The Nordly: Minnesota’s Local Take on “The Onion”

Since its inception in 2018, ”The Nordly” has produced satirical news stories and Minnesota-specific headlines
The Nordly, a website dedicated to the humor of Minnesota
The Nordly, a website dedicated to the humor of Minnesota

The Nordly

As one of the founding editors of The Nordly—“the northernmost satirical site in North America, so long as you disregard Canada”—Anna Larranaga is used to taking relatable, awkward, ridiculous, and quintessentially Minnesotan moments and producing satire.

So, when I met her at a Caribou Coffee in Edina and we exchanged a handshake so bad even a member of the Queen’s Guard would’ve looked away in anguish, Larranaga took it in stride. She leaned into the awkwardness, her experience as an actress and satirist brought to the fore, and contorted her hand into outrageous position after outrageous position until suddenly our original handshake didn’t seem quite as calamitous—and my mortification quickly turned to laughter.

A fast talker and circuitous storyteller, Larranaga is one of four members on The Nordly’s editorial staff, alongside editor-in-chief Jonathan Gershberg, editor Aron Woldeslassie, and designer Nate Wong. The four met while working together on Minnesota Tonight, a filmed “Daily ShowSNL sketch hybrid” created in 2015, satirizing Minnesotan news and politics. In the summer of 2018, Gershberg had the idea for a print-focused satirical outlet, something that still covered local news and politics, but allowed for more freedom to poke fun at some of Minnesota’s other idiosyncrasies. Think of a hyper-local version of The Onion with the goofy listicles of Buzzfeed, all in one.

Prior to its inception, there was a brief period of deliberation. How to get submissions? How to aggregate enough content? What to call Minnesota’s very own satirical news site?

After passing out flyers and posting in local Facebook writers’ groups, enough contributors seemed interested to produce regular content. The question of the name proved slightly more complicated. “The Gray Duck” was option number one: quippy, region-specific. Also very, very taken. (When the editors got in contact with a Twin Cities media company of the same name, the message was clear: Don’t do it, or there will be legal ramifications.)

Instead, they went with option two: “something that encapsulates the sense that Minnesota is north.” The Nordly launched on September 1, 2018.

“The Twin Cities has a great comedy scene, especially the improv scene and stand-up scene, but there weren’t as many outlets for written satire,” Larranaga says. “When we can write satire about things that are going on, especially in Minnesota, that’s something that matters a lot to us.”

And apparently it matters a lot to their readership as well. Minnesotans love Minnesota. A Midwesterner loves the Midwest. It’s something the editors noticed on Minnesota Tonight, and something they’ve continued to notice while working on The Nordly. Tapping into the Shared Minnesotan Experience—that affinity for all things MN, for home—has proven ripe for humor and satire.

“There are so many quirks about the Upper Midwest, especially Minnesota, because people are so in love with this place,” Larranaga says. “What it comes down to is when people can resonate with the same experience, or those same places, those landmarks, something fires off in their brain, like, ‘I know that place’; ‘I know that experience’; ‘I do say “Ope” when I walk past people’; ‘that is what my family eats at Thanksgiving’; ‘that is what my mom says,’ and so many of those things that do well on the site reflect the character of this region.”

The Nordly is still a young, developing operation. Larranaga stresses this—“We are still in our infancy!”—and hopes their startup website can grow into something bigger, reach more people, attract more interest.

Pill in the Peanut Butter

At the moment, their contributor base totals some 100 writers, with experience ranging from MFA-holders to my-mom-thinks-I’m-funny satirists. Mostly, these are “straight white dudes,” something Larranaga hopes will gradually change as the site grows. An admirer of comedian Samantha Bee and an advocate for bringing underrepresented voices to the satirical fore, she believes a more diverse contributor base would help The Nordly touch on new and distinct areas of Minnesota satire: “We love our straight white dudes because they are writing, [but] we would love more voices on there from more women, people who are older than myself, you know, different perspectives.”

This applies to the readership as well, which, Larranaga suspects, is mostly millennials—which is not to say The Nordly is for millennials. My mother, a Baby Boomer, produced a hearty cackle upon reading Tyler Martindale’s “Minnesota Dentists Celebrate Zero Lion Killing Incidents For Third Year In Row.”

In the article, Martindale riffs on the infamous 2015 killing of Zimbabwe’s Cecil the lion.

For those who aren’t familiar: This lion was studied and tracked by experts for years before a Minnesota dentist waltzed in and killed Cecil with a bow and arrow while on a hunting expedition. It’s an outlandish story that produced a lot of rage—one that begs for a satirical take. Cue Martindale.

Martindale’s article also exemplifies another vital objective for The Nordly: publish productive humor.

For as much as the site is about creating funny, relatable content, it is grounded in a very particular ethical system—as all good satirical outlets are. Contributors and editors feel obligated to “punch up”; challenge systems of power and people in power via their jokes; shed light on hypocrisy and inconsistency. They’re not informants moonlighting as satirists, or satirists moonlighting as informants. They’re one in the same: unearthing subtle truths, opening eyes.

“You can entertain and inform,” says Larranaga. “We are the spoon of peanut butter that you can put the little pill in and the dog eats it. We are the spoon of peanut butter and with that comes something that [the reader] normally wouldn’t just take on their own.”

Alongside Martindale’s article, see: “Minneapolis Cop Considers Pulling Trigger for Administrative Leave Over the Holidays”; “University of Minnesota Students Excited for First Female President to Blame Tuition Hikes On”; “‘The America I Know Would Never Put People in Camps!’ Says St. Paul Man Minutes from Historic Fort Snelling.” That little pill is delivered time and time again.

Real Fake News

But there are adversaries to The Nordly. Policy changes made by social media companies—The Nordly’s primary avenue for reader engagement and content dissemination—have made it difficult for satirical outlets. Facebook’s algorithm suppresses content from non-paying businesses and websites, requesting fees to promote content. It’s part of Facebook’s initiative to counter “fake news.” Satirical outlets such as The Nordly, whose success is incumbent upon promoting transparently fake news, become the unintended victims of these initiatives.

Nevertheless, the editors are “figuring out how to do this thing and balance everything else in [their] lives.”

And the formula—hyper-local, relatable, funny—seems to have worked for them thus far. People are responding positively. It has proven to be resilient in its youth. In a world where promoting online written satire is difficult, The Nordly is “pedaling uphill,” according to Larranaga.

In the saturated Twin Cities comedy scene, a gap in the market has been found and filled—hilariously so. And after a sturdy and redeeming post-interview farewell handshake, I left the Caribou satisfied that, for the moment at least, it looks as if there is a place for written satire in Minnesota.