The book featured mocked-up newspaper front pages from the entire 20th century, presented under the premise that the publication had been continuously in print since before 1900. Dream Works planned for the finished "Tenth Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell" to involve animation as well as musical singalongs.

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In its earlier years, The Onion was successful in a number of university locations (e.g., University of Wisconsin–Madison and University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign).

The publication primarily consisted of a mix of Dikkers's cartoons, Spy magazine-like satire, and short fiction.

According to Bolton, the most plausible explanation is that The Onion was mocking a campus newsletter called The Union.

Conceived by University of Wisconsin students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, The Onion was founded as a print magazine for satirical news in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin by Keck and Johnson with their friends Scott Dikkers as cartoonist and Peter Haise as publisher.

In the spring of 1996, The Onion began publishing online.

In 2007, the organization began publishing satirical news audio and video online, as the Onion News Network.In the spring of 1996, Ben Karlin and Dikkers collaborated with Robert Smigel and Dana Carvey to create four short Onion news segments for The Dana Carvey Show.Smigel said that after being introduced to The Onion by Bob Odenkirk a year earlier, "it jumped out at me as something completely original and great, and I really wanted to use it on the show".The voice of Virtual Bill was provided by then editor Dikkers.After the initial premiere, Virtual Bill returned to MTV on December 17, 1998 with another TV special and an interactive web special produced by Pulse that ported the 3D data into a web compatible format using Pulse's proprietary plug-in. It was kind of like a slightly awkward, but successful, first date.In April 2000, Dream Works Studios optioned two stories from the satirical newspaper, "Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated"—which was to be written by former Onion editor and writer Rich Dahm—and "Tenth Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell" with an eye towards producing the later as a family comedy. In February 2001, Miramax Films head Harvey Weinstein announced they had reached a first look agreement to develop scripts and features with The Onion.