Thurston said.

I met Thurston last month at MIT’s Civic Media Conference, where he was a featured speaker and a judge for the 2011 Knight News Challenge. I was surprised to see a stand-up comic who works at The Onion address a group of journalists — that is, until it became clear that The Onion is dead serious about civic media. (Thurston himself will be delivering the keynote at the next SXSW festival.)

In a recent phone interview, Thurston outlined his three-pronged approach to live event “coverage,” hinted at The Onion’s state-of-the-art predictive news technology, and discussed the making of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden. What follows are lightly edited excerpts (long excerpts!) from our conversation.

Baratunde Thurston: It’s important to remember that The Onion is, overall, a satirical news organization. That extends across everything the organization does, not just social media. It starts with the content. The Onion works, and it’s funny, because it reads like real news, it looks like real news, and it promotes itself like a real news organization. So when you think about, you know, a story that The Onion does and think, “Oh, that’s really realistic!” that’s part of the joke. When we look at social media, we’re also borrowing from — or in some cases leading — what the news industry itself would do, or is doing, or should do to promote its presence on these new digital platforms.

With social media, we started with promoting our material. “Let’s set up an RSS feed that points to Twitter that lets those people know what we’re doing.” That wasn’t revolutionary, it was just a basic plug-and-play, let’s-not-ignore-this-community kind of thing.

Over time, though, what’s become more fun, more interesting, more creative, is: “How do we take the unique thing that we do and sprinkle our own little Onion voice and fairy dust into this world?” Where we start to differ from actual news is that we’re not actually reporting actual news. What we’re often doing is building a parallel universe that people like to play with, and we are giving them more of an opportunity to play in that world than they previously had when we were just in print….

The approach we’ve taken that’s most interesting is in the area of rapid-response news creation and promotion. We look at it in three levels. The first is, How do we get our take on actual breaking-news events out quickly? (And sometimes even before other media organizations.) So you look at a situation like Tiger Woods — this is obviously a while ago now — and he announces there’s going to be a press conference Friday at 11 a.m. So the whole world — a big chunk of the wealthy, developing world, at least — pauses and waits for what Tiger Woods has to say. And people are at their offices literally not working because it’s, like, a State of the Union for Tiger Woods address, and both houses of Congress convene to listen to Tiger.

And there’s a big, gaping news hole — and we shoot into it using social media as a rapid-delivery system to publish a story that says: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Sex. And that becomes, for awhile, the news, because no one else knows what’s going to happen, and we have predictive news technology, which allows us to get ahead of that story and dominate, for a term, the interest in what Tiger Woods has to say.

Andrew Phelps: I’m sorry, predictive news technology? Is that an Onion “technology” or is that a real thing?
BT: No, it’s Onion technology. We built it, yeah. It’s proprietary, so….
AP: Right, right, can’t get into too much detail about that. So while the world is in suspended-animation waiting, The Onion dominates the conversation.
BT: People, when they’re in search of information, will violently and radically attach themselves to the first hint of it. And they help spread that message. Our most successful example of that is with Donald Trump and the day that President Obama released his birth certificate. We immediately published just a photo with a headline: Trump Unable To Produce Certificate Proving He’s Not… um…
AP: Festering Pile Of S—?
BT: Festering Pile Of S—, yeah. So that got almost 800,000 likes on Facebook, which is absurd. That’s just ridiculous. And it got retweeted tens of thousands of times. We got over a million pageviews to that thing, because it struck a chord with the real world.

The second thing I think we’ve pushed the envelope on is live event coverage. This is just fun. And it’s slightly insane. One of the things that we have done as a society is become more fragmented, more atomized — more selfish, to some degree — and our society is somewhat predicated on everyone having their own version of a thing. “I want my own car, my own driveway, my own pool, my own home theater system, my own music delivery system.” So shared experiences are harder to come by. People also work more, they don’t see their families as much. The water cooler is dying as a common ground for discussion of anything together. Social media helps reconstruct that water cooler and that shared experience. You see it on television shows, you see it around big news stories, you see it around celebrity silliness, and you especially see it around major cultural events like the Super Bowl, like the award shows, State of the Union addresses.

And what we’ve done is lend our voice and our massive platform in service of covering those events in real time — and so experimenting with a real-time flavor of journalism. Whenever there’s a big event like the Oscars — I think we do about five a year at this point, in a major way — we will live-tweet the hell out of that event. And that’s been a good way for us to increase our reach and our audience, because we’re attaching ourselves to an existing conversation and often — always, I’d say at this point — dominating it. Having the “top tweets” on a trending topic is a valuable thing and a low-cost thing if you have good material. So we’re exposing new people to what we have to say, and we’re giving people who already know us another way of finding us and hearing us and seeing us. And it’s also creatively fun. It gives the writer a different way to think about writing and about “journalism” (in big quotation marks).

