The Onion's Bumpy Ride to Chicago

The Onion is in the midst of the biggest upheaval in the newspaper's 24-year history.

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The Onion is in the midst of the biggest upheaval in the newspaper's 24-year history. This week, its editorial team in New York City begins the first phase of its move to Chicago, as staffers clean out their desks, put the writers' room table up for sale on Craigslist, and move to a temporary office a few blocks away in preparation for the final move to the Windy City that's slated for July. But as it stands, the beloved paper will lose the bulk of its comedy talent in the process.

Sources inside the company tell The Atlantic Wire that of the 16 full-time members of The Onion's editorial staff, including editorial operations, writers, editors and the graphics/photo team, only five have agreed to make the move—a transition that will leave behind a slew of veteran staffers such as top editor Joe Randazzo, features editor Joe Garden, head of digital Baratunde Thurston, and photo, graphics and design editors Colin Tierney, Michael Faisca and Nick Gallo.

Onion chief operating officer Mike McAvoy prefers to emphasize that among all the full-time employees at the New York office, 27 people, there are 16 who have agreed to move to Chicago, including editorial staffers Will Tracy, who will replace Randazzo as top editor; head writer Seth Reiss; writers Chad Nackers, John Krewson; and Ben Berkely on editorial operations. He also said the company was still in talks to persuade more of the staff to move to Chicago. Update: McAvoy also says that the company plans to maintain a relationship with some of the writers who do not move (i.e. freelance work).

But ever since the closing of the New York office was announced in September, the editorial staff of America's funniest fake newspaper has been mounting a stiff resistance, using both the paper's pages and even some behind-the-scenes dealmaking to find a new owner that would let them stay in Manhattan. And the surviving editorial team is preparing to do without the holdouts. "Losing those guys is tough," Reiss said. "Everyone who works at The Onion brings their own unique voice. But we do have the personnel to continue doing great stuff. I would not be going if I didn't believe that."

The holdouts are less confident that the editorial magic will survive the turnover of two-thirds of the staff. "Nothing against Chicago. I think it's a great town. But we're here in the center of everything and it's still a challenge to find good people," said one of the refuseniks, who worried that without "that core group ... you don't have anyone to carry the torch."

The Onion started in 1988 as a campus humor publication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison but soon took off as a business. As it expanded distribution to other cities throughout the Midwest, it also began sprouting local ad sales offices.  But for the paper's first dozen years, the editorial staff stayed put in Madison. In  2001 they moved to New York, in part to be closer to the TV and film industries that were taking an interest in their brand of comedy. "We do this one thing, and now we want to do a second thing or a third thing," then-top editor Robert Siegel told the Associated Press. "People like what we do, and we want to continue doing it, but it can drive you nuts over time. We want to do some other things to stretch our comedy muscles so they don't atrophy." He went on to write The Onion Movie, which went straight to DVD, and The Wrestler, which did not. The debut issue to be distributed in Manhattan newsboxes was the legendary post-Sept. 11 edition, "HOLY FUCKING SHIT: Attack on America."

The first hints that the future of The Onion lay off the banks of Lake Michigan came in 2007, when the business staff spread across eight offices were all consolidated to Chicago, where the editorial staff of its sister arts and entertainment publication, the A.V. Club, was already located. (Full disclosure: my brother worked on the business side of The Onion in New York at the time and took a new job, where he happily remains, rather than move to Chicago.) As the announcement of the move in Crain's put it, "The free weekly newspaper ... now calls Chicago and New York its headquarters." Reducing the number of headquarters to just one, the company says, is a way to ensure lasting financial stability. "If you consider having to pay for two facilities, two kitchens, two insurance policies and two Internet connections—putting everyone in one place ends up saving a significant amount of money," McAvoy said. Additionally, he said Illinois's tax incentive for film production will allow the company to re-invest in its business, building a new studio for the A.V. Club and Onion News Network to produce web videos. (Incidentally, the half-hour ONN show on IFC was cancelled by the cable channel yesterday, though they will continue to make videos for the web.)

