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Dying Laughing

For years, inventive companies like The Onion and Funny or Die capitalized on a culture that just wanted to laugh online. But after massive disruptions in digital advertising and on social media platforms, those companies find themselves imperiled. Did the internet kill its comedy?

All illustrations by Michael Weinstein

Peruse The Onion’s recent headlines and you might notice they’ve been spiced with an extra dash of salt. On March 15: “Elon Musk Embarrassed After Realizing He’s Proposing Idea for Thing That Already Exists.” A day earlier, from the organization’s BuzzFeed parody site ClickHole: “I Did Everything I Could To Buy ClickHole, But Their Editorial Integrity Won Out Over My Billion-Dollar Offers, And I Respect Them Even More For That (By Elon Musk).” And a March 2 polemic, citing cutting-edge research: “Report: We Don’t Make Any Money If You Don’t Click the Fucking Link.

For decades, The Onion has been the standard-bearer for written satire, lampooning the American experience at its most horrifying and its most banal. The comedy outlet was there when the Twin Towers fell, and it was also there when an area man dared to eat lunch at 10:58 a.m. Through it all, the company has honed a set of comedic tenets now baked into online discourse: a winkingly petulant vulgarity, a penchant for absurdism, and above all else, an ironic distance from the impact of the events being mocked. In 2018, the internet typically reacts to news with a collective smirk, in large part thanks to The Onion.

Lately, though, the website has been forced to poke fun at its own predicament. Musk, avowed Onion worshipper, has poached several of the outfit’s key staffers, including former editor-in-chief Cole Bolton and former executive editor Ben Berkley, to launch a comedic venture of his own. The situation might be funny (OK, it’s pretty funny; Musk has implied the new project is called “Thud!”) if The Onion weren’t shedding audience at the same time it’s losing talent. In 2016, the website regularly attracted more than 10 million unique monthly visitors, according to data and analytics firm comScore; over the past 12 months, the average number of monthly uniques has fallen to 6.5 million. Hence, the meta media anxiety masked in a snarky headline about proper link etiquette. Such articles “provided a great way to educate readers about the plight of The Onion and only The Onion,” cracks editor-in-chief Chad Nackers. “We believed it was incredibly important to perform this civic duty.”

Nackers declined to comment on the Musk deal, apart from a pointed allusion. (“I’m sure it’s nice to have billionaires backing you.”) But he’s much more concerned about the ways in which online comedy is being boxed out by social media giants. Omnipresent behemoths like Twitter and Facebook have become less about sharing traffic than hoarding it, contributing to The Onion’s diminished readership. “Trying to count on a middleman to distribute your content or say whether or not anyone sees it,” he says, “that’s just going to be a losing battle.”

The Onion is hardly alone in its struggle to adapt to the fast-changing world of digital media. Some of its comedic compatriots are doing demonstrably worse. Funny or Die suffered another round of layoffs in January, after axing 30 percent of its workforce in 2016. Cracked laid off 25 workers in December after a failed pivot to video. CollegeHumor’s traffic is also down substantially in 2018. Sites that seemed to have endlessly expanding ambitions just a few years ago have been forced to reevaluate in the past six months.

Not everyone online is simply laughing to keep from crying, of course. Newer comedy sites like women’s media spoof Reductress (launched by Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo in 2013) and the essay and humor outlet Very Smart Brothas (launched by Damon Young, Panama Jackson, and Liz Burr in 2008) have attracted audiences into the millions by critiquing social norms and current events from a fresh perspective. Anonymous young comedians who once needed an outlet like The Onion to gain a foothold in a competitive industry (Colbert Report cocreator Ben Karlin and Rick and Morty writer Dan Guterman both got their start at The Onion) can now use Twitter to acquire a following. There’s never been more humor available on the internet. But it’s unclear whether the business of making people laugh online will ever be profitable on a mass scale, rather than merely a pit stop on the way to a television gig. Though their jokes are ostensibly crafted for people, online comedy writers of all stripes now find themselves performing for social media algorithms. Facebook ultimately decides what content will show up in its users’ News Feeds, and both news and faux-news are on the outs. Meanwhile, on Twitter, the rise of mega-viral jokes has encouraged an ecosystem of retweet-hungry aspiring writers who are happy to compete with any established outlet. The longest-standing comedic institutions, built on punch lines rather than personalities, are trying to adapt to a fractured audience spread across the social web. But it’s proving to be a tough crowd.