AP: With Tiger Woods, no one knew what the news was yet, so you could make it up and make a little bit of a point. But when it’s live, everyone’s watching what’s really happening in real life. So what does The Onion do? Does it add more of a spin, or does it pretend to report facts as though they are happening even though they aren’t?
BT: In general, The Onion is not Daily Show-ish. We don’t cover the real world, per se. We often comment on things that feel like the real world. In the live event world, part of what we have as our advantage is 22 years of coverage already. And a lot of what we’ve written in the past is still relevant today. Because most of what is written in The Onion is written in kind of an evergreen fashion. So it’s about digging those things up.

For example, we started covering the Oscars by me doing a personal live-tweet session of the Oscars through my account. Just being silly, being funny, whatever; I wasn’t thinking about the Onion. And then I saw a celebrity (I think it was Queen Latifah) take to the stage to present something, and I was like, “Wait, The Onion has a story about Queen Latifah. And the story is really just a headline and a photo that says ‘King Latifah returns to claim queen.’ And that’s funny.”

I tweeted it out as The Onion, and people reacted very positively, and I thought, “I wonder if I can just keep doing this.” And so I was kind of watching the TV screen, listening for key words, searching the Onion website, manually digging up the story, tweeting it through our custom Bit.ly link, and you start to see the reaction, like, “Oh, wow, The Onion’s live-tweeting the Oscars!” And it’s like, well, sort of. We’re live archive-reposting the Oscars.

That was the first version of it. And then second version was, “Why don’t we actually intentionally prepare for this?” And so we gathered all the material we had that would be related to the films or the actors or the actual event of the Oscars itself and then we actually wrote for the event, things you know are going to happen.

And then there’s actually live stuff. With the Super Bowl, a sporting event is much more difficult to cover in advance, so you write for conditions, you write for, “Well, if there’s an interception, if there’s a kickoff return, if there’s a safety…” and then it’s a matter of mentally connecting what actually happens with what you’ve written for possibly happening and getting it out quickly enough. And then the layer beyond that is actually writing in the moment. So you have a sort of real-time writers’ room — at someone’s apartment, in some cases, or just over e-mail and instant messaging — that allows you to react truly in real time. And so I think the combination of those things lends itself to a feeling of comprehensive, real-event coverage.

AP: It’s funny, because it doesn’t sound all that different from what an old-school wire reporter would do to cover the outcome of a big trial or some live event that he needs to file quickly.
BT: Exactly. News organizations have troves of obituaries for people who haven’t died yet. We’re doing the same thing. Even if it’s not a formal process in a newsroom or a news organization, you are prewriting. You do have conditional headlines. We’ve just, in some cases, formalized that process and made it much, much funnier.

The third way that I think we have learned to play with this is to apply what we’ve learned from those first two completely to the world of news that we’ve created. And in this case, it’s about, OK, if we do a story, if we know we have a story coming up, how do we stretch it out? How do we massage it and promote it and tease it as if it were an actual breaking-news event?

The recent case where we did this pretty well was a story we had of a 500-foot Osama bin Laden returning from the sea to destroy America. And I was like OK, this is a Big Story. What does a Big Story deserve? Big coverage. You don’t just want to just put that out there; you spend weeks thinking about this stuff. Our graphics department — I’m sorry, our photojournalists — but our graphics department has done some impressive work to make this look super-realistic, so let’s give the story the big coverage it deserves. So in that case we are applying the lessons especially of the last event coverage in the breaking news to the alternate reality. So we start that story with a rumor: “BREAKING: Seismic activity detected in the Indian Ocean near site of bin Laden burial. More coming.”

And it’s like, What? And people see that tweet and that Facebook post and think, What’s going on here? Some people already get where it’s going, because their minds move more quickly. Others are just totally confused. And then we start adding in a layer of more commentary than coverage. We have our character Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles… “I’m just getting in word that the Air Force whatever unit has been deployed off the East Coast of the states… We’ll give you more… Unconfirmed reports of missiles fired… Spotting of bin Laden figure emerging from…” You’re like, What is–? So then it’s really starting to roll out. We have a layer of quotes that we’re attributing to generals and citizens and merchant marines out on the ocean. And then finally you get a version of the story with a link back saying, “Confirmed: 500-foot bin Laden spotted off the coast head towards Atlantic region of U.S.,” and there’s this big picture of bin Laden emerging from the sea.

And then we’ve got people reporting what they’re seeing. And this is all under the hash tag #500FootBinLaden. And where I think this differs from the breaking-news coverage and the live event coverage is, this is more open-ended. This is treated as, like, We don’t really know what’s going on here, we need your help. This is calling on the community to help fill in the blanks. And so we’re asking, actively, People, tell us what you’re seeing where you are. Have you spotted #500FootBinLaden? And people love to play along. They love to play along with real news, they love to play along with ours even more, because it doesn’t require actual fact-finding. And so people are Photoshopping Osama Bin Laden in the Boston Harbor, saying, “He’s in Boston right now, oh my God!” and adding their own flavor to it and using Twitpic and what not, and that is super satisfying. It becomes a collaborative news event. It has a full arc and life, just like “real news.”

You see another example of this, even when it’s not prompted, in our story about Planned Parenthood building an $8 billion Abortionplex.

