Ten years ago this month, a small satirical newspaper based in Madison, Wisconsin, discovered the Internet. At first, The Onion's business staff objected to spending $400 per month to maintain a website. "It was seen as an unnecessary expense," says editor in chief Scott Dikkers, who co-owned the company at the time. After an Onion story ("Clinton deploys vowels to Bosnia") was circulated by e-mail--without attribution--up went the site.
Soon, The Onion's readership, previously made up of in-the-know comedians, spread across the nation, and the formerly reluctant business staff realized it could sell online advertising. This grew to about 30 percent of revenue by the time the dot-com bubble burst. In the years that followed, The Onion strengthened its newspaper business, expanded into book publishing, and added real-company things like health benefits. Though revenue from the Web remained flat until recently, online readership surged to 3.2 million.
Today, thanks in large part to The Onion, fake news is thriving while legit papers are laying off staff. To be sure, satirical efforts like the National Lampoon predate The Onion, but few have had such an impact. The challenge now, says Dikkers, is maintaining the company's comedic edge. The key, he suspects, is "the occasional swear-word joke."