But that was not exactly how the editorial staff took the announcement last September. CEO Steve Hannah delivered the news personally at a meeting to the New York office. As he remembers it, someone asked, "What if we don't come?," and he responded, "If some of you don't come, I'll have to replace you." At the time, writer Joe Garden told The Huffington Post the writers were "blindsided." The take-it-or-leave-it offer was "maddening," a staffer explained to The Atlantic Wire on condition of anonymity. "It felt like we had no value to the company." The source added that the company hadn't locked in any of the writers before announcing the plan.

Staff were given a November deadline to tell the company their decision. Soon, a tug-of-war was underway: management on one side, offering raises, signing bonuses and relocation packages, to stave off a mass staff turnover, and a band of staffers who were willing to do anything to keep The Onion's New York footprint.

In December, after ignoring the management's November deadline, the editors and writers rallied behind a plan, hatched by The Onion's digital director Baratunde Thurston, to look for someone to buy The Onion from its current owner, David Schafer. Thurston, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, found a willing buyer in the New York-based technology firm Betaworks, which has backed Twitter client TweetDeck, URL shortener and web analytics service Chartbeat. "They were an ideal buyer because you had this nurturing technology company that would let us expand in New York and do the things we wanted to do," said an editorial staffer.

Schafer considered the Betaworks offer for two weeks, said a separate editorial staffer, before ultimately deciding to turn it down. He declined to comment. Betaworks CEO John Borthwick said simply, "We have no comment on this inquiry." Without addressing the deal directly, CEO Steve Hannah said "If you're suggesting he spent two weeks of his time thinking about any offer, it just hasn't happened." He added that The Onion receives inbound interest from people nearly every week.

But one of the tricky things about raising the ire of the planet's most caustic satirists is they have fiendish ways of getting back at you. In the October 11 issue of the paper, The Onion staff painted a cartoonishly evil picture of fictional "publisher emeritus" T. Herman Zweibel, who upon learning that his employees were engaging in "pleasant conversation" and in some cases "outright laughter," had decided to move the company to Alaska. "As any successful business-man will tell you, happiness among the employees is no less than mutiny," read Zweibel's column.

Considering the events surrounding the move, the little-noticed work of satire is as gut-piercingly funny as it is depressing. After notifying the staff of their future in the Yukon, Zweibel can't seem to understand why "the first reaction among my writers and editors was frank disbelief." He continues: "When petitioned to provide for the health of my employees, have I not given them reluctant access to only the most slipshod and bloody-minded quacks ever to be expelled from veterinary school? When asked for raises, have I not said no every year since 1868? And when the employees threatened to unionize, did I not have their children sealed inside a great iron steam-boiler, in which the temperature was raised one degree for every word their jumped-up 'spokesman' uttered in my presence? How could they not believe I would be willing to relocate them to a distant Alaskan territory on a moment's notice?"

A staffer tells us each point is an allusion to long-simmering staff-management disputes over health benefits, wages and taking away the employees' 401(K) match plan. Hannah said he read the October column and found it entertaining. "If you want to work at The Onion, you have to be willing to be part of the joke." In good humor, he said he's been the butt of editorial pranks for the last 8 years. "I save them all because I treasure them."

And of course, hyperbole is an arrow in every satirist's quiver. While Hannah acknowledged "I could have been far more delicate about delivering the news," he said he's tried to do right by the editorial team. "I regret the way that first meeting went but I certainly don't apologize for making extremely generous offers for everyone. Every single New York writer was offered a raise and a relocation package."

Hannah also noted that The Onion's return to Chicago brings it back to its Midwest roots, given its Wisconsin origins. "To me, this is honestly somewhat of a homecoming," he said. With Chicago's history as an improv comedy hub and its lower cost-of-living, he said the move ensures the company will remain independent and grow. "I see enormous benefits in having this whole company under one roof."

One of the returnees to The Onion is Scott Dikkers, who edited the paper for much of its first decade and left the company in 2008. Incidentally, an Onion staffer tells us his departure at the time coincided with a reduction in health care benefits—a move that resulted in him green-lighting a column about a fictitious company titled "In a Few Years, We'll All Laugh About This Shitty New Health Insurance Plan." So if things don't quite pan out for the new Onion team in Chicago, we expect to read about it in The Onion.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.