Nackers started at The Onion as a photographer in 1997, just a year after the satirical newspaper first launched its website. Though the site now publishes 12 to 16 pieces a day (as well as the ever-more-bizarre content on its internet parody offshoot ClickHole), the pace of the weekly periodical was slower. “[The newspaper] would come out once a week, on Wednesdays; the whole issue would go up,” he says. “People didn’t really expect to go to a website every single day.”

While The Onion remained print-focused well into the 2000s, digital startups emerged angling to take control of the increasing time people were spending on the internet. In 1999, a freshman at Wake Forest named Ricky Van Veen realized that online eyeballs would soon start attracting lots of advertising dollars. He launched a comedy site called CollegeHumor, building the prototypical millennial landing page before millennials had a name. The success of his site, which according to The New York Times attracted 4 million to 8 million unique visitors per month in 2005, led to a legion of imitators. Some were poorly conceived — try to imagine Time Inc. spearheading a bro-centric satirical website called Office Pirates … that really happened. But at the time, many gained traction. Cracked.com, a digital reimagining of a decades-old humor magazine, launched in 2005 with the primordial version of the BuzzFeed listicle. Funny or Die, founded by Will Ferrell and film director Adam McKay in 2007, used its celebrity bona fides to lure everyone from Jim Carrey to Barack Obama into its comedic skits. And The Onion itself, known primarily for its writing, eventually expanded to the world of video with its cable news knockoff, The Onion News Network.

The rise of all this comedy was fueled by social media, which made it easy for a funny video or an especially cutting headline to go viral. As Facebook was building a massive user base of bored millennials looking to be entertained, comedy filled the void. For sites like CollegeHumor, that meant rising revenue, expanding payrolls, and enough cultural cachet to land a show on MTV. “For a long time there at CollegeHumor, maybe six years straight, it felt like every few months was some new exciting thing we were doing. Our traffic was growing, we were hiring people. There was a lot of ambition,” says Streeter Seidell, a former CollegeHumor editor who now writes for Saturday Night Live. “It was kind of like an entirely new industry, and everyone was thinking, ‘Is this real? Can you actually make enough money to make a living doing this?’”

For a time, the sites that made the biggest bets on social media reaped the biggest rewards. Van Veen has described CollegeHumor’s early decision to embrace YouTube (even though it generated no revenue at the time) as landing “beachfront real estate” on the burgeoning video site. The Onion joined Twitter in March 2008, more than a year before the Associated Press, and was part of a $100 million investment in original programming by YouTube in 2011. Cracked said it had 17 million monthly visitors in 2012 and helped propel its parent company, Demand Media, to a valuation of $1.5 billion. All the sites amassed Facebook followings well into the millions. “It was a time when if you had a good budget and you had a good idea and you executed it well, you had a pretty good chance of other people seeing it and liking it,” says Matt Klinman, a comedy writer who’s done stints at The Onion News Network and Funny or Die.

Virality came easily, and it begat greater virality thanks to news outlets. In the early years of the decade, a video like Funny or Die’s “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Man,” which Klinman worked on, would get written up everywhere from Upworthy to Time.com. The view counts for comedy kept rising, though the viewers were laughing further and further away from the homepages of the people who had actually created it. “Every media organization kind of became aggregators,” Klinman says. “Facebook leveled everyone out so we all looked the same on their platform anyway.”

