The first stage of the plan throughout this past year, of course, was to solicit media partnerships in the eight markets where they already distribute papers (always free, usually in boxes on the street or in bars and restaurants). The Chicago Tribune was the first big media property to respond, offering a logical partnership in a city where The Onion already has a large print circulation. Other papers followed within days: the Austin American-Statesman, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Wisconsin State Journal, and The Denver Post. (Similar deals in the remaining three markets—Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and New York—will eventually follow, but are still in the talking phases.)
The second stage is to open the opportunity up to potential franchisees in new markets, where The Onion hasn’t yet appeared in print. According to COO Michael McAvoy, the most appealing markets for print expansion would be either large cities or state capitals where theonion.com already gets a lot of web traffic (places like Seattle, Portland, and Columbus), or smaller cities with a lot of young people per capita because of colleges and universities (like Knoxville and Lexington). The new franchisees who sign on could be other existing newspapers, or—enticingly—individuals looking to get into business with their favorite satirical news source.
Partnering with existing media organizations was “a logical first step,” McAvoy says. Newspapers already have the financial and logistical advantages of distribution deals and sales forces in place, not to mention printing presses. “But from there we love the idea of launching new cities with a couple people who are fresh out of school, or who have been in the print business before. All those things sound great to us, as long as they are Onion fans and they want to protect the brand and build a good business.”
A press release of sorts, written in the character of “H. Cuthbert Zweibel, VP of Client Relations,” describes The Onion’s core audience to its potential franchise owners:
The typical Onion reader tends to be an almost insufferably literate and unbearably thoughtful type, the sort of person whose emotional shortcomings render them unable to face the world without filtering it through a veil of sarcasm. These spiritual cripples refer to this escapist defense mechanism as a “sense of humor,” and if they were not willing to throw money around with remarkable abandon, they would be utterly useless.
If that describes the average citizen of your almost intolerably vibrant community, you now have a chance to bleed them of cash until they are dried and withered hipster husks.
(A more straightforward, unironic FAQ is also available on the same site, for the curious.) McAvoy says they have already received hundreds of applications from all over the country, which they will begin to look through in the coming months. Those who are eventually chosen as new franchisees will be brought in for a week-long training course in Chicago. There they will learn the particulars of everything from negotiating a printing contract to running Onion-sponsored promotional events.
Hannah says he’s confident about this new venture, and confident they’ll get strong candidates to protect and expand The Onion’s brand. “It’s preferable if you know the publishing business, obviously,” he says. “But this is not rocket science. It’s sales, and then it’s printing and distribution. The most important thing is to find the right people to sell it. The right people will ‘get the joke.’”
*Update: This post originally stated that full episodes of both of The Onion’s television programs would be available for free viewing online. The IFC program will only appear online for free in selected clips; full episodes will be available for purchase through iTunes and Amazon. The error has been corrected.