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Funny Valentine: Cal alum’s latest labor of love offers a satiric salute to Oakland

December 30, 2013
by Madeleine Key

Oakland is a city of fascinating, bewildering, and uncomfortably stark contrasts. On the one hand, news coverage about it is often exclusively focused on violence and homicide. On the other, it’s increasingly being applauded as a burgeoning food and art Mecca. The reality is, Oakland is both of those places—and so, so much more.

It’s safe to say that Matt Werner, an Oakland native and resident who graduated from Cal in 2007, is endlessly fascinated by his hometown. We explored why Werner printed and hand-bound Oakland in Popular Memory, a collection of interviews with local artists, in the Spring 2013 issue of California magazine. Recently, we caught up with him to talk about his latest project: Oakland Unseen, a collection of satirical news briefs about the East Bay he published in print this fall.

Werner got the idea to create Oakland Unseen after attending an editorial meeting for a hyper-local, online-only news publication in fall of 2012. The number of stories pitched by citizen journalists that he had never heard of blew him away. Where were all these stories of Oakland? 

Werner’s articles for Oakland Unseen are modeled on The Onion and The Daily Show, tackling with tongue-in-cheek attitude such contentious topics as gentrification, crime, city politics, and the Oakland Police Department. He started publishing his fake news online, but he didn’t expect anyone to read it. And indeed for most of the first year, the site averaged just a few hundred page views per month. But in September 2013, the article “Jack White Flight: Hipsters Leaving Oakland in Record Numbers,” went viral, garnering 25,000 page views in a single week. Maybe, as Werner puts it, he had an audience “beyond the scope of activists and former Mayor Quan staffers.”

The print version of Oakland Unseen, which is 16 pages long and features original artwork not published online, has articles with titles like “Oakland Mayor Jean Quan Seen Ghost Riding the Whip,” “Oakland’s 911 Response Down to 72 Hours,” and “Jerry Brown Quietly Omits His Tenure as Mayor of Oakland From Resume.”

For now, he doesn’t have plans to print another copy of Oakland Unseen. But he still updates the website about once a week.

Werner says most people are surprised to learn how much factual research goes into each piece. After all, that’s what makes them funny. “Almost all of the articles are grounded in a true story,” he explains. “Instead of writing or tweeting or blogging I thought, ‘How can I make this funny?’ It was my way of sort of dealing with anger and outrage.”

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