The Onion Founder Scott Dikkers Talks Workplace Freedom, Dark Humor In HUB Lecture

Scott Dikkers, founder of satirical online news site The Onion, discussed the publication’s history and rise to internet popularity in the HUB Friday night.

Dikkers, who is The Onion’s longest-serving editor-in-chief, began his lecture by noting that his website has never shied away from writing about the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

He then recounted the start of his career with The Onion, and discussed a few of the more memorable writers that have come and gone through the publication’s history. The Onion was originally called “The Rag,” and was published exclusively at the University of Wisconsin. Two students approached Dikkers — who had gained notoriety for his comics in Wisconsin’s student newspaper — with the idea of creating a satirical newspaper.

A few months passed before the two students sold The Onion to Dikkers for $3,000. As Dikkers recalled during his lecture, the paper steadily grew after he bought the company, but its biggest spike in growth coincided with the emergence of the internet.

The Onion gained plenty of publicity — negative and positive — through its initial online content. The site ran a story about a child bankrupting the Make-A-Wish Foundation by wishing for unlimited wishes in a story that was met with an angry phone call from “the head of Make-A-Wish,” Dikkers said.

He emphasized the importance of his process of hiring new writers in the growth and success of The Onion.

“We did not search high and low for writers,” he said. “Only low.”

Most of The Onion’s first round of staff writers came from broken homes and otherwise difficult circumstances. His staffers worked for minimum wage as janitors and cashiers, and grew up in unstable family environments, much like the founder himself. Dikkers spoke about being bullied and his parents’ divorce, experiences that helped him find similar people that shared his dark sense of humor.

Another key to the success of The Onion was the freedom Dikkers gave his writers. They were allowed to come into work drunk and high in the early days of the publication, he said, and were always given plenty of freedom in the workplace.

“If you’re ever lucky enough to be a boss in the future, be the best boss in the world,” he said. “Tell them what to do and then let them do it. The worst bosses constantly try to micromanage and control their employees and their work.”

Dikkers’s lecture delivered an insightful look into how one of the world’s best-known satirical news outlets grew from a dorm room on the campus of the University of Wisconsin to what it is today. The lecture was part of SPA day, hosted by the Student Programming Association.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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