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The Self-Made Man: Scott Dikkers

dikkers3One of TSB’s favorite publications is The Onion, the satirical newspaper that’s occasionally surreal, often vicious, and always funny. Their uncompromising and savage lampooning of the human condition is driven, even now, by entrepreneurial energy. Onion co-founder and former co-owner Scott Dikkers presided over the editorial wing of The Onion for years, and oversaw many of the changes that made them the online humor empire they are today, which is why he’s this week’s Self Made Man.

Dikkers, along with Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, started The Onion in 1988 as a reaction to the terrible local papers in Wisconsin. Johnson’s uncle came up with the name because they were so broke that they were reduced to eating onion sandwiches.

Though The Onion made money right from the start, Keck and Johnson didn’t trust their luck and sold the paper to Dikkers, then a cartoonist for the paper, in 1989. Dikkers ran the paper on a shoestring budget for years, paying writers $5 per meeting they attended and barely scraping by himself.

A substantial amount of the payroll came from advertisers who paid in cash, including one company that was laundering drug money.

In addition to the crappy pay, the hours were ridiculous. Dikkers and his editorial staff put in 14-hour days pretty regularly, and all of them had second jobs so they could afford to keep what had become a labor of love going.

Luckily, and surprisingly, the Internet paid off handsomely for The Onion. They launched a website in 1996, which increased their readership twentyfold and brought in new advertisers and their sweet, sweet advertising money. They also came out of hiding, so to speak; The Onion was no longer the Midwest’s best kept secret. Now they had office workers all over the country emailing and faxing Onion stories to each other, widening their cultural footprint.

And even when the dot-com collapse ruined countless other online ventures, The Onion’s other ventures—books, collected articles, and the print edition—were enough to keep it in the black.

Dikker was there for all of these changes, and was essential to the paper’s relocation to New York, which was mostly so other media would stop pointing out that they were based in Wisconsin all the time. His dedication to the central idea that The Onion had to be funny and well-written, along with the culture of hard work and diligence that he encouraged, is what guaranteed that all the business risks they took would pay off.

Here’s Scott Dikkers talking to Katie Couric about what life as an Onion writer is like.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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