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The Onion's Digital Guru Explains How To Use Tech (And Why Chaos Is Great)

Baratunde Thurston is the director of digital for everyone’s favourite satirical news source The Onion, but being funny is easier when you’re organised, technically proficient and open to inspiration. Lifehacker chatted to Baratunde about the work that goes on behind the scenes at The Onion to produce multimedia news satire on a daily basis, how to build your own video environment, the role of Twitter in digital media and more.

Lifehacker: What are some of those tools we might never see but help you run behind the scenes of the digital Onion?
Baratunde Thurston: Internally in the company we’re all on Google. Everybody uses a Mac as a hardware platform but we’re a Google Apps customer. So we use the calendaring function, we use the email, and especially, especially Google Docs. I cannot overstate how crucial it’s been to not email around spreadsheet files! It’s kind of like ‘what did you do before mobiles came along?’ When we were trying to coordinate meeting up with a friend, how did you that before you had mobile phones? I imagine people just kept their word! You said you’d meet at half past five and you just did it. Now you have all sorts of excuses for not being there on time.

Similarly in an office environment, particularly in such a collaborative environment. You don’t see bylines at The Onion. The Onion writes these articles. There are certainly head writers for each piece but they’re all commented upon, edited, optimised, adding graphics. It’s hard to find one single person who could say that piece was all mine. A collaborative creative environment requires tools of collaborative creativity and for us Google Docs is that tool. Sharing spreadsheets, voting on content.

In terms of our social media account management, Hootsuite is what we have settled on for multiple profile management. It allows one admin profile and delegated privileges on an account basis to members of the team. That’s been really useful so we all see the same thing and can assign responses to one another in rare cases.

We built our own CMS. We tried to work with a number of third party web vendors for services. That’s kind of a vague statement, but something like a Twitter feed. A lot of publishers would say ‘plug your RSS feed into this and that will publish to Twitter’. But we just kept breaking it. We have so many Twitter followers. I don’t think it was the content, we don’t have that much content on the demand side. A lot of the companies when we signed up for their products had just never seen such volume like this.

We use the telephone a lot! For conference calls. Pretty standard stuff, but a surprisingly large amount of voice communication activities. Because some of our folks are distributed especially on the tech side with developers in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York.

And IRC. We are huge on IRC on the tech side. We always have a channel open and for the dev team that is their office. They check into the IRC room. We’ll go out to lunch in New York and if a developer comes with us he’s got IRC on his Nexus One just in case something is broken or on fire or something.

LH: The Onion originally parodied print media. How did the video and TV side of the project evolve?
BT: I don’t know that we had an explicit goal of reaching a broadcast channel. The idea was to give ourselves some extra creative inspiration. We’d been doing a newspaper parody for some time, we’d been doing the Onion Radio News, we’ve had all sorts of features we’ve worked on, some have continued and others have not.

Video is a natural extension of how you adequately satirise a 21st-century media organisation. So there was almost a creative necessity, and there was also a good business reason to do it. Ad rates are much higher for video than they are for display, so there was financial support for it. The idea of moving to television – I wasn’t in the room at all, my job is digital marketing and creative support – but I think it came out of the fact the videos were doing really, really well. They look really good. We differentiated ourselves. We spent a lot of money, we hired really good people, and it looks better than any other consistently released web video that’s out there, I think. Certainly in the genre but probably across anything, I think the fact that it looks so much like TV meant that people thought ‘hey, maybe they should be on TV.’ There’s also nothing like it on TV, so that made it a pretty interesting opportunity.

LH: Did you build out your own facility?
BT: We don’t own a lot of physical assets related to video production. We own our cameras and equipment but we don’t actually own a studio. We rent studio time. The way the web video has been produced is in batches. So we’d write for a window of time, get all the scripts organised, then we’d cast, organise the locations, do all the shooting in a couple of weeks. Because that’s just easier to organise the actors, the talent, the PAs, and all the paperwork involved in shooting. Then we’d go into post production.

That leads to a certain type of writing, because you have to write well in advance and hope things play out the way you expect. Or you write around an event without specifically addressing it.

LH: How about testing out new ideas? There’s a balancing act to be managed between waiting until you perfect an idea, or diving in and making it better as you go.
BT: We’re talking early and often with iterations versus making it great or don’t make it at all. There’s a lot of ways to answer that. In terms of the editorial content we produce, it is a very deliberate process that depends on a lot of eyes looking at something and agreeing that this represents The Onion. In that sense there is no beta release of Onion material. All that is pretty well vetted and has to stand up to the name of producing quality content for 20 years now.

In terms of our digital work we’re much more experimental there. We’ve certainly tried things and stopped them and initiated programs and they’ve failed. That’s something we’re getting a lot better — just getting something out the door and iterating around that.

