The Onion vs. Facebook: With Traffic Falling, Editor Begs Readers to "Click the F—ing Link"

Chad Nackers - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of subject

Amid declining pageviews, the satirical paper launches an all-out campaign against the dominant social media network, hoping to avoid the fate of sites like Funny or Die. Says the editor in chief: "It's hard to swallow that some other company is slowing us down."

The satirical Death Star known as The Onion is focusing its superlaser on a single target lately: Facebook.

Some suggest the bad blood between the venerable comedy site and Mark Zuckerberg's social-media behemoth began bubbling up in March, around the time Elon Musk poached several Onion staffers for a mysterious comedy project (possibly called Thud!).

But signs of discord were there even earlier, with a March 2 story, "Report: We Don't Make Any Money If You Don't Click the Fucking Link," pinned until recently to the top of The Onion's Twitter feed.

That story coincided with a major change to the Facebook algorithm, which emphasized content from friends and family over publishers. "According to our findings," it reads, "The Onion doesn't receive a single goddamn cent unless you dipshits out there on social media move your cursor over to the link and visit the goddamn website."

Recent dispatches have grown more pointed, referencing Facebook and Zuckerberg by name and targeting everything from the company's data-mining scandals ("Mark Zuckerberg Insists Anyone With Same Skewed Values and Unrelenting Thirst for Power Could Have Made Same Mistakes"), to its addictivness ("Mark Zuckerberg Recalls Coming Up With Idea for Facebook After Seeing Dopamine-Addicted Lab Rat Starve to Death") to its dangerous content ("'We Must Protect the Pure Aryan Bloodline,' Says Child After 9 Minutes of Unsupervised Facebook Access"). And this week, the company launched Onion Social, a bogus platform headed by a Zuckerberg-alike named Jeremy.

The man behind these witty hit-pieces is Chad Nackers, The Onion's editor in chief since 2017 and a writer with the organization since 1997. (He's a native of Appleton, Wisconsin, a two-hour drive from Madison, where The Onion was founded in 1988). In the 1990s, the print edition, available for free across the U.S. in kiosks and around the world via paid mail-order subsciptions, was still a major ad-revenue generator.

"Back then, the top story was something that was still very important," says Nackers, 45. "You know — above the fold." 

Like all publishers, however, The Onion migrated slowly to the web, and in 2013 abandoned print operations altogether. Eschewing a paid subscriber model, it relies entirely on online ad revenue. But the rise of social media has led pageviews to fall — hence the "click the fucking link" story.

The traffic freefall is not nearly as dramatic as it has been at competing humor sites like Funny or Die, which recently was forced to lay off the majority of its writing staff. The Onion, by contrast, still employs a team of 16 full-time comedy writers.

And ad rates have held steady, as The Onion is sold as a part of an entire network of sites that includes Gizmodo Media Group, the former Gawker Media, purchased by Univision in August 2016. (The Onion was acquired by Univision in January 2016). But multiple reports of mismanagement at Univision suggest many of the sites are on unsteady footing, The Onion among them. Buyout offers at Gizmodo Media Group have gone out this week.

Nackers acknowledges that any media company that relies entirely on Facebook as its traffic driver is doomed. "I think there are different paths," he says, pointing to A Very Fatal Murder, a parody of true-crime podcasts, as a recent success. He also suggests the mostly abandoned Onion News Network, a parody of cable news, might make a return soon.

But Facebook, with its 2 billion users — 6.5 million of whom are Onion subscribers — remains too big to ignore. And while his zingers can get pretty brutal — one op-ed, written from the viewpoint of  Zuckerberg's toddler daughter, is titled, "Daddy, I Don't Want to Live in the World Your Website Has Created" — Nackers insists what he actually wants is more Facebook, not less.

"By limiting like who gets to see our content, it's not allowing our powerful commentary to be a part of these national conversations," he says. "Whether we're covering things like mass shootings or data privacy or atrocities going on at the border, The Onion for 30 years has been shining this spotlight on those dark absurdities that exist in our society. It's a little hard to swallow that some other company is slowing us down."

Facebook denies that the algorithm change and its anti-"fake news" initiatives are hurting sites like The Onion, saying in a statement, "We announced ranking updates this winter to show people more posts from their friends and family. This means we'll show less public content in News Feed and pages could see their referral traffic decline. But we're also working to make sure the Page posts people do see are high quality. We've found that people don't report satirical content as false news because they know it's intended to be humorous. Generally, satire, including The Onion, should not be impacted by our work to reduce false news."

Nackers doesn't believe it and points to a recent report in Wired that suggests satire is being surpressed at Facebook. At Facebook's New York offices, a team of 25 moderators with backgrounds in journalism oversaw the Trending Topics feed. "If the word ‘Trump’ was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important," Wired reported. "If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out."

As for The Onion's other sort-of nemesis, Elon Musk ("Elon Musk Offering $1.2 Billion in Grants to Any Project That Promises to Make Him Feel Complete"), Nackers admits he was "a touch blindsided" by the defections of former Onion editor in chief Cole Bolton and former executive editor Ben Berkley, who took a third Onion writer with them on their way out the door.

He says he doesn't feel betrayed by them but does feel "hurt."

"I mean, these are good friends," he says. "So the hurt is that you're not working with them on a daily basis when you had been for a while. You miss people. So this is our piss take. We could be much more cruel but that was never the point."