“Area Pubis Shorn.” “Karaoke Singer Will Survive.” “Fat Kid Calls Shirts.” “Hulk Smash.”
The Onion’s headlines have on innumerable occasions confirmed the maxim that brevity is the soul of wit. With such clarity and punch, delivered with such deadpan subversiveness, it’s easy to fathom how American’s Finest News Source has hooked so many readers who might have otherwise never picked up a newspaper.
In recent months, though, something has felt a little different. And I know it’s not just me. Without prompting, a few people I’ve spoken to have made a similar observation: that The Onion’s headlines have seemed unusually wordy lately. We reasoned that maybe it has to do with the much-publicized editorial shakeup, where a good portion of the writers jumped (or are now jumping) ship following news that the paper was relocating to Chicago. Regardless of the cause, I wanted to confirm my suspicions.
So I spent a stupid amount of time in Google Reader counting all of the words in every single news headline The Onion posted in May and June of this year. I didn’t count any of the videos or opinions pieces or those American Voices features — just the news. Then I did the same thing for the exact same time period in 2011.
I realize that I couldn’t have compiled a much stingier sample, but I don’t think it matters much considering the massive disparity in data the two years yielded.
In May and June of 2011, The Onion posted 11 news headlines containing more than 15 words. Only three of those headlines contained more than 20 words. In May and June of 2012 — and keep in mind that June still had a few days left — The Onion posted 57 news headlines with more than 15 words, with 27 of those headlines containing more than 20 words.
Eleven to 57 is quite the jump. No matter how you look at it, there’s really no way to convince yourself it’s a matter of coincidence. So what’s the deal? I’m not complaining or anything, but much of what makes The Onion so arrestingly funny is the comedic tension between the real and the fake, the absurd premises trapped in meticulously structured copy with tight, journalistic headlines. You'll almost never see a New York Times headline over 20 words, after all. The longer headlines really hit the mark when used sparingly, but when they become noticeably frequent, things start feeling a little more tongue-in-cheek.
Or at least that’s how it feels to me. I could be entirely off base. But I think the numbers are a loud enough testament that something’s afoot over at Onion HQ, either due to longtime writers leaving or a broader editorial shift. It's not necessarily a bad thing — The Onion has been around a long time, and it's natural for it to change over time — but it'll be interesting to see if the changes become more stark now that the staffers who stayed in NYC are all officially done with the paper.
Steve Etheridge writes for ESPN.com, Sports Pickle, and also some non-sports places. He lives in Chicago and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.