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Area Satirical Publication The Onion Sold To Univision (Seriously)

Editors and writers with The Onion work on elections copy in October 2008 during a drafts meeting at the website's offices, then in New York.
Seth Wenig
Editors and writers with The Onion work on elections copy in October 2008 during a drafts meeting at the website's offices, then in New York.

Univision Communications Inc., the parent company to the nation's leading Spanish-language broadcast channel, has acquired a controlling stake in the satirical news site The Onion, NPR has learned.

The agreement between two seemingly disparate media outfits was described to NPR by a person with direct involvement in the negotiations. A second person who was briefed on the deal by Univision executives also confirmed its broad strokes. The amount of money involved in the deal was not disclosed. NPR has also obtained a memo from the CEO of The Onion announcing the deal to staffers.

This account is in many ways reliant upon the information provided by those two people. NPR sought comment Monday from corporate officials and spokespersons for Univision and The Onion about the deal, as well as from Fusion and ABC about elements of this story involving them. None of those messages by voice mail or email were returned.

Univision will acquire a 40 percent, controlling stake in The Onion, which includes the site, its influential sister popular-culture outfit The A.V. Club, the social media satire site Clickhole, and various book and video projects. Univision also will have the right to buy the humor company outright.

The move comes at a time of transition and change for both organizations.

Univision's dominance in Spanish language television has been based on a loyal but aging population. Latinos born in this country — a quickly growing segment of the population — are much more likely to consume media in English. Univision launched the English-language Fusion network in concert with Disney's ABC network to reach English-speaking Latinos, a venture that soon pivoted to reach millennials more generally.

Last spring, Univision also acquired The Root, an online site geared toward African-American readers that was founded by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Randy Falco, Univision's CEO, and Isaac Lee, its president of news and digital, have concluded that humor is a key ingredient to appeal to the millennial palate. They hope to build on The Onion's traffic for their existing digital sites, which are experiencing marked growth but not yet enjoying much in the way of profits.

The Onion has undergone major shifts as well. Born as a printed newspaper in the late 1980s in the undergraduate humor culture in Madison, Wis., it moved to New York in 2001 to tap into the energy and comedy scene. A steep drop in revenue after the global financial crisis, however, led to a move to Chicago, which triggered a diaspora among many of the editors and writers of that time. The Onion will remain based in Chicago under the terms of the new ownership structure.

Like some of the journals it parodied, as its metabolism accelerated to keep pace with the frenetic media age, The Onion abandoned print. It published its final printed editions in December 2013.

Much of The Onion's profits arrive from Onion Labs, its division that makes "sponsored content" videos — comedic in effect but intended to reinforce a brand's underlying advertising message or qualities. Past sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, the PC manufacturer Lenovo, and Illinois' health care exchange.

The Onion had been bought by a group led by financial investor David Schafer in 2001. It publicly acknowledged seeking bids in fall 2014 and was reportedly in at least informal talks twice in the past decade about a possible sale to Viacom.

In a memo to staff obtained by NPR, Onion CEO Mike McAvoy told staff that Fusion would play a key role in the site's future.

McAvoy wrote: "So what does this mean for us as a company? Good things. Univision is excited to help Onion Inc. grow, and to provide the resources to both support our long-standing mission and fund new initiatives. They'll help us keep the foundation strong and to build great new things on top of it. As an independent media company, we've always been forced to run a tight financial ship, which has made us smart and lean, but not always ready to invest in the great new ideas that we come up with."

Univision's Fusion network appears to be a key element in the acquisition.

Fusion has been a project of formidable — but in many ways unrealized — aspirations; the parent company realizes a profit on the television portion of Fusion only because its in-house offerings have been cut back sharply in favor of programs by outside contractors.

Univision anchor Jorge Ramos' hourlong English-language newscast remains. Fusion's bosses have taken great heart in recent months from the role Ramos has played in the presidential primaries, particularly in tangling with Republican candidate Donald Trump.

They have also been buoyed of late both by the network's broadcast of the Democratic Brown & Black Presidential Forum in Iowa last week and by the news that Sean Penn and the drug lord Joaquin Guzman joked about a Fusion documentary about him during their now infamous Rolling Stone interview.

The network's aggressive digital hirings, including such social media savants as Anna Holmes, Alexis Madrigal and Felix Salmon, have seemed incongruous to some critics except as part of Fusion's bid to appeal to younger audiences.

The Fusion television network is now available in 40 million households; re-negotiations of Univision's major contracts with cable providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next two years could add tens of millions more.

The network already has partnered with others in the world of comedy for programming: One show is produced in partnership with Funny or Die, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's comedy site. Another project relayed former Daily Show correspondent and comedian Al Madrigal's travels as he seeks to understand his Mexican heritage better.

Univision and ABC are now in the process of unraveling their joint venture in Fusion, which will remain in Miami as part of Univision. And Univision, which is privately held, is now weighing an initial public offering — that is, whether to issue public stock.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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