Apr 26, 2024 - Business

Inside the sale of The Onion, and what comes next

Illustration of a hundred dollar bill with a yellow onion sitting in the middle

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The Onion has finally peeled off its private equity layer, with Great Hill Partners portfolio company G/O Media selling the satirical site to a group led by ex-Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

Why it matters: There aren't too many content brands that are still widely adored. The Onion is one of them, and now gets a new chance at financial viability.

Behind the scenes: Adweek reported in January that G/O Media was seeking to sell many of its individual titles, after failing to find a buyer for the whole portfolio.

  • Ben Collins, then a reporter on the disinformation beat for NBC News, was among those who took notice.
  • "I'm not someone who buys things, beyond a Mazda Miata once, and don't know how these things work. So I put a message on Bluesky asking how we could buy The Onion, which I've been a fan of since I was a kid."
  • Leila Brillson, a former social exec with Bumble and TikTok, took notice. "I pulled the ultimate millennial move and messaged Ben on LinkedIn ... Plus, my sister is an IP lawyer who specializes in M&A."
  • The motley crew soon also included Danielle Strle, a Collins pal who once led product at Tumblr.
  • "I'm a reporter, so I began asking how 'for sale' it really was, and learned that Jeff Lawson was among those most seriously circling it, so we got connected."

In the weeds: Deal terms aren't being disclosed, except that the buyers will continue to honor a three-year union contract that was recently signed with G/O.

  • Also, all of The Onion's dozen or so employees will be part of a revenue-share plan (albeit won't get equity).
  • It's unclear if the rev-share will be extended to the site's large network of contributors, who submit ideas into a Google Doc that then gets anonymized before Onion staff makes its picks (they then go back to figure out who submitted the winners).
  • Collins will serve as CEO of the Chicago-based company, while Brillson will be CMO, and Strle will be CPO. Lawson is listing himself as "owner," with Brillson saying that "he's not interested in making this about him or a Jeff-centric venture."

Look ahead: The business plan is to eschew a click model favored by G/O, as evidenced by slideshows, in favor of subscriptions that will be driven by a much more robust social presence.

  • There also will be an effort to build out merch offerings and strategic, humor-based partnerships with brand advertisers. Mothballed products like The Onion News Network and print newspaper even could make comebacks.
  • "We want to unleash the staff who've spent the past few years being asked to appease the Taboola gods," Collins says.
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