Monday, October 10, 2005

Separating the funny from the money

Everyone knows that The Onion is the reigning juggernaut of online satire, but not everyone knows how much this publication owes to its pre-internet roots, nor how close it came to folding when the dot-com bubble burst. There's an interesting look at the history of The Onion's expansion in the Denver Post, which chronicles the story of the Colorado franchise of the paper.

Ten years ago, when The Onion was still only available on newsstands (and not many of them), brothers Dave and Jeff Haupt bought a franchise for cheap - a one-time ten-year licensing fee of $25,000 and a mere $200 to $500 a week for rights to use The Onion's content. In turn, the Haupt brothers built a franchise with a circulation of 50,000 and revenues of $1 million a year, causing Onion editors to tear their hair out and count the minutes until the expiration of the deal (at which point they snapped up the Colorado outfit immediately).

Interestingly, the Haupts' key to success was their businesslike approach:

"The Haupts pulled it off by often being un-Onion. To win advertising dollars, they banned sex ads and scrapped stories with headlines such as "Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack" and "Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying."

Sales reps in the paper's Chicago office were known to smoke marijuana while watching Cubs games on television, Jeff Haupt said. But the Haupts and their partner, Dave Rogers, assembled a staff accustomed to power lunches."

The Onion is now borrowing many lessons learned from the Haupts to expand their hard-copy business throughout the country. There is no word, however, on whether the corporate policies on marijuana smoking on the job have been changed.
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