David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
We appear to be entering a golden age of local news satire.
Local news, famously, is dying. Small-market papers are disappearing in droves across the U.S., “news deserts” threaten to absorb vast tracts of the Midwest and Rust Belt, and journalism itself seems to be retreating to a few big-market strongholds.
However, we appear be entering a golden age of fake local news. Anyone with some Photoshop skills and yen for Onion-esque gag headlines can throw together a satire site for their home region. Many are terrible. But some are like New Maine News.
Seth Macy, a freelance writer from tiny North Haven Island, Maine, is the founder/creator/sole staffer at this surprisingly slick-looking digital publication, which went live on October 18, after Macy ponied up the $99 for a WordPress Premium account and started stocking it with gag stories on such Maine-only obsessions as woodpiles, pit parties, and Allen’s Coffee-Flavored Brandy (a cheap liqueur insanely popular throughout the state).
New Maine News is pretty funny, even to non-locals. Last week, the influential cool-stuff site BoingBoing posted about it. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling appeared to enjoy a joke at his expense. Then the local newspapers and TV stations got in on the action, and New Maine News is having its media moment, Maine-style.
The headlines aren’t quite a polished as The Onion’s best stuff, but New Maine News is way better than it has any right to be. It’s also a revealing glimpse into one of America’s more culturally invisible spaces. Outside of Stephen King novels, small-town and rural Maine doesn’t get a lot of attention from the rest of the world. “When you see Maine in a movie or a TV show, it’s like 99 percent off,” says Macy. “That drives us crazy.”
Macy lived his whole life in Maine, except for a stint in the Air Force, and New Maine News is steeped in his expertise. His Mainers aren’t slow-talking, Bean-booted caricatures; they boast an endearing specificity, revealed in their lovingly detailed enthusiasms for snowmobile maintenance, “laying wicked j-strips” in their pickup trucks, and holding parties in gravel pits. (“Every town in Maine has a gravel pit,” Macy explains. “It’s also a great place for a party.”)
NMN often mines Maine’s north-south/urban-rural divide for laughs: The Portland metropolitan area and its affluent environs dominates the media landscape, but it’s politically out of the step with more conservative and sparely populated upper half, a situation “pretty ripe for satire,” says Macy, who offers Maine-centric takes on hipster food trends, Trump-Country safaris, and urban bike enthusiasts.
Beyond the piney woods of Vacationland, the general Onion-ization of local news appears to be thoroughly underway. Most local satire sites appear to adhere to the same basic template. In Richmond, Virginia, it’s the year-old Peedmont. (Recent headline: “Local Winery To Offer Fall Douchebag Tasting.”) Miami has The Plantain, which takes on the challenge of trying to top actual Florida-Man-style news. (“Florida Enacts Law That Prohibits Twerking On Moving Vehicles” turns out to be mostly true.) Somehow, little Erie, Pennsylvania, home to less than 100,000 souls, is able to support two separate gag-news sites, The Mockerie and Gooferie.
What does this curious proliferation of DIY hyperlocal satire mean? It may just be more evidence that parody is the only sane response to living in credulity-straining times—hence the dominance of indignant comedy-as-truth-telling as practiced by “The Daily Show” and the like. But I think it’s also a sign of the diminution of legit local news platforms and the general concentration of national media into a handful of mega-markets. The cash-strapped newspapers, dying alt-weeklies, and colorless TV broadcasters that serve smaller regions have few opportunities to do storytelling that depicts regional character.
These are places starved for content that reflects their lived experiences, and homebrew satire sites are stepping up to provide it. Clicking around New Maine News for 20 minutes will probably offer out-of-staters a better, more nuanced portrait of the Real Maine Zeitgeist than any other media you’re likely to consume. It might be made up—but it definitely rings true.
Macy, who also contributes parody stories to The Hard Times, a punk/gamer site, had very modest expectations for New Maine News. “When I started,” he says, “I figured if I can get 300 people to follow me on Facebook, I’m doing alright.” (He’s now over 5,000.) Mainers are pessimistic by nature, he says. But now he has visions of expanding his reach—he’d like to do videos, hire another staffer, and keep growing his readership, at least modestly: “I feel like my audience is anyone who lives in a cold place.”