By the time the digital world had completely reoriented itself around Facebook’s News Feed, The Onion was just starting to reap the benefits of its digital transition. After losing more than half of its editorial staff in its move from New York to Chicago in 2012, The Onion shuttered its print edition in 2013 and adopted a digital-first mind-set for the first time, Nackers says. Between 2013 and 2015, the company doubled its headcount. Its articles were widely shared on Facebook, and the sponsored videos produced by its in-house studio were also performing well on the social network, generating 80 percent of the company’s revenue. Back then, Donald Trump’s outlandish bid for the presidency looked like a comedic goldmine that might pay dividends for months, maybe longer if he somehow won the Republican nomination (the most ominous 2015 Onion headline was definitely the fake Trump op-ed “Admit It: You People Want to See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”). Following a splashy website redesign in May of that year, The Atlantic declared that The Onion was on the cusp of building a “real media empire.”

“It was just too easy,” Nackers says in hindsight. A free social network that distributes jokes, reroutes thousands of eyeballs to your website, and connects you with advertisers certainly sounds convenient, if not borderline miraculous.

But now that online comedy’s interdependence with behemoths like Facebook and Twitter has become ironclad, the prevailing attitude among comedy writers is much closer to Nackers’s current take on social media.

“Oh, yeah,” he laughs, “Facebook is a hellscape.”

That’s a neat summary of a viral Twitter thread Klinman posted after Funny or Die announced its January layoffs, its second in six months. “Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny Or Die and laid off all my friends,” Klinman wrote. He then elaborated in an interview with the comedy news site Splitsider bluntly headlined “How Facebook Is Killing Comedy,” which itself blew up. “It felt like there was a sort of relief of someone finally putting it in super-blunt terms and saying, ‘This is bullshit,’” says Megh Wright, the editor of Splitsider, which was acquired by New York Media on March 22.

Klinman chalks up the fundamental problem to monetization. A platform like YouTube gives creators a portion of the revenue from high-performing videos, albeit a small one — in an ecosystem where it’s increasingly difficult for young upstarts to break through. Facebook, on the other hand, doesn’t allow most publishers to directly profit from products like native video — clips published and distributed entirely inside Facebook, without ever linking out to an external website. The few outlets that have been allowed to monetize the videos are earning pennies per thousand impressions (Facebook will soon let video creators charge users $5 per month for exclusive content). “All the money is being extracted by these giant tech companies and not going to the people who are doing work,” Klinman argues. “We’re all doing labor for these companies every day. Every time you share something on Facebook, you’re working for Facebook.” That’s an abstract complaint if you’re a casual user sharing a funny observation. To a for-profit company, it’s an existential crisis.

In fact, the incentive system frequently works in reverse: Not only are publishers generally not paid for their content distributed on Facebook; they’re expected to pay Facebook for exposure, or otherwise suffer the consequences of an opaque News Feed algorithm that increasingly disadvantages publishers. “In 2012 or something, we would benefit greatly from Facebook, because it would just spread like wildfire,” Nackers says. “Then it feels like they shut down the valve, and they want you to pay a little bit of money to open the valve part way, and more money, and more money. That’s just a killer for media.” Nackers estimates that less than 10 percent of the followers of The Onion’s Facebook page now see any given article. “We have close to 7 million Facebook followers,” he says. “We brought them to or convinced them to subscribe to our feed. And they don’t even see most of the stuff that we do.”

The problem is not unique to The Onion, or even to media publishers. For several years, Facebook has been decreasing the percentage of users who see any page’s posts (known as “organic reach”). The company says it’s a necessity, because users simply have too many posts flowing through their News Feeds every day to show all of them; critics believe ratcheting down reach is part of a broad strategy to convince people with pages to spend more money on advertising to access their followers.

J.F. Sargent, a former staffer for Cracked, encountered similar frustrations when sharing his work on his personal author page. “Of my followers, only a smaller and smaller fraction were actually getting to see my content that they had told Facebook that they liked,” Sargent says. “So yeah, it is frustrating to see a social media system like that, that is so opaque, be so vague about how it gets its stuff to you.”

