Univision Communications Inc., the parent company to the nation's leading Spanish-language broadcast channel, has acquired a controlling stake in the satirical news site The Onion, NPR has learned.
The agreement between two seemingly disparate media outfits was described to NPR by a person with direct involvement in the negotiations. A second person who was briefed on the deal by Univision executives also confirmed its broad strokes. The amount of money involved in the deal was not disclosed. NPR has also obtained a memo from the CEO of The Onion announcing the deal to staffers.
This account is in many ways reliant upon the information provided by those two people. NPR sought comment Monday from corporate officials and spokespersons for Univision and The Onion about the deal, as well as from Fusion and ABC about elements of this story involving them. None of those messages by voice mail or email were returned.
Univision will acquire a 40 percent, controlling stake in The Onion, which includes the site, its influential sister popular-culture outfit The A.V. Club, the social media satire site Clickhole, and various book and video projects. Univision also will have the right to buy the humor company outright.
The move comes at a time of transition and change for both organizations.
Univision's dominance in Spanish language television has been based on a loyal but aging population. Latinos born in this country — a quickly growing segment of the population — are much more likely to consume media in English. Univision launched the English-language Fusion network in concert with Disney's ABC network to reach English-speaking Latinos, a venture that soon pivoted to reach millennials more generally.
Last spring, Univision also acquired The Root, an online site geared toward African-American readers that was founded by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Randy Falco, Univision's CEO, and Isaac Lee, its president of news and digital, have concluded that humor is a key ingredient to appeal to the millennial palate. They hope to build on The Onion's traffic for their existing digital sites, which are experiencing marked growth but not yet enjoying much in the way of profits.
The Onion has undergone major shifts as well. Born as a printed newspaper in the late 1980s in the undergraduate humor culture in Madison, Wis., it moved to New York in 2001 to tap into the energy and comedy scene. A steep drop in revenue after the global financial crisis, however, led to a move to Chicago, which triggered a diaspora among many of the editors and writers of that time. The Onion will remain based in Chicago under the terms of the new ownership structure.
Like some of the journals it parodied, as its metabolism accelerated to keep pace with the frenetic media age, The Onion abandoned print. It published its final printed editions in December 2013.
Much of The Onion's profits arrive from Onion Labs, its division that makes "sponsored content" videos — comedic in effect but intended to reinforce a brand's underlying advertising message or qualities. Past sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, the PC manufacturer Lenovo, and Illinois' health care exchange.
The Onion had been bought by a group led by financial investor David Schafer in 2001. It publicly acknowledged seeking bids in fall 2014 and was reportedly in at least informal talks twice in the past decade about a possible sale to Viacom.
In a memo to staff obtained by NPR, Onion CEO Mike McAvoy told staff that Fusion would play a key role in the site's future.
McAvoy wrote: "So what does this mean for us as a company? Good things. Univision is excited to help Onion Inc. grow, and to provide the resources to both support our long-standing mission and fund new initiatives. They'll help us keep the foundation strong and to build great new things on top of it. As an independent media company, we've always been forced to run a tight financial ship, which has made us smart and lean, but not always ready to invest in the great new ideas that we come up with."
Univision's Fusion network appears to be a key element in the acquisition.
Fusion has been a project of formidable — but in many ways unrealized — aspirations; the parent company realizes a profit on the television portion of Fusion only because its in-house offerings have been cut back sharply in favor of programs by outside contractors.
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos' hourlong English-language newscast remains. Fusion's bosses have taken great heart in recent months from the role Ramos has played in the presidential primaries, particularly in tangling with Republican candidate Donald Trump.
They have also been buoyed of late both by the network's broadcast of the Democratic Brown & Black Presidential Forum in Iowa last week and by the news that Sean Penn and the drug lord Joaquin Guzman joked about a Fusion documentary about him during their now infamous Rolling Stone interview.
The network's aggressive digital hirings, including such social media savants as Anna Holmes, Alexis Madrigal and Felix Salmon, have seemed incongruous to some critics except as part of Fusion's bid to appeal to younger audiences.
The Fusion television network is now available in 40 million households; re-negotiations of Univision's major contracts with cable providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next two years could add tens of millions more.
The network already has partnered with others in the world of comedy for programming: One show is produced in partnership with Funny or Die, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's comedy site. Another project relayed former Daily Show correspondent and comedian Al Madrigal's travels as he seeks to understand his Mexican heritage better.
Univision and ABC are now in the process of unraveling their joint venture in Fusion, which will remain in Miami as part of Univision. And Univision, which is privately held, is now weighing an initial public offering — that is, whether to issue public stock.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Of course, both news and satire are well within the First Amendment. But still, putting together Univision, the Spanish-language network, and The Onion - that's right, the satirical news site that describes itself as the single most powerful and influential organization in human history is joining Univision. NPR is reporting this morning that the parent company of Univision has acquired controlling ownership of The Onion. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from New York City. Good morning.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So, David, what's the Onion headline in this? I mean, what's the logic?
FOLKENFLIK: The logic behind this for Univision's standpoint is that it's - you know, it is reliant and very popular among Spanish-speaking Latinos in this country, but that English-speaking Latinos are a growing force in the country and that they are seeking to build an English-language presence, particularly digitally, and to build a more multicultural future. And they'd identified humor as a key way to do this. This comes after Univision launch Fusion a few years ago, which has not been a huge runaway success in ratings but nonetheless has made something of an impact in which they've got a huge digital presence. They last year bought The Root, a leading site for African Americans in politics and culture. And this is another way in which they hope to appeal to a younger, a millennial and a multicultural sensibility. Univision thinks it's got to bet the future on a slightly different definition than in the past.
MONTAGNE: And The Onion - why would it sell itself at this point in time?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, The Onion has had sort of a big pop-culture impact, and yet a bit of a rocky ownership history. It last acknowledged it had been - put itself up for sale back in 2014. There had been wrenching changes after it moved to Chicago. But this may offer some stability. It certainly allows its lead investor, David Schafer, a chance to cash out much or all of his stake. Univision gets about 40 percent in controlling share, as you said. And it may afford it some stability and some runway to figure out the kinds of changes that have affected all those news sites its been satirizing. After all, it's not immune from it. The Onion itself had to go to a digital-only operation not so long ago.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, could this deal possibly kill what makes The Onion special - this big corporation?
FOLKENFLIK: Always a fear when a major conglomerate or major media outfit takes over an niche and strongly-defined publication. My understanding is the folks at Univision are allowing or will be allowing The Onion to stay in Chicago - won't be pulling it down to Miami to fold it into its other properties - and that the hope is more that The Onion will rub off on the Univision holdings - such assets as Fusion, the English-language cable channel and digital properties - more than having Univision dictate how The Onion will operate.
MONTAGNE: All right, well thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
MONTAGNE: NPR's David Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.