Our first iPhone app was an example of this. We thought we had a brilliant idea for an app. And I still think it was an interesting one but the timing was pretty wrong. We had no iPhone app, we’d waited a while, and we had this idea to release an app that was just headlines. Because we have a whole bunch of one-liner jokes that are never seen on the website. They’re in the print edition, they’re in the ticker for the videos. We wanted to combine the idea of exposing these headlines with a heavy design motif of a microfiche. You know, those library readers of old microfilm. So we had a company called Carrot Design do a really amazing user interface where you opened up the app and you had the sound of the machine warming up and the flicker and the glass looks like it’s cracked and there’s a dead bug in the screen and you can flip through and once you get ten of them you had to flip to another slide to get more. All very stylised and very neat. But totally missed people’s demand! People just wanted to read The Onion in an optimised form for the iPhone.

So we had terrible reviews from people saying ‘This is just headlines! I just want to read the articles!’ And a lot of the online commentary — we don’t have comments on our website because people usually have nothing smart to say — but on Facebook and Twitter and other places, people were saying ‘Oh, I just love The Onion for the headlines! That’s all I need!’ So we released an app that was nothing but the headlines and people were really upset. So no one knows what they want and when they tell you they’re lying. That was one of the lessons there.

Since then we’ve gotten better about not trying to build up this huge thing and release a ginormous thing. Instead do more incremental releases in the style that software should be done. So for a lot of our digital initiatives we do that.

We’ve built up our live event coverage on Twitter like that. That started as an experiment that I ran in my spare time. I had some results, we did it again. And now it’s a full, formal production involving a lot more people than me and we have interns working on it and editors of the paper weighing in and we’re adding video and we’re tracking metrics and we’re making post action reports. But the very first one we did wasn’t like that – it would be way too much to invest in an unproven idea. But once it started to be proven we could start to invest more time.

LH: So Twitter isn’t just some ephemeral thing, you really think about how you use it.
BT: It’s certainly one of the welcome developments in the digital world that has actually affected how we produce digital material and how we think about releasing things. The paper side of the company is still very much on a weekly production schedule in terms of how many stories get written, and how many image-only things get released. Video is on its schedule and has its production process. And occasionally we’ll fast track a story if an event happens that we really want to get some kind of satirical Onion comment on it. But in general we have a steady rhythm regardless of outside influences.

Twitter is just so real-time. It’s kind of like writing for television. It’s a different medium unto itself. That’s what I’ve started to respect about it. I love it personally and I personally live tweet events, so I’d had that experience to help bring into The Onion. It’s about more than just releasing material at a certain time and at a certain length. You actually write in a different way for it.

LH: For those who would like to follow in the footsteps, is a bit of DIY and having a go a smart route to take?
BT: Absolutely. I’m actually glad you asked that question that way. Last week I was at a university and I was talking to a bunch of journalism students and they were asking about internships and where they should work and how do you get a career in journalism. And I think for any career in journalism and for almost any career nowadays and especially anything to do with digital – built it! Create something!

Either it will be successful and you’ll be glad you did it and you’ll have control. Or it’ll fail terribly and you’ll learn something. Or it’ll be somewhere in between, a bit successful and a bit not, but someone will take notice and if you’ve done your job enough then they might approach you.

Create your own community. On my personal side, I came into The Onion with a lot of personal experience already that wasn’t necessarily directly targeted at working at The Onion. But when the opportunity presented itself I happened to be ready. And it was really cool to be able to be in those interviews and say I’ve done this Internet stuff and this is my political comedic stuff and here’s, you know, blah blah blah. That was an asset to have. I wasn’t pursuing those activities in the hope of stumbling across a job in the future. I was doing them because I was passionate about them.

We have an opportunity in the emerging world of freelance everybody and no loyalty whatsoever to any company to really focus on building yourself and try to work at some kind of living out of the things you love. Even if it’s just in part of the time you’re doing. Maybe you end up working at The Onion. Maybe you end up working for Gaddafi. Whatever your passion is, you can do that! That’s kind of exciting. In the history of people’s power to determine their fate we’re at a really high point. I don’t know if it’s the highest but it’s certainly high relative to the vast human history of slavery and serfdom. We’ve got a lot more choices than our ancestors did so take advantage of it.

You don’t even have to have all the different OS platforms. There’s simulations you can run on various online services. There’s like a force multiplier on innovation that’s lowering the barrier to executing an idea. It also means there are fewer excuses not to do it. In the past there was really high risk, you would even have had to throw away financial security of working for a big company who would have to pay you a pension. Those days are completely over. But on the other end of that the possibility of doing something entrepreneurial is much higher than its ever been and at the lowest cost that it’s ever been. And it’s only going to get cheaper – the more digital tools are deployed the more we’ll have production tools rather than digital consumption tools and it’s infusing and disrupting every model that exists that had any kind of authority associated with it. Whether that’s the music industry, the film industry. Porn. Whatever your thing is! It’s being severely altered and there’s a lot of opportunity in that chaos. Yay chaos! Chaos For The Win!