The problem has been compounded by Facebook’s latest algorithm shift, part of its fraught and highly publicized effort to combat the spread of misinformation. In January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the News Feed algorithm’s latest iteration would prioritize “meaningful interaction” with “friends and family,” a priority shift that was widely interpreted as putting publishers at a disadvantage. Everyone agrees fake news is a problem, but what happens if “fake news” is a pretty handy capsule description of your website’s entire ethos?

“The whole fake news stuff — we’ve questioned whether our reach has been tamped down even farther because of it being satirical,” Nackers says. Other publishers have noted a particularly heavy hit to their Facebook traffic from this most recent tweak. “Whatever happened with this last algorithm update has really been hard on everyone across the board,” notes Beth Newell, a cofounder of Reductress. “In the past, the tweaks have caused a slight dip and then gotten back to normal after a while. But it seems like with this last tweak, we haven’t quite seen that return.”

Newell estimates that less than 10 percent of Reductress’s traffic is direct. Most users follow a link from an external site like Facebook or Twitter rather than navigating to the site’s homepage. Social media has so fundamentally altered internet users’ behavior that it’s difficult for individual sites to overcome. “Nobody goes on their computer and types in ‘Funnyordie.com,’” says Adriana Robles, a former staff writer at Funny or Die. “You don’t type in any website like that.”

This, in turn, created a feedback loop in which companies put fewer resources into websites and other hubs that could compete with social media. “We’re now at a point where, because everyone became dependent on Facebook, we all let our websites atrophy,” Klinman says. The big Onion website redesign in 2015 was undone when the company was acquired by Univision just eight months later and, late last year, transferred all its articles to Kinja, the same aesthetically spare publishing system used by Gizmodo, Jezebel, and other former Gawker Media sites that now share a corporate umbrella with The Onion.

The Onion is now a Gawker blog,” Klinman says. “We’ve just erased the idea that things have had importance on the internet — that it’s important to have a home, that it’s important to have a place that’s distinct and is what your brand is. Instead, we’ve flattened everything out so that it will do well on Facebook’s version of the internet.” And on Facebook’s version of the internet, everything looks the same, making it difficult for individual websites to stand out and build a distinct reputation — even voicey, incisive sites like The Onion, Reductress, and Very Smart Brothas, which have a well-honed ability to announce themselves with catchy, clever headlines.

But a quality headline can be paradoxical. One of the internet economy’s hardest lessons is that shareability doesn’t necessarily equal profitability. “Retweets just don’t really affect the bottom line that much,” says Damon Young, cofounder of Very Smart Brothas. “They get people talking about your piece on Twitter, but they don’t drive as much traffic to the actual site, which is what I want. I want people reading the piece, not talking about the piece’s title.”

“Certain articles will happen,” Nackers notes. “It’ll have lots of likes or favorites or retweets, so the interaction is fairly good, but no one’s clicking.” Such is a natural pitfall of a house style like The Onion’s, where so much of the joke is contained in just a tweet-length sentence, allowing someone browsing a social media app on their phone to read a headline, smirk, and move on. The same efficiency that makes The Onion so successful as comedy also makes it vulnerable as a generator of ad revenue. Hence “Click the Fucking Link,” which does double duty as joke and PSA.

For The Onion in particular, divorcing an article from its context can prove troublesome. The outlet began as a satirical newspaper, and still hews to the stylistic conventions of old-school journalism as a mainstay of its dry, faux-factual house style. In an era when fewer people than ever read newspapers, that’s a problem. “The reference point is becoming lost for some people,” Nackers acknowledges.

And in an era when fewer people are aware of a site as a persona rather than the other side of the occasional Facebook link, decades-long in jokes can get lost, too. “We’ve been doing Area Man stuff for the entire existence of The Onion,” Nackers observes, but recently he’s encountered more and more readers who don’t understand that the banality of The Onion’s observational humor is the point — probably because they’re not regular readers. “It’s the classic local news story, but instead of it being about something more important, it’s just about some mundane thing in life that happens. Some people get it, but the other half is like, ‘So they’re just doing real articles now?’”

