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Satirist tells the true story behind the fake headlines

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CANTON — St. Lawrence University students got a first-hand account of what it takes to be a fake journalist Friday night, from one of America’s premiere peddlers of spoof news.

Jermaine Affonso is a senior staff writer for The Onion, the website that mimics modern media while lampooning public figures and everyday life.

Although The Onion’s physical newspaper ceased publication last year, its website is still as busy as ever. The first part of Mr. Affonso’s talk at St. Lawrence University featured just as much straight-faced humor and just as little truth as a typical Onion article, beginning with the (completely false) history of the newspaper. It was started in 1765 by a Prussian tuber farmer, he said, growing to become a company worth $582.9 trillion.

His talk was full of examples of the Onion’s signature headlines, which blend absurd humor with real-world events. Stories like “Al Gore places infant son in rocket to escape dying planet” prompted laughs from the gathered students.

Eventually, Mr. Affonso began to share some more genuine stories about what it’s like to work for the renowned, often controversial, website.

He was raised in Sugar Land, Texas, and got a fellowship writing for the Onion right after college in 2011. He’s worked there ever since.

Far from a multitrillion-dollar enterprise, The Onion has nine full-time staff writers who must generate dozens of funny ideas every day. It was founded in 1988.

The Onion mocks current events, everyday life and everything in between, often using shock value and throwing political correctness to the wind.

This is intentional, Mr. Affonso said, not only because shock value is funny, but because it makes the satire sharper.

He said the site stays away from jokes that feel cruel toward victims or helpless individuals, but if the joke is funny and the point is poignant, there is almost nothing off limits.

“We really do like to push the envelope, and maybe do things that make people upset,” he said.

It’s good to make people feel a bit uncomfortable while they laugh, Mr. Affonso said, because hopefully that gets them to think about the world and their place in it.

“There’s a lot of social criticism in what we do,” he said.

On a normal day, the writers suggest and discuss hundreds of joke ideas. Some are related to current events, while others could be written any time. Many of them never see the light of day.

This normal routine is broken when major, breaking news happens. Mr. Affonso recalled the Boston Marathon bombing, which had The Onion updating its website constantly in a parody of major national news sources.

“Basically we kind of go into battle mode,” he said.

Not everyone appreciates the site’s style. The Onion often receives furious responses from those who take the spoof news a little too seriously, including Donald Trump’s lawyer, a collection of avid Mary-Kate Olsen fans, and a Chinese news service that earnestly repeated The Onion’s ruling that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is “the sexiest man alive.”

“It’s always kind of weird when people take it seriously,” Mr. Affonso said. “It’s never written to trick people.”

Mr. Affonso has always loved comedy writing, although not everyone understands his life choices,” he said.

“My parents don’t even know what The Onion really is,” he said.

Despite this, he said, he can’t think of anything he would rather be doing. He plans to keep writing headlines that never happened for years to come.

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