“Oakland Teen Can’t Stop Quoting Drake.” “Instagram Adds Legendary Protester Frank Chu to Your Photos.” “Oakland-Themed Hotel to Open in Las Vegas.” If these headlines feel lifted from a Bay Area version of The Onion, you’re not far off. Oakland native Matt Werner has been mixing humor and biting social commentary for Oakland Unseen—his online newspaper-cum-Youtube series—since 2012, hoping to deliver important stories from Oakland in a way that will get millennials to listen.
A technical writer for Google by day and freelancer for local news sites during his off hours, Werner quickly realized that important stories about Oakland weren’t being covered by the major news outlets. “Oakland had a really bad rap, so the reporting you’d see would focus on crime or sports,” he says.
Werner knew there were stories to tell about the town, but also recognized that the young audience he wanted to reach wasn’t necessarily interested in long-form journalism. They got their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. So right around the 2012 election, he launched Oakland Unseen as a series of stories published to Tumblr. He culled inspiration from his time as a volunteer at McSweeney’s, where he worked with a few of The Daily Show’s writers, who understood telling tough stories in an easily digestible format.
“[The Daily Show writers] had to come up with this initiative to actually cover real news but through funny interviews. So I took on a similar mission, and tried to figure out how we could cover real stories from an ironic slant.”
Werner’s Oakland-focused stories gained traction with local media, but he realized he had something big when pieces such as “Jack White Flight: Hipsters Fleeing Oakland in Record Numbers” went viral, logging tens of thousands of hits for a story covering a city of 400,000 residents. After putting out a print newspaper in October 2013, it was a conversation with an old friend—Oakland social activist, spoken word artist, and musician Ise Lyfe—that led to the launch of the web series.
“He said, ‘Matt if you do anything more with Oakland Unseen, you’ve got to get me involved,’” says Werner. “So we talked about doing it in the style of The Daily Show."
With the help of Travis Kent—a Walnut Creek-born actor Werner was working with for another of his projects, Burning Man: The Musical—they shot the first season guerrilla style one Sunday afternoon: just a desk, a chair, a green screen, and a teleprompter operator in a studio they didn’t necessarily have permission to use.
“Guess I’ll move to Oakland!” stencil spotted by photographer Joe Sciarrillo in front of City College of San Francisco, 22nd Street and Bartlett, San Francisco. (photo via Oakland Unseen)
The 12 episodes, many of which feature a bottom scroll of headlines skewering local personalities or taking digs on the city and the way it’s covered, have some edge and hint at deeper conversations about social issues. As the author of Oakland in Popular Memory, which features interviews with cutting-edge Oakland-based artists, Werner has done the research, and it shows in the video’s mix of humor and truth.
While the main purpose of videos such as “Iron Chef Films Toughest Show Yet in West Oakland Food Desert” and “White Hipster Only Uses N-Word Ironically” was to get them out and have fun, Werner hopes Oakland Unseen can be part of a larger conversation about the city and its future, and that the series can raise questions about the place he grew up and still calls home.
“How do we move forward with all of this amazing growth happening in the Bay Area, while also preserving elements of our history? Basically, [Oakland Unseen] is satirizing helicopter journalism, but I’ve really tried to do my homework.”