Critiquing “The Onion”


Banner Ad from The Onion (Screen shot, taken 4/24/12)

The Onion, with its highly inappropriate stories featuring public figures and indecent language, has been providing America with giggles and eye-rolls since 1988 when it was founded by Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson of UW-Madison. Originally a paper newspaper, The Onion created its website ( in 1996.

At first glance, the website appears to be fairly well-organized, with a menu bar across the top of the screen as well as a list of “news stories” in their “Newswire.” It is divided at first into two columns, then three, then back to two. The short life of the third column consists of advertisements; when the site goes down to two columns, the second column remains advertisements. It seems like the main reason for the division into three columns to begin with was to fit the “Newswire” into the top of the page.

By the description alone, it sounds as if the ads would be overwhelming. However, with no flashing banners or annoying pop-ups, it’s fairly easy (at first glance) for the advertisements to either go unnoticed or to believe that they’re a part of this satirical site. If the site is left for a few minutes without any links being clicked, it automatically refreshes itself in order to show new advertisements. The top banner ad (usually) matches the ad on the side column, and a second banner ad advertises the Facebook installation of The Onion (“Our Dumb Readers”).

Although there are a lot of entertaining links to click on, the navigation of the site isn’t quite that user-friendly. The top links include “Video,” “Sports,” “War for the White House,” “News Beat,” “More,” and “Social.” Below the first banner ad appears a second navigation bar featuring “Sandwichgate,” “Cool Accidents,” “Wal-Mart Weirded Out,” and “Depressed Ralph Lauren.” Then, below yet another banner ad, the main stories are finally featured.

With the exception of the photos and the occasional green headline with white writing, the font choice of the site is plain, black, and sans-serif. The sans-serif part caught me by surprise the most; the first thing I learned in almost every journalism course I’ve taken is that, as far as readability for your audience is concerned, a serif font such as Times New Roman is definitely the way to go. The black used for both text and links could be confusing for some, appearing to be snippets of news stories instead of the full text. I feel this could be improved by using blue, purple, or even their signature green for links, so readers could more easily discern between what is clickable and what is not.

The homepage of The Onion is about 4.5 pages of scrolling long. A reader has to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the real navigation: “Opinion,” “Local,” “Entertainment,” “Science and Technology,” “Sports,” and “Politics.” Up until this point, the page and navigation seems fairly well-organized; however, not many readers are going to have the patience and/or attention span to want to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page in order to find the navigation of the site.

After you click on one of the main video stories, it’s not uncommon to be forced to watch a 30-ish second advertisement (which starts automatically, so make sure you either have headphones in or the volume down).  However, this could be said about increasing numbers of news websites; revenue has to be made somewhere, especially when there is no paywall in place (yes, you read that correctly; The Onion currently has no paywall. A reader can browse for as long as he or she would like without encountering a blockage requesting money. However, in 2011, The Onion began testing one for its international readers, meaning one may come into play for American viewers in the near future). The regular news stories (by regular I mean non-video) are pretty much the same as seen on any other news site, not counting the satirical part. With short paragraphs and interesting photographs, The Onion makes for a fairly easy read. My only complaint is that the column featuring advertisements is almost the same width as the column that the story is in, which is somewhat distracting.

Much like almost every other site, The Onion features a widget with the options to “Tweet,” “Like,” or “+1” (for Google+) as well as the options to email, print, and share the stories on each news story.

The Onion website has a fairly easy navigation system in place- that is, if a reader is persistent enough to keep scrolling down until they find the real navigational links. I personally believe that they would have a much more user-friendly website if they added the navigation links to the top, instead of making the reader scroll down 4.5 page lengths before finding the main links. Also, a switch over to a serif font instead of sans-serif would increase readability- when a viewer is able to read stories faster (which a serif font usually enables him or her to do), the chances that he or she will read more stories and even click on some of the advertisements increases.


About karimarie90

I'm a left-handed "dog person" who dyes her hair a lot and loves archery.
This entry was posted in Journalism, News, Opinion, Student Life, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Critiquing “The Onion”

  1. Ishmam says:

    I recommend some kind of ad-blocking software for your browser. Let’s me chuckle and eye-roll without distractions. Great post!

  2. karimarie90 says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ishmam! I actually do have an ad-blocker on my laptop, but I was using a school computer when I wrote this. It’s always surprising to see how many ads that I don’t actually see exist on the pages I visit every day. 🙂

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