The flattening effect doesn’t just put publishers on the same level as other publishers; it also puts them on the same level as other internet users, any one of whom can share a joke with the push of a button. When Nackers started at The Onion, he recounts, “There weren’t that many other publications, so we’d be the first organization to comment on many things.” Now, there’s an entire medium with a dramatically lower barrier to entry than The Onion’s writers’-room-vetted approach, or the resource- and time-intensive process required to produce even a short video. “That was always an issue for when we were trying to do topical, responsive content,” says Hannah Levy, another former Funny or Die staff writer and Robles’s writing partner. “The best takes were already on Twitter the night before, so what were we gonna do with a video? How were we gonna add to the conversation?”

Twitter’s utility, or lack thereof, is a matter of perspective. Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh currently works as a writer on BET’s The Rundown With Robin Thede; before that, she interned at The Onion and worked for Above Average, where she had a web series called Baited With Ziwe. If you’re a casual-to-committed Twitter user, though, it’s more likely you recognize her as simply @ziwe, the popular Twitter user who enjoys clowning the president and the charitable works of Guy Fieri. That’s how her current boss came to know her, too: Fumudoh and Thede initially connected on Twitter, before The Rundown was ordered to series, and it’s how Fumudoh eventually got the job.

Fumudoh readily acknowledges social media’s drawbacks for professional joke writers. “Twitter definitely can make your job harder, and it can make your job easier,” she explains. “Everyone on Twitter is hilarious. You’ll have a story about Trump hit the scene, about [special counsel Robert] Mueller investigating whoever, and a minute later someone on Twitter will have the perfect punch line for the news story you have to cover.” But Twitter also played a crucial role in both her own career and the careers of many comedians her age: “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the internet for my comedy. It allowed me to not have to wait for a gatekeeper to put things out in the world. I could just go for it. That is so crucial as a young comedian.”

Likewise, the race to make the best and fastest Trump joke can be as productive as it is exhausting. Just as renewed civic engagement has boosted the ratings of TV comedians like Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert, so has the present political moment benefited many internet comedians and the publications that employ them. According to comScore, The Onion saw its traffic surge in the months surrounding the election and inauguration, peaking at more than 12 million unique visitors in January 2017. Though the site wasn’t able to maintain its Trump bump, one outlet has parlayed topical stories into a sustained audience boost that’s lasted well into the new presidency.

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a humor site operated by the Dave Eggers–founded nonprofit publishing company McSweeney’s, is primarily known as a home for niche, often literary pieces of satire like “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” and “Adjectives Rejected in Favor of ‘Kafkaesque.’” Ever since the election, though, articles like “How to Talk to Your Teen About Colluding With Russia” and “Hi, It’s Us, All the Fourteen-Year-Old Girls in America” — a response to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore — have regularly taken off. According to managing editor Christopher Monks, 2017 was the site’s highest traffic year to date by a significant margin.

McSweeney’s operates under a different model from sites like The Onion or Funny or Die. Even before its parent organization converted to a nonprofit in 2014, Internet Tendency has never been monetized. Monks is the only full-time employee, operating McSweeney’s remotely out of his home in suburban Boston. (The rest of McSweeney’s is headquartered in San Francisco.) The site does not sell ads or pay contributors, though Monks is hoping to change the latter in the near future. Such a structure limits the site’s potential growth, but also protects it from the fluctuations of a particularly volatile marketplace. “I see sites like Cracked and Funny or Die are laying people off because the advertising business is in such rough shape, and I’m like, Thank God we’re doing what we’re doing,” Monks says. “Maybe we’re not gonna be millionaires, but at least we can keep on keeping on.”

