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Is Uglier Funnier?; The Washroom Wag; News Bites

What's behind the Onion's makeover

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Is Uglier Funnier?

The Onion's gone gray. There's a washed-out look to the new front page that says one of two things, either "We're not as funny as we used to be" or "We are, but you're going to have to work a little harder to get the joke."

Rick Martin, the art director who came up with the design that the Onion introduced about two months ago, told me the paper passed the acid test of a serious makeover--some readers canceled their subscriptions. Not many, he admitted, but as a free paper that most of its audience reads online, the Onion has to scrape hard for readers with subscriptions to cancel.

I too thought the Onion had blundered, but my youngest daughter studied Martin's new design and announced that she got it. Think of the old Onion as a send-up of the Sun-Times, she instructed, and the new Onion as a send-up of the Tribune. "They've upped the ante," she said. The red nose has been removed. "They've gone Colbert."

Loyalists almost always regard the new look of a newspaper or magazine as an incomprehensible misjudgment that's thrown away the soul of the original. They have no idea how sick of the old design the staff has become.

"The paper hadn't gone through a redesign for over a decade," Martin explained by phone from New York. "Within that span of time, newspapers have really changed. What I basically did was take a massive comprehensive survey of what periodicals are doing around me, from the New York Times to small weekly newspapers. And so I would say the Onion is a shambling zombie cobbled together from the most important parts of what papers are doing. The whole key here is verisimilitude. We're serving the jokes by playing it straight."

The old paper, he said, "had the feel of, almost, a college paper. It wasn't that much of a parody of a paper." He added that it didn't even have the dimensions of a real paper--it was too squarish. "We're sort of taking on a lot more newspaperly elements than the Onion had before. We're adding things like 'national news highlights.' We have a weather joke that appears on the front page."

Leafing through the latest Onion, I came across a sports section and an opinion page with a lame editorial cartoon and "corrections." Real newspapers now construct themselves with lots of little visual nibbles, what Martin calls "sound bites of information," and the new design imitates them. Martin pointed out the little boxes now running across page one over the nameplate to alert readers to stories inside (not that any of those stories actually exist). "There's a lot to look at," Martin said. "It's such a hard line to walk--going the straight line and going for the laugh. I've always appreciated that the content was so absurd, and to contrast that content against the straight look and feel, I think it serves it--I hope it serves it."

The Washroom Wag

Last week, I believe, John Kass gave in to temptation. In one of a series of Tribune pieces he wrote slamming George Ryan, he allowed himself a tantalizing anecdote that didn't belong in his column but was too sweet to keep out. In his shoes I probably would have used it too, hissing at any editor who tried to save me from myself.

Kass despises Ryan. He considers Ryan's six-and-a-half-year prison sentence a joke--"embarrassingly light," he wrote--and on September 7 he told this story:

"Judge Pallmeyer must believe in the potential goodness of all people.

"But she didn't hear Ryan laughing in the washroom after she imposed her light sentence, Ryan joking with his buddy Big Jim [former governor Jim Thompson, whose law firm handled Ryan's defense pro bono].

"'Wonder what [defense lawyer Dan] Webb is going to say to the media,' Ryan said, chuckling, spry enough in his allegedly weakened and infirm state that he bent quickly, like a portly gymnast in hard shoes, to see if anyone was hiding in a stall.

"A young reporter who was dressed in a nice suit--and so didn't look like a young reporter but more like an attorney--wanted to use the facilities.

"'Got a ticket?' wisecracked Ryan, smiling, hearty, apparently crushed by the tough sentence he might not ever serve."

The story makes Ryan sound odious and doesn't flatter Thompson either. But it's hearsay. If Kass wasn't there to witness Ryan's behavior he can't tell us on his own authority that Ryan's smiles, chuckles, and wisecracks bespoke arrogance and glee and not something else--like denial, or a flinty refusal to fall apart.

Journalism is more tolerant of hearsay than the law is, but when the point of a secondhand story is to condemn somebody for the mood he's in, it's pretty hard to justify in journalism too. If Kass wanted the washroom story told, he should have invited the young reporter who was there to write it under his own byline.

While the jury was deliberating at the end of the six-month trial, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer dismissed two jurors for misconduct but didn't declare a mistrial--and she made it clear that she understood the appellate court might reverse her. If Ryan was in a genuinely wisecracking mood because he'd just been handed a sentence he didn't expect to serve, it wouldn't have mattered much if it had been twice as long.

News Bites

Marco Materazzi finally came clean. He said Zinedine Zidane head-butted him in July's World Cup final after he'd insulted Zidane's sister. Materazzi kept holding Zidane's jersey. Zidane snapped, "If you want it, I'll give it to you later." Materazzi replied that he'd rather have Zidane's sister. Whump!

Materazzi's admission made headlines all over the world, but in no account that I read was my nagging question addressed: Does Zidane have a sister?

My Web search was able to establish that Zidane is one of five children, so odds are a sister's in the mix. "He has not apologized to me and I certainly don't have to apologize to him," Reuters had Materazzi saying. "If anything, I owe apologies to his sister, although I swear, before all this mess I didn't even know Zidane had a sister." Apparently Materazzi has looked into the matter and knows that now.

But he didn't then. When he chose to insult a proud man's sister in the heat of battle, an actual sister was not required. The press, to judge from its coverage, also regards the existence of a sister as irrelevant.

Maybe it's just me, but I think it would have been nice to round out the coverage with a word or two of clarification. Was Zidane responding to the anguish in his heart over a precious kid sister who's been lying comatose in a Marseilles nursing home since a sailor off an Italian tramp steamer beat her senseless? Or was he cranked by the abstract suggestion that he's the type of guy who'd hand over his sister if he had a sister to hand over?

Unless George Ryan's headed to one of them, who gives a horse's patoot? President Bush admits existence of secret CIA prisons, calls for legislation legalizing tribunals. New York Times, page one. Washington Post, page one. Chicago Tribune, page one. Chicago Sun-Times, page 28.

A beat is a tricky thing to manage. New York Times, September 5: "G.O.P Sets Aside Work on Immigration," by Carl Hulse and Rachel L. Swarns. Dateline: Washington. "As they prepare for a critical pre-election legislative stretch, Congressional Republican leaders have all but abandoned a broad overhaul of immigration laws and instead will concentrate on national security issues . . ."

New York Times, September 6: "In Bellwether District, G.O.P. Runs on Immigration," by Carl Hulse. Dateline: Aurora, Colorado. "It was not by chance that Repub-licans brought their summer tour of hearings on illegal immigra-tion to this growing community just outside Denver . . ."

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