I first encountered the Onion online shortly after I started working at a computer firm in Minneapolis in the fall of 1996. I had just graduated from university, and was not yet wise in the ways of the world. A buddy of mine forwarded me an Onion story about Bill Gates granting himself godlike powers (a la Dungeons and Dragons), and I was hooked. I now go to the Onion for ALL of my news -- screw the so-called "legitimate" news sources (they are just government fronts pushing their secret agendas, anyway), give me the vaunted wisdom of the finest minds in Madison, Wisconsin, any day.
Basically, each issue of the Onion (which is updated every Wednesday) is a collection of satire news stories arranged in the same manner as in a "real" newspaper. You've got your top stories, news snippets, editorials, surveys, etc. Across the board, the stories are very well written in a clean, crisp, authoritative journalistic voice which makes the ridiculous stories (in this week's issue [5/5/99], creditors reposess New England in an attempt to get the US Goverment to pay it's debts) that much funnier. Editorials come from the most unlikely of sources -- Zeus, Sting and Stephen King all appear to be recent contributors.
The Onion also sports a great entertainment section, called the A.V.Club. Along with reviews of movies, books and music, it contains interviews with celebrities, a couple of damn funny comic strips, and Savage Love, the funniest advice column in newspaper syndication.
Unlike most websites currently in publication, everything in the Onion is worth reading. What isn't laugh-out-loud funny is at worst mildly amusing, and it is all very entertaining. The humor might not be for everyone, however -- the writers do assume a certain amount of intelligence in the reader (all really good satire does), and many stories are not appropriate for younger readers. The range of stories and type of humor is very broad, though, and should appeal to most.
The site looks good. The pages are clean, and made to resemble a printed newspaper (except for the A.V. Club section). Images are relatively few, but are of good quality. Generally, each news story features some sort of pic or graphic, and the editorials sport a little by-line photo.
The color scheme is pretty simple -- green borders with black text on a white background -- pretty straightforward and easy on the eye. I have to say I don't care for the new grey left-hand navigation bar (I can't remember when this changed, but it use to be green). The cold grey color makes the navigator less inviting than the top and bottom frames -- as I said, I prefer the green color it used to sport.
As for advertising -- like every newspaper and website, there's got to be some. The Onion does a good lob of keeping it to a minimum, and what is there is displayed unobtrusively in the bottom frame where it does not disrupt the look of the page.
The Onion's designers did a good job of making the site easy to navigate -- just click on the headline of the story you want to read. Simple. Also, beacuse images are used only as necessary and are stored as very lean GIFs, pages load rapidly and are quickly readable.
There are only a couple of problems I have found with the design of the site:
The first is the occaisional use of .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files as graphics, which are very slow to load on many computers, escpecially with dial-up internet connections. This is becoming less and less frequent, however -- the last couple of issues have not contained any of these images, as far as I could tell.
The second issue is one of navigation. When you click to open a news story, the new page loads in the same browser window, replacing the navigation page. If you want to go to a different story, you must click the "back" button and wait for the navigation page to reload before you can select the next story. (the A.V. Club is not like this -- a drop-down menu on each page allows quick navigation to all other pages). Stories need either to pop up in a new browser window (leaving the navigation page intact), or some sort of navigator needs to be incorporated into the story page, similar to what already exists in the A.V. Club section.
The last issue is simply one of traffic. Because the Onion is becoming so popular, on Wednesdays (the day new issues are published) the pages are often slow to load. I'm certain this is entirely due to heavy traffic and limited bandwidth, but it can be most annoying for me, and I am on a LAN with a T1 connection to the internet -- it must be mind-numbing to anyone on a dial-up connection. Other days of the week, speeds are fine, which probably indicates that a bandwidth upgrade is not yet necessary. It just means that dial-up users have to wait until Wednesday night or Thursday to get their Onion fix.
As I indicated at the beginning of the review, this is one of my favorite internet sites. Really outstanding content overshadows a few minor design flaws, and the mix of humor and real intelligence is rarely found anywhere, much less on the average humor website. I doff my hat to publisher T. Herman Zweibel and his talented staff, and I definitely recommend the Onion to anyone with a funnybone and a working brain.