Fake news: Comedy website is like the Onion for Tampa Bay

Tampa News Force is a satirical news site with references that will land hardest with locals.
A screen shot from Tampa News Force. The parody of a local news site posts satirical news stories.
A screen shot from Tampa News Force. The parody of a local news site posts satirical news stories.
Published Feb. 5, 2019

Remember when "fake news" meant comedic news parodies like The Onion and The Daily Show? Ah, simpler times.

The Onion in particular nailed the serious tone and style of newspaper writing, even when its stories were about a shirtless Joe Biden hosing down a Trans Am in the White House driveway or featured headlines like "CIA Realizes It's Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years."

For local fans, it could be particularly funny when the satirical news site took aim at the Tampa Bay region: "Area Stingray Dreaming Of Making It To Tropicana Field Touch Tank," "Busch Gardens Unveils 9,600-Mile-Long Endurance Coaster," and so on. But the Tampa references were always a rare sighting.

Now, there's Tampa News Force, a website founded by Tampa comedians and roommates John Jacobs and Josh Santos that is taking the idea of satirical news and localizing it. The site began posting daily parody news stories, all set in the Tampa Bay area, on Jan. 3 with the headline "Rays Announce New Stadium in North Korea."

They've since made fun of Floridian hockey fans ("Tampa Bay Lightning original season ticket holder still refers to periods as 'quarters'"), Gasparilla and the Knight parade ("Bob Buckhorn pledges a better defensive effort for the upcoming night attack on Ybor City") and Tampa's abundance of certain kinds of businesses ("First ever combination strip club-pawn shop to open in Tampa").

Not to leave out St. Petersburg, the recent post "St. Pete enlists muralists to beautify downtown homeless" imagines artists using people as canvases due to "every formerly bare inch of the city" being completely covered in murals.

Jacobs, 29, and Santos, 28, both write stories for the website, and Santos handles Photoshop duties — imagine an image of a speeding car hitting a ramp to jump a Tampa intersection alongside a story about traffic solutions.

About a dozen other local comedians have writing credits on the site so far. Several other stories are credited to a Liam C. Merio-Hull, an elderly "former pickleball and lawn bowling medalist" who does not appear to be a real person.

Tampa News Force isn't yet as polished or carefully edited as The Onion — a large media company now owned by Univision — but anyone familiar with the region will recognize the writers' ability to spin comedy from the stereotypes of a certain version of Tampa Bay, as well as play off the area's traditions and actual news stories.

"I like The Onion," Jacobs said. "But someone actually pointed out that, unlike The Onion, we write in a first-person narrative that makes it kind of live, instead of past tense."

That style allows things to get weird quick. A story headlined "Two kids fight at skate park down the street" quickly devolves into a firsthand account of the writer getting bullied by the children he's "reporting" on.
Jacobs said he does keep up with real news.

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"The TV in our house only gets a few channels, like FOX and NBC, so we're always watching the local news. And we get newspapers delivered. We try to stay current on the community."

Tampa News Force is a registered LLC, though Jacobs said it's being produced on a volunteer basis and isn't making money yet. Maybe that could change.

"We have an option on the website right now where you can just buy Tampa News Force for $2 million," Jacobs said. "So the goal is to sell it for $2 million." Until then, though, "We're going to post stuff every day. Forever."

Contact Christopher Spata at Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.