On Thursday April 18, Scott Dikkers, one of the founders of the satirical newspaper The Onion, spoke to students in Doty Recital Hall about both his personal journey as a cartoonist and editor, and the growth of The Onion from a small college newspaper to a multimedia empire.
Dikkers discovered the humor magazine Mad Magazine in the third grade and developed a fascination with comedy. He became the class clown, imitating teachers and disrupting classrooms all throughout grade school. When he graduated high school, Dikkers was determined to make a living in comedy and started drawing cartoons.
After many attempts to get his cartoons published were met with rejection letters, one of Dikkers’s cartoons was finally printed in a local college newspaper in Madison, Wis. The comic strip, called Jim’s Journal, was run on a trial basis.
“The amazing thing is, people liked it. They would cut it out and hang it on dorm room doors and professors’ office doors,” Dikkers said. “And so, the paper decided they were going to run it daily, and they were going to pay me five dollars a week. I had made it! I was a comedy professional!”
Dikkers got involved with The Onion when he offered to take the editor position of a newspaper in which he had only published three different cartoons. The newspaper was run by two college students who had published two issues and were struggling with sleep deprivation due to the monumental task of putting out issues with such a small staff.
Eventually, Dikkers scraped enough money together to buy The Onion and distributed it for free across campus. He found that people would knock on his door offering to help with the newspaper and, in the beginning, they worked for him for free. To find other writers, Dikkers explained that he did not spend hours courting the “best” and most well-known talent.
“I did not search high and low. I just searched low: college dropouts, liquor store clerks, grocery store clerks. They were bitter, they were hateful, they had no prospects in life,” Dikkers said, adding that The Onion gave these people the opportunity to do something they loved.
Dikkers emphasized the importance of being a good boss and granting his writers freedom.
“I noticed that the more freedom I gave to my writers, the more they did and the better they got,” he said. “Don’t breathe down [your employees’] necks and you will find that they rise to the occasion. People don’t like to be controlled.”
The Onion publishes satirical, wacky articles about national, international and local news that, to an unknowing reader, can seem real. For example, Dikkers named many instances in which major issues have stemmed from audiences reading a story from The Onion and believing it is true.
One of these instances occurred when The Onion published a story declaring dictator of North Korea Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive,” a story which an official Chinese news source reran verbatim.
In another instance, The Onion published a story about a child with leukemia who, upon being granted a wish from the Make-A-Wish-Foundation, wished for unlimited wishes, and began bankrupting the foundation with his never-ending demands. The head of the foundation called Dikkers asking him to remove the story because he had been receiving phone calls from worried sponsors who thought the foundation was actually going bankrupt.
In some cases, The Onion has been threatened with lawsuits, but the paper has managed to stay out of serious legal trouble due to their attorney’s efforts and the right of free speech.
What began as a wacky college newspaper has transformed into a multimedia empire, due in large parts to Dikkers’s efforts. His passion for comedy led him to success, and he implored his audience to find their own passion and pursue it.
“Live your mission. I found my mission: comedy. Find that thing that compels you and do it without reservation; that is the foundation of any successful life,” Dikkers said.