Take this with a grain of Old Bay

Web site parodies local news, but some say The Crab could use more bite

December 03, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Take this news with a grain of Old Bay "Disappointed with Local Newspaper's Material, Area Man Makes Stuff Up."

So a headline might go in Baltimore's freshest news media outlet, The Baltimore Crab. Except that it's true -- and truth is verboten at what's billed as Baltimore's premier source for "fake news."

The Crab aspires to the proud comic tradition of The Onion, the newspaper parody whose sharp insights and pitch-perfect zingers have earned it cultlike status worldwide.

Together with Jon Stewart's increasingly popular Daily Show, these faux news pros have inspired imitators across the county. Launched online this month, The Baltimore Crab becomes the latest -- and most local.

With more than a dozen spoofs under its belt, The Crab takes swipes at local land-use battles, political squabbles and even Baltimore cultural icons.

Headlines have included:

"Local Man Exiled From Neighborhood After Seen On Duck Boat Tour"

"New Super Convention Center and Hotel To Offer Vegas Style Pirate Show"

"Fells Point Residents Complain That Local Bakery Makes City Air Smell Too Nice," and

"Mayor O'Malley Furious Over `CitiStat' Spelling Error"

The site's creator, who signs e-mails "The Crab," is a 26-year-old software programmer who spins snark from a diminutive Butchers Hill alley rowhouse.

Buffalo, N.Y., native Matt Patton has called Baltimore home since graduating from Loyola College a few years back. The self-proclaimed news junkie starts his days with coffee and local news, then moves on to national papers. He falls asleep to the buzz of cable news.

Yet he still finds plenty of time to hone his funny bone. His nights are filled with television laugh tracks. He's the guy at work who quotes Seinfeld as his bible. And he anticipates Wednesdays the way others anticipate Christmas. It's the day for unwrapping the latest installment of his beloved Onion.

After pep talks from his wife and co-workers at Advertising.com, Patton has unveiled his baby with equal parts anxiety and pride. He's desperate for people to check out The Crab, yet fears nothing more than an awkward silence where the laugh should be.

"I'm easing myself into this," he said.

And unlike The Onion or Jon Stewart, who fire their barbs from impersonal and largely partisan platforms, Patton crafts a middle-of-the-road, softer satire.

"My goal isn't to make fun of things," he said. "When you make fun of things, you're kind of saying they're not important. I want to make light of things, which is very different."

Take his recent story: "Mount Vernon Residents Attempt To Outsmart Developers; Push For Minimum Height Restrictions." Though Mount Vernon's height fight is very real and tempers there very volatile, Patton says he touched the hot-button issue figuring a little laughter might deflate some of the tension.

"People need to calm down," he said.

Unless you count as PR Patton's dropping a semi-anonymous "Hey, guys, look at this great Web site I've found" onto his neighborhood's listserv, The Crab publisher has done nothing to advertise.

But an assortment of people asked to assess the site this week returned verdicts ranging from a hearty "hilarious" to a lethargic "hmm."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. immediately locked The Crab into his list of Internet favorites. Mitchell spent most of his summer fighting a publicly financed convention center hotel project, so he particularly enjoyed the headline about the new hotel featuring a pirate show.

"My only question is, `Would that be a taxpayer-funded pirate show or private?'" Mitchell said. He added that he also got a kick out of "City Council Votes To Put City Budget Surplus Into The Inner Harbor."

"There's nothing wrong with a little levity," he said. "If you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?"

After perusing the site, Mayor Martin O'Malley's press people decided to give The Crab a run for its money in the satire department. They quickly moved to ban all city departments from speaking to Crab reporter Ed Mund and columnist Flippy the Dolphin.

Borrowing a move used about a year ago by a real government body against a real newspaper (the Ehrlich administration against The Sun), O'Malley's people wrote:

"Effective immediately, no one in the Executive Department or Agencies is to speak with Ed Mund or Flippy the Dolphin until further notice. ... The Mayor's Press Office feels that currently both are failing to objectively report on any issues dealing with the O'Malley Administration.

"In addition, Flippy the Dolphin will not be allowed to attend any press conferences. ... We are still mopping up from his last appearance."

Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books, wasn't exactly wiping away tears of laughter as he scrolled through The Crab. Sure, he said, some items had promise -- like the one about people mistaking the mustachioed Natty Boh icon for the Pringles symbol and the one about the embarrassed duck-boat rider. But overall, Ray wants less pap, more edge.

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