Still, some of McSweeney’s recent adjustments feel applicable beyond its particular circumstances. In the spring of 2017, Monks set up a separate submissions box for timely, news-pegged pieces. “Half of our most trafficked pieces last year came via that inbox,” Monks says. “It’s not like we’ve never posted topical stuff over the years, but we’ve sort of given into that a little bit more.” The new system has also increased McSweeney’s overall submissions volume, from an average of 150 to 200 pieces a week before the dual-inbox setup to around 300 a week now.

McSweeney’s isn’t alone in benefiting from keeping an eye toward the news. His surface-level observations might inspire groans from the hipper-than-thou portions of the internet, but writer Andy Borowitz’s namesake column on The New Yorker’s website routinely tops the legacy outlet’s “Most Popular” rankings. Though he concedes that many of his jokes can be “incredibly obvious and low-hanging fruit” — hence the now-infamous phenomenon of readers mistaking Borowitz Report headlines for the real thing — Monks isn’t as put off by Borowitz as many of his colleagues: “I actually don’t mind Borowitz as much as other humorists do, because I still appreciate that he came up with an idea and he put it together.” Besides, there’s more similarity between Borowitz’s dad jokes and the more incisive Trump takedowns than many would care to admit.

Other sites have opted to weather the storm by leaning into their specific voices rather than the general interest, which they say keeps them out of competition with the internet hivemind. “What we’re doing is really specific, and what we’re commenting on is really specific, so I don’t really feel like we’re competing with meme makers out there or anything like that,” says Reductress cofounder Sarah Pappalardo. “It feels like we’ve been carving a niche for a while, and it’s slowly becoming more desired in the marketplace.”

This ethos manifests in both Reductress’s everyday output (“I’m Not Really Into Craft Beer, I’m Just Here for the Dick”; “8 Guys on Tinder That Have Been to Machu Picchu But Never to Therapy”), sourced from a contributor network of about 300 total and 20 to 30 active members, and projects like a day devoted to sexual assault and harassment. Launched in response to a debate within New York’s comedy community over an accused assailant’s ban from the Upright Citizens Brigade network, the package included pieces like “‘Most Women Lie About Rape,’ Says Man Lying About Rape” and “Man Who Sexually Assaulted You Likes Your Facebook Post About Assault,” the latter by Newell herself.

“They found a space that wasn’t filled and an audience that was hungry to see their own sensibilities,” Splitsider’s Megh Wright says of Reductress. “There’s things on Reductress slanted toward women that are just so specific that it might not make it on The Onion. But because that’s the world Reductress is, you can go really crazy places under that umbrella of a women’s magazine sort of satire.”

Very Smart Brothas offers a similarly pointed perspective, filtering news about Trump, systemic racism, and the scourge of St. Patrick’s Day through the black experience. Most of the site’s posts are written by Young and his cofounder Panama Jackson, with headlines that veer from direct, bracing social commentary (“America Doesn’t Have a Gun Control Problem. We Have a White-People Problem.”) to borderline-trolling hypotheticals (“Do White People Have Cousins?”). “I think what maybe distinguishes them [Reductress] and also us right now is the level of bite to the humor, where it’s like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe that they said that,’” Young says. (He recently wrote a blog post calling Betsy DeVos “The World’s Most Useless White Woman.”) “That ‘holy shit’ factor, with so much content out there … [for] a newer humor site, that’s not maybe as established as The Onion or doesn’t have the resources that Cracked did, you have to be a bit more nimble just to be able to compete.”

Specificity does come with a trade-off. Appealing to a particular audience can mean limiting one’s appeal outside of it. Both Reductress and Very Smart Brothas have seen their numbers gradually increase over the past few years. According to Reductress’s internal data, the site’s traffic had been trending steadily upward, peaking at just over 2 million unique visitors in May 2017, before falling by a fifth in February 2018 after Facebook’s latest adjustment. Very Smart Brothas gauged 3.5 million pageviews last month, up from 2.2 million last March, and was acquired by Univision last year, where the site now operates as a subsection of The Root. (comScore pegs the audience for both Very Smart Brothas and Reductress well below 1 million, though the sites’ editors say they are undertracked by the service.) But those elevated metrics are still below even The Onion’s reduced readership, suggesting a restricted reach outside the targeted demographic.

