Matt Werner, author and tech writer at Google, has had unbridled success with the advent of Oakland Unseen, a popular parody Tumblr billed as Oakland's answer to The Onion. Last Friday, Werner released the first-ever print edition of Oakland Unseen. On the dawn of his publication's physical manifestation (don't worry, fans, his work can and will still be found online!), SFist asked Werner five questions about his leap to print. And more.
1. Why did you decide to go to print?
Matt Werner: I decided to go to print because just over a month ago, the story Jack White Flight: Hipsters Fleeing Oakland in Record Numbers went viral. It got over 25,000 hits in under a week, which is a lot for a fake news site about Oakland (which has a population of 400,000).
I saw that the audience for these satirical pieces about life in the East Bay wasn't restricted to local journalists and those blogging about city politics, but that mainstream readers were also interested in these fake news stories.
And why I decided to do print in addition to the online version is because working with the print medium, you're able to do things that you can't online. For example, I'm proud of pages 2 and 3 that Greg Frazier did the layout for. We were about to fill a map of Oakland and a map of the Bay Area with news briefs, and cram in a ton of stories on the 12"x22" paper (24"x22" across the spread) that we couldn't as easily do online. Also, a number of the pieces play off each other, and having a print version, we're able to group the top stories around Local Politics, Sports, Oakland Tourism, and create separate sections for each.
2. How do you come up with your story ideas?
There's no real science to it. I try to write for 2-3 hours 5 days a week. I'm not writing exclusively for Oakland Unseen, but just whatever I'm interested in writing about outside of work. I covered a number of local news stories for Oakland Local over the last couple years, and I've written two books on Oakland and the Bay Area in the past two years. But my last project (Bay Area Underground) and my next project (a play set around September 11th in San Francisco) are very serious projects, and I wanted to do something lighter in between.
Oakland Unseen is a collection of the "unseen" or unheard stories in Oakland. I like The Onion's pieces, but many of them seem to have an East Coast or Midwest bias. So I thought up last October before the 2012 elections, what if The Onion had an Oakland bureau? What would that look like? And I started posting satirical news articles to OaklandUnseen.tumblr.com.
As for the writing process, I come up with most ideas based on observations about life in Oakland, and some people email their ideas into [email protected]. I have a small committee that vets the ideas and pieces before they go out so that they're not mean-spirited, but that they're shedding light on an issue in Oakland in a funny or creative way.
So, for example, I haven't been to Burning Man, but I know enough people who've gone from the Bay Area and heard their stories about Burning Man, that I wrote a few fictional pieces about the event. I ran them by my Burner friends before publishing to get their feedback — saying that I don't want to insult the Burner community, but kind of poke fun at the absurdity of the event (from an outsider's perspective) and the stereotypes associated with the event. I incorporated their constructive feedback, and ran pieces like "With Burners Gone, Oakland Residents Have One of the Most Productive Weeks in Recent Memory."
We don't want to laugh at people, but to laugh with them. There's a lot of absurdity in Oakland and the greater Bay Area, that sometimes people reply on Twitter asking if a story is actually true. When I ran "Powerful Vegan Lobby Leads Crusade Against SFO Being Renamed Milk Airport," people replied asking who runs this vegan lobby, and how is it so powerful? And why are they against SFO being renamed after Harvey Milk? I've clearly marked that this is all fake news.
If I have any hesitation with an article, I'll sit on it and run it by a number of people to get their reactions and responses before running or pulling the piece.
3. Who, in print/online, are your comedic inspirations/influences?
This is my first real attempt at comedic writing outside of my first book Papers for the Suppression of Reality, which could be termed "postmodern" or "academic humor."
I interned and volunteered at McSweeney's Publishing for 5 years in the Mission District, so McSweeney's has had a big influence over my writing style. As for Oakland Unseen in particular, The Onion, Daily Show, and Colbert Report — specifically Stephen Colbert's 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner Address are the closest direct influences.
4. Do you plan an Unseen for San Francisco? Or better yet, Orinda?
I don't currently plan an Unseen edition for San Francisco, although I have plenty of ideas — or better yet — Marin County is just a rife target for satire. Dana Carvey has a brilliant standup routine about Prius-driving Marin parents, and there is plenty of material to do a similar publication on San Francisco or Marin, but right now I don't think I'm the right person to do it because what I know best is Oakland and Berkeley.
And because so much of the media in the Bay Area is focused on San Francisco, I purposely left much of my SF fake news coverage out of the print version of Oakland Unseen, to show that there's also a lot happening on the East Bay, and that if there's this much fake news about the East Bay — there are plenty more real news stories on the East Bay that aren't currently being covered by the mainstream media. I'm just scratching the surface.
5. Anything else you want to tell our readers?
Oakland Unseen is an attempt to show the lighter side of life in Oakland. So much media coverage about Oakland just focuses on the violence and robberies in the city. I'm not denying that Oakland has a high crime rate, but crime isn't the only story about Oakland. In my piece "SF Chronicle Criticized for Publishing Too Much Positive Press about Oakland," and throughout the paper, I offer alternate story lines about Oakland.
Also, I was the editor of the project, and Joe Sciarrillo is the publisher under Thought Publishing, Susie Cagle drew seven drawings in the paper, including the hipster drawing on the front page and the 4 fake "Visit Oakland" tourist t-shirts. Greg Frazier did the design and layout. We also had anonymous submissions from Oakland residents.