I Met The Onion! And Clickhole! And A Bunch Of Other College Humor Publications!

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A few weekends ago, I led a group of eight of my fellow New England Classic writers down to Princeton University for the National Intercollegiate Humor Conference. Organized by the university’s own humor publication The Princeton Tiger, the humor conference has been held annually for the past five years, but this year marked the first time that the NEC made the drive down from Chestnut Hill for the event. It was really neat! As a bit of a follow-up to my class presentation, I’d like to share a bit about what I learned about digital brand building and online content creation, and how I plan to apply these lessons to my work with the NEC going forwards.

I only found out about the event in the first place because sometime last year I got bored and started searching online humor conferences. I assume many others did the same, as this year the conference drew in 170 attendees from 16 different humor publications (most of which were from East Coast colleges, but there were also groups from Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and even California)! The main attraction for the weekend was a series of panels and workshops with a number of staff writers from The Onion and Clickhole. These presentations were very insightful for me, especially after having presented in class on The Onion’s digital strategies just a few weeks ago.

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The schedule for the weekend!

The Onion runs a tight ship.

During the panel, I learned that that The Onion has ten full-time staff writers and three editors, and that’s it! Well, that’s not entirely true, they also have a small graphic design team and I’m sure a bunch of business and legal people, but the organization is pretty lean when it comes to actual writers. This makes sense for both economical and creative reasons, and although the NEC doesn’t have to worry about paying its staff, we too will be making changes to our organizational structure this summer to emphasize quality over quantity!

The Onion doesn’t care about how their posts do on social media.

The four Onion writers who answered my panel question said that they don’t pay too much attention to how many likes or favorites their articles get online. I’m sure there are plenty of business people at the company who make sure that their website gets enough adviews, but the writing staff understandably doesn’t worry about those sorts of details. The writers told me that they do pay attention to posts that do exceptionally well, but only as an indication of what sorts of jokes do really well with the public. Currently, the NEC doesn’t sell any ads on our website, so we also don’t have to cater to the Facebook masses. It’s definitely a great feeling when an article breaks 100 likes, but there’s nothing wrong with running a weirder piece the day after and having it barely get to 25. Variety is the spice of life!

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A map of where everyone came from in order to attend the conference! The group from USC left California at 5am and had an early return flight on Sunday morning. Crazy!

Print is cool, but online is definitely the move.

The conference attracted two distinct groups of college humor organizations: satire papers and humor magazines. Many of our staff members were impressed by the glossy, full-color pages of the humor magazines produced by groups like Ohio State University’s The Sundial and The Princeton Tiger, both of which have been in existence for nearly an entire century. However, the decade-old New England Classic somehow had more Facebook likes than any other group at the conference! I suspect this is for a number of subtle reasons (the size of BC’s student body, our homogeneous campus culture, etc.), as well as one big one: the NEC is an online-first organization! We only produce a print newspaper once per semester, and everything else goes on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. I have to admit, those fancy humor mags are incredibly nice and have an artistic quality greater than anything the NEC produces. But it’s very hard to build an online following when you’re just passing out magazines on campus! A few NEC staff members want to try producing our own humor magazine for next year, and we’ll probably give it a shot. But these endeavors won’t ever overshadow our online efforts, and we’re looking to start redesigning our website over the summer.

Unsurprisingly, videos are key!

I’m sure this isn’t a huge revelation, but online video content is a big deal! The Onion writers spoke about video a bit, saying that their process for coming up with a video isn’t any different than pitching an article. However, I was more impressed with the videos I saw from other student organizations over the course of the weekend! Specifically, USC’s The Sack of Troy and University of Maryland’s The Rival UMD produce awesome videos that perform very well on social media.  The USC group focuses on brief news reports and short sketches, similar to what you’d see on SNL. Alternatively, The Rival UMD produces a monthly late night-style show, which has an in-studio band and is recorded in front of a live audience!

I talked with the editors-in-chief of both outlets, and they gave me a bunch of great tips and pointers for how to get into the realm of online video. Fine details are still being worked out, but the plan is for  some NEC staff members to branch out and create a separate video-focused sister organization, using a format similar to that of USC. This is a really promising project because there aren’t any humor groups at BC that focus on creating online videos, and these clips can then be shared to the 2,800 fans who follow the NEC on Facebook!


So yeah! Those are my major takeaways from the conference, and a few insights on where I see the NEC headed in the foreseeable future. I know this blog was very laser-focused on my personal experiences, but I believe many of the trends I’ve observed can be applied to the digital media industry in general! At the very least, I hope you found this an interesting read, feel free to fire off in the comments if you have any further questions about the conference!

 

5 comments

  1. diiorion · ·

    I really enjoyed this post! It was a great follow-up to your presentation a few weeks ago.
    I’ve been a fan of the New England Classic since I started at BC and it seems like this conference really helped you figure out way to even further improve the content and the online engagement. If it can be executed, I think making the move into some video content would be an excellent idea. From what I’ve seen, I feel like videos go much more viral than articles so being able to engage the student body with a video that expands the fan base would be great. The USC Tour video was awesome. As I was watching it, I could just picture the same thing with certain location around BC. It sounds like you have a solid plan for the future. Good luck!

  2. erinfitzpatrick123 · ·

    Really cool experience! That is awesome that the NEC was an online first publication, which really shows you guys are ahead of the times, and that your social following is probably a result of that. I find it interesting that the Onion is so small, and also that the writers don’t pay much attention to social numbers. I am kind of happy to hear that, as that means they aren’t writing solely to get clicks and likes, but for genuine content that they think is funny. Also, I think video humor would definitely be a great thing for NEC to explore, as SNL and comedy on youtube has been such a growing trends, especially tagging friends in Facebook videos now. Great post!

  3. Awesome post! I loved your presentation, and this was a great follow up–really fun to read! I’ve always loved the NEC’s work, so it’s awesome to hear that you are being proactive about continuing to work on the paper and even expanding the brand into video content. Do you think you’ll post the videos by the sister-channel on NEC’s social media, or are you looking to keep them relatively separate? I was also really surprised by how small the Onion’s staff is–do you think this is beneficial? Of course you want to emphasize quality over quantity, but I’d have to think there are more than 10 qualified writers, and especially with a brand as far reaching as the Onion, I’d think diverse opinions would be even more beneficial than they would be at a place like BC.

  4. mollyshields44 · ·

    I enjoyed this follow up to your presentation! I think it is interesting that you were able to go to a conference where humor writing was the main focus. Online presence and proliferation of this kind of writing I’m sure is why this conference has gained so much attention. How cool that you got to meet the people behind The Onion! I wish you were able to talk to the business and tech people working for the publication because while the writers may not have had a big focus on visibility or favorability of their posts, I’m sure that the strategy team has a whole lot on the analytics behind certain posts (when they are released, where they are promoted, etc.). I enjoyed the video you included because I think it helps draw parallels to humor across other college campuses. I could easily see that behind shot on BC’s campus. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. talkingtroy · ·

    Very engaging post – this sounds like it was a great opportunity for your team. I’m surprised to hear you had more likes than groups that have been around for a century (especially on campuses that are way bigger than ours). I wonder if there is also opportunity for your to collaborate with some of the other comedy groups on campus to come up with digital shorts. You already have the followers to build on by taking point but can pull in more creative minds. Just a thought. Great post!

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