February 25, 2004

Denounce vs The Onion

I noticed today over at Jason Feifer's Happy Scrappy blog, in the "Monday, Feb.23" entry, a reference to the Pricekut / Chicago Tribune thing. Then I noticed the oft-repeated phrase describing Denounce Newswire: "an Onion rip-off website". I emailed Jason to let him know Denounce precedes The Onion, and thought afterwards, heck, might as well blog this so I don't have to keep emailing folks who don't know Denounce's history relative to other satire media sources. (Jason emailed back, and mentioned he posted an update on his blog. Thnx Jason.)

Still, there is a common myth floating around the Web, that Denounce Newswire is, take your pick:

  • A rip-off of The Onion

  • A rip-off of Andrew Marlatt's SatireWire.

  • A rip-off of BBSpot

  • A rip-off of Sebastian Mendler's Plausible News

  • A rip-off of [insert your own favorite web humor site here]

Here are the facts.

The Onion was created, as far as I can tell, in 1988, as a satirical newspaper by then-students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. According to this historical article on The Onion, it had about 1,000 readers and three staff members in its first year. It was eventually sold. The founders now do other things. The Onion went on and got big. Nuff said.

Denounce was created in 1980, by me, at the University of Delaware. It was an online phenomenon from the very beginning --- no steenking newspaper origins here, thank you very much! :-) Denounce was a notesfile created on Delaware's PLATO computer system, designed to spoof the very official "announce", a notesfile maintained by the system staff to announce new PLATO system features and software revisions. Denounce adopted the exact same tone as "announce", but unlike "announce", its announcements were purely fiction. The notesfile became very popular, and I won an award (a trophy made out of styrofoam with a Big Mac attached on top, and all of it spraypainted gold) for "best humor notesfile" by the PLATO staff in 1980. In 1981 I expanded "denounce" to exist on more PLATO systems, including CERL and various Control Data systems. All the files were interlinked. By 1983 Denounce had thousands of readers all over the world thanks to the expanding PLATO network. However, I moved on from PLATO after 1984, and could not longer manage the "denounce" notesfiles so they died off.

In 1996 I decided to revive the Denounce idea, this time for the World Wide Web, the companies behind which I felt were in dire need of some serious spoofing. I took on Yahoo, Amazon, Netscape, Microsoft, all the usual suspects. Yahoo liked Denounce so much it was Pick of the Day in November 1996. One Yahoo staffer even emailed me to wish I would write their press releases. Between 1996 and 1998, the site got lots of recognition (remember in the old days of the web, when everyone was passing out medals?).

In 1999-2000 I was very busy in startups and had zero time to write new denouncements, and so the website went idle for nearly 18 months. During that time, BBSpot and SatireWire emerged, and from my perspective did a great job in filling the hole left by the idle Denounce. SatireWire went further, offering parodies of general news, not just the computer/Internet industry. SatireWire even managed to get a book deal, something I'd thought about doing for Denounce but didn't have enough time. (Seems SatireWire's founder also lacked the time: he stopped writing new material for the site in 2002, and the site sits unchanged since then. BBSpot's doing boomin' business and has become a full-time gig for its founder.)

It was around 1998 that I first heard of The Onion. It's a great website. To this day I've still never seen a print version of the thing, but I read the online version occasionally but not regularly.

Around early 2002 (as far as I can tell) Sebastian Mendler, a user of The WELL, started Plausible News, another site of ficticious news stories.

Denounce continues to focus on the computer and internet industries. Once in a while it gets Slashdotted, or mentioned in the newspaper, and traffic goes through the roof. The past year has been the best in Denounce history in terms of readership, thanks mainly to blogs.

I've been thinking of adding a new feature to Denounce: The Denounce Interview. Kind of like the famous "Rolling Stone Interview" from years ago, except instead of rock stars and movie celebrities, the subjects would be CEOs and ubergeeks from the computer industry. Oh, and it'd be entirely fictional. We'll see. In the meantime, I've got too much real work to do . . . which reminds me. . . back to work . . . .

UPDATE: 11:40am: Here's another case of exactly what I mean, a story by Brandon Stahl, about "the many, many knock-offs" of The Onion. Heck, he doesn't even mention Denounce . . . I've emailed him a link to this blog entry.

Posted by brian at February 25, 2004 11:18 AM


you are what you archive

Posted by: xian at February 25, 2004 03:32 PM

who cares if it's a knockoff of the onion, they have a patent on satire? the www is big enough for all.

Posted by: Joe at February 26, 2004 01:57 PM

I've got to say, I'm pleased and honored to share the satire space with Denounce. I think the various satire news sites each have their own individual styles, as it were -- some do takeoffs concerning sports, or popular culture; Brian focuses on business-related articles; I try to write things that sound *almost* true, mostly having to do with politics and current events. The Onion and Andy Borowitz -- well, hey, I can only kneel and bow and perform multiple prostrations in their general direction.

Seems to be enough material to go around!

Posted by: Sebastian (Skip) Mendler at August 17, 2004 03:16 PM

brianstorms is Brian Dear's weblog. Non-spam email:

Be sure to take a look at these other fine websites:

Copyright 2002-2003 Birdrock Ventures. brianstorms is a trademark of Birdrock Ventures.