AP: …which really happened.
BT: Right. And we didn’t really build any layers around it, we just put the story out, but the community wants to play along. Also, people want to write for The Onion (that’s probably not going to happen; it’s a very small team), but they can help build out this world that was previously limited to our writers’ individual creativity and minds. So someone on Yelp created an Abortionplex “venue” in Topeka, Kan., where the story said it existed, and they took details from the story and added it, and then the world just ran with it. There are, at this point, over 400 reviews of this thing we created. And it’s been inspiring. That’s a different level, when you don’t even prompt the collaboration with the audience—they just run with it, because they can. And it doesn’t require your permission, but it also doesn’t undermine your mission.
AP: I think a lot of news organizations would hear this interview and think: “Well, great, The Onion is very successful at engaging people, but they have the advantage of being hilarious and not having to talk about real news. The debt ceiling might not be so interesting, but it’s really important. So what are we supposed to do?” I just wonder if you have any kind of advice for real news organizations who are struggling a little bit.
BT: Think flexibly. Think loosely. I think there’s a lot of fear and conservatism — not political conservatism, but brand conservatism — around letting loose your team or your voice in this new environment. We’ve done journalism this way for a really long time, we’re really nervous about breaking it up. Not everybody thinks this way, but a lot do, and you can see it reflected. Sometimes you see the social media policy of Media Organization X, and it’s like the 20-point bullet list of “don’ts.” It doesn’t leave much room for what you can do. I don’t remember the organization, but one of them had a very fun post, like, “Our social media policy” — and it was just blank. That’s the kind of open-ended attitude that lends itself to finding value in this space.

For us, what’s been fun over the past few years is seeing the writers and the editors actually embrace social media and get inspired themselves and come to us and say, “Hey, can we do this?” And we’re like, “Yeah! Great — by George, you can do that! We didn’t think of that.” When Brooke Alvarez, the host of Onion News Network on IFC, live-tweets, that’s the writers of that show just doing it. It was a very, very proud moment for me. The way we used to do it, we would ask, “Hey can we get a batch of tweets from you guys around this thing?” And we’d kind of schedule it out and manually post it or use a tool to do it.

The Onion's Brooke Alvarez

Now, we run a training session with them. We say, “Look, people are talking to Brooke. She should have something to say back to them.” Basically give them a kind of framework, and they’re like, “Oh, that could be kind of fun.” And we literally handed over the keys. It was like a ceremony: “I give you the keys to the social media city.”

AP: That’s really funny, because once again you sound like a real news organization, having won over the journalists, so to speak, to social media. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect writers at The Onion to have any kind of resistance to new media the way you might see at newspapers.
BT: The Onion can be, in some ways, a creatively conservative place when it comes to process. It was born out of a weekly print production and creative process. Breaking that down and reassembling it in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we’ve built has been a part of the journey. I come in here like, “TWITTER! FACEBOOK! YAY, STREAMING!” And everybody’s like, “Whoa, slow down, Twitter dude! We’ve got 20 years of awesome here, let’s not just destroy it for the sake of the latest trend.” And I think there’s some healthy tension that allows us to get to a good place.

And what we do does apply to so many news organizations. When you think about live event coverage and how you try to add some kind of value — get your sports writer to cover the Oscars. Mix it up a little bit and do something a little different. It doesn’t have to be funny, but it can be fun. It can be unique. I think the point is not to be funny, but to have a unique voice that stands out in an increasingly commoditized environment and space.

And then there’s exploiting your archives. A lot of media organizations are decades old. You’ve actually been there and done that. This debt ceiling conversation isn’t new. Unemployment isn’t new. Isolationism versus expansionism isn’t new. The role of religion in a democracy isn’t new. When it comes down to it, there’s not much new under the sun. So what have you already done? Basically, get more return on your existing investment. And the advantage that a deep media organization has over just the commentariat layer of cable news and the blogosphere is that you’ve actually done reporting, you’ve actually dug into records, so starting to think about your trove of data and analysis, and How do you slice that up? and How do you make it quotable and Facebookable and Tumblrable? is not exceedingly difficult. It takes some dedication, but it doesn’t take that much money. It’s not that expensive in terms of people and machine hours. That is something that we’re doing, and we’re not breaking the bank to do it.

And lastly, news organizations can open up to their community in some way. I’m not saying you’re going to have your audience become, like, investigative reporters. But there are really interesting things happening on the edges of journalism. You see the Knight Foundation investing through these grant awards in some really cool ways of, not seeing your readers or this digital layer of people as competitors but as collaborators. The fact is, the world is too big for any one news organization to cover comprehensively. And maybe you’re not going to ask your commenters to expose Watergate, but you might ask them to fact-check. You might ask them to help spot a pattern. You can have this sort of distributed research pool that can assist you in your journalistic mission to create an informed public.

We do it in a tongue-in-cheek way. We do it in a way which ultimately isn’t building real institutions. It’s building some intelligence, it’s building a lot of fun, but I think what we’re doing is even more important for an actual journalistic organization. And that’s where we hand off the stick. It’s like, “OK, our work here is done, but dear actual media organization, hey, give it a shot, you might just help our democracy.”

                                   
What to read next
ferguson-protest-night-ap
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.