This approach—one of mimicking the media companies it parodies—makes sense for a publication that wants to “call out bullshit,” as Bolton put it. So The Onion’s new design will seem familiar to anyone with a hearty media diet. All the fashionable flourishes are there: larger headlines; infinite scrolling; a responsive design fit for desktop, tablet, and mobile screens; a ton of white space; basically, the works. (Also: "unlimited clicks," "optimization for the Motorola RAZR," and "no plate tectonics.") It's an attempt to keep up with the visual language of digital media, and as far as I can tell, it succeeds.
The Onion, as anyone who reads it will tell you, mines humor out of media trends. In recent years, though, the company has turned that formula on its head to finance itself. As the site lampooned sponsored content with a characteristically sharp eye, its corporate overseer, Onion Inc., set in motion a plan to beat media companies at the same game. With a strategy that seems meta even by satirical standards, The Onion’s BuzzFeed doppleganger, ClickHole, has become a force on the social web in its own right: The Onion set out to lampoon stories designed to be shared on Facebook by successfully making stories that people want to share. Now, The Onion is not just a comedy website. Onion Inc. cannot be described, simply, as a publisher. It has been transformed into a bonafide digital media company—with a profitable, in-house advertising agency in tow—that wants to succeed where the targets of its barbs have not.
Within the next year, the company plans to spin off several new websites, launch a studio to develop films and TV shows, and possibly, raise money from new investors. "We want to be one of the few new media companies that's able to figure out these changes that are taking place," Mike McAvoy, the president and chief operating officer of Onion Inc., told me. An avalanche of money is waiting for whoever effectively blurs the line between publishing and advertising. "Ultimately, we see everything as converging, and if you're a great content creator, your business will thrive," he said.
Is Onion Inc. thriving? McAvoy declined to share detailed budget figures, but says that profit has increased over the last five years. The business makes money. Which is notable, especially in media, where profitability is no guarantee. The company’s success is directly tied to the emergence of Onion Labs, a full-service advertising agency that operates in-house. It's difficult to overstate the rise of Onion Labs. A bit more than three years ago, it didn't exist. Today, it's responsible for 81 percent of Onion Inc.'s total revenue. (I'm going to repeat that: 81 percent!) Whatever you call the work they do—branded entertainment, branded content, sponsored content, native advertising—Onion Labs has clearly become the linchpin of the company's future.