“It does seem like there are these more niche, small-appeal-type, stand-alone sites that can maybe still be competitive and still have a staff,” says Seidell, the former CollegeHumor staffer. “But it feels like the days of the broad comedy clearinghouses have come to a close.”

Even the most deep-pocketed and well-resourced attempts to start a generalist comedy brand from scratch have had difficulty achieving liftoff. In 2016, NBCUniversal launched Seeso, a comedy-specific streaming service that attempted to capitalize on a cultural humor boom fueled by podcasts and Peak TV. As one might expect from a corporate parent like Comcast, Seeso’s ambitions exceeded even those of peak-era CollegeHumor or Funny or Die, encompassing original series, stand-up specials, and the archives of NBC mainstays like Saturday Night Live. The service folded just over 18 months later, in November. Seeso’s mission may have been broader than an independent satire site’s, but its failure to sustain itself despite establishment backing indicates the difficulty of building up a brand-new force in comedy in the 2010s.

With large-scale comedy sites seemingly a thing of the past, humor outlets are finding new avenues to profitability other than traditional advertising. Funny or Die and CollegeHumor are evolving into television production studios, growing web series like Drunk History and Adam Ruins Everything into cable mainstays. Young, of Very Smart Brothas, has a book of essays on the way. Reductress earns a significant portion of its revenue through merchandise sales (disclosure: A coauthor of this article is the proud owner of a Reductress-brand WEED MOM sweatshirt) and recently launched a Patreon campaign, an increasingly popular tactic among humorists hoping to parlay a connection with their audience into a sustainable funding source. McSweeney’s currently has more than 1,600 patrons, putting the site over 90 percent of the way toward its goal of compensating contributors. “I saw it as an opportunity for me to make something that’s just what I want to make and see how many people want to consume what I make, how many people want to read what I want to write,” says Sargent, who has his own page seeking support for a collection of comedic short stories. “If you’re a writer who’s really successful on Patreon, that means you’re writing something that your audience can’t get anywhere else. And that’s hard!” But if you can convince readers that’s the case, it’s also a promising alternative to traditional ads — at least for the individual creators and upstart operations trying to fashion a lasting career out of an increasingly decentralized system.

Meanwhile, some industry insiders are simply embracing the social-driven future by fully succumbing to it. Van Veen, the CollegeHumor cofounder who sparked online comedy’s early gold rush, joined Facebook as its global head of creative strategy in 2016. If he does his job well, he’ll be working to fold the culture he helped build into Facebook’s ever-expanding media Death Star — making it even tougher for comedy sites to build a business that lives outside the gravitational pull of social networks.

As for The Onion, the outlet has a new book out, called The Trump Leaks, that features security briefings colored in crayon by the president, among other sensitive documents. The site also signed a three-picture deal with Lionsgate last year that, if we’re lucky, could involve an adaptation of the ClickHole adventure “Murder, Cheat, and Fuck Your Way Through Boston.” And the company’s new true crime podcast parody, A Very Fatal Murder, has earned positive reviews for translating The Onion’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility to a new, au courant platform.

The Onion, a newsweekly turned website turned multimedia company and (reluctant) social media fixture, has historically evolved alongside the media establishment it’s mocking. It will probably survive the current digital upheaval as it always has, sneering at the people who make the world worse. Consider it a journalistic mission that the whole internet adopted.

As ubiquitous and widely imitated as its trademark sensibility may be, The Onion still aims to stay ahead of the trends and above the fray. “So much validation is from ‘This got retweeted’ or ‘People are talking about this,’” Nackers says. “We’ve always been this giant monolith that doesn’t care about any of that, and doesn’t think our readers deserve a voice or think our readers should have any say in anything.

“I’ve seen an Onionization of the online world in which ridiculing people is commonplace now. It’s